Joshua Mitnick
The Washington Times
April 4, 2008 - 6:10pm

Within days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finished another round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, Israelis and Palestinians are already at odds over a series of confidence-building measures aimed at breathing new life into the stuttering peace process.

Israel said yesterday it has completed the removal of 50 roadblocks around the West Bank as it promised the U.S. over the weekend, but the Palestinians said they could discern no changes and called on the State Department to confirm the Israeli claim.

Miss Rice said earlier this week that the U.S. special envoy, Lt. Gen. William Fraser, would systematically assess how each side is doing in upholding its commitments. An official at the U.S. Embassy said Gen. Fraser, who accompanied Miss Rice on her three-day visit, is expected to return to the region soon to begin monitoring work.

"I call on the Americans to please dispatch General Fraser to the ground, and say what has changed," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Because to my knowledge, nothing has changed. It's all PR."

Roadblock removal is seen as a key to boosting support for the peace process among Palestinians, who have been subjected to severe movement restrictions since the outbreak of their uprising over seven years ago.

But the 50 roadblocks Israel promised to remove are only a fraction of the more than 500 obstacles counted by the United Nations. Israel says the roadblocks are necessary to hinder Palestinian militants from carrying out attacks.

Palestinians warn that given the relative ease with which Israel dismantles and replaces dirt and concrete roadblocks, it will be very difficult to monitor.

The Israeli army said it dismantled about 10 dirt roadblocks yesterday around the northern West Bank. A government official who declined to be identified said the removals brought the number of obstacles removed this week to 50.

"We understand fully that improving the life on the West Bank is a vital ingredient to creating an atmosphere that is conducive to peace negotiations," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"Every time you take down a roadblock there is an element of risk involved. We've taken a calculated risk. If the Palestinians were more effective in their own counterterrorism, it would change our risk assessment and we would take down more."

At the Rimonim junction, the site of one of the first checkpoints removed after the Rice visit, soldiers no longer stopped cars yesterday, but still peered out at the road junction from a military pillbox bearing down on the road. Settlers complained their security has been sacrificed for a bogus peace process, while Palestinians expressed cautious hope the checkpoint would not return.

A steady rhythm of Palestinian minivan taxis passed through the Rimonim junction, shuttling between the West Bank's northern half and the center. Occasionally, the sedan of an Israeli settler swooshed by. At the side of the road leading toward the Christian village of Taiybeh, a booth of concrete cubes sat empty of the soldiers that used to check Palestinian cars.

For Palestinians like 26-year-old Jameel Mohammed from the nearby village of Deir Jreir, the removal of the checkpoint means no longer having to wonder whether soldiers will decide whether he can visit his aunt in Hizme, a West Bank village which abuts the municipal border of Jerusalem.

"Sometimes they don't let anyone go in or go out for days," he said. "Hopefully it will stay like this forever."

But Israeli settlers see it as an experiment doomed to failure. A regional security director for the settlements just north of Jerusalem said a shooting occurred just near the Rimonim junction when Israel relaxed movement restrictions in the region six years ago.

"Every relaxation brings attacks and terrorism," said security officer Avigdor Shatz.


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