Joshua Mitnick
The Jewish Week
April 10, 2008 - 1:55pm

Rimonim Junction, West Bank — The crossroads is set among idyllic hilltops that feed herds of sheep on the edge of the Judean desert.

There is a steady rhythm of Palestinian minivan taxis shuttling between the West Bank’s northern half and the center. Occasionally, the sedan of an Israeli settler swooshes by. At the side of the road leading toward the Christian village of Taiybeh, a booth of concrete cubes sits empty.

Until Monday, the Rimonim checkpoint was manned by Israeli soldiers who stopped and often turned back Palestinian vehicles in an effort to clamp down on the movement of militants. But since Tuesday, with the soldiers gone from the road and Palestinian cars gliding through the junction, Rimonim has become yet another testing

ground for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s effort to get the peace process moving.

Rimonim is one of 50 roadblocks that Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised to open up as part of a laundry list of economic and humanitarian measures aimed at easing the conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank during peace talks. Israeli settlers see it as an experiment doomed to failure.

“We’re talking about a serious injury in the security of whoever drives here,” said Avigdor Shatz, director of security for the settlers in the region just north of Jerusalem, as he surveyed the road junction.

“What is this roadblock? If there was a terrorist attack, the checkpoint would make [the perpetrators’] getaway much more difficult. Once you take it down, everything is open. You can do whatever you want. That’s the problem. For every relaxation, we’ve paid in blood.”

Shatz cited the November 2002 murder of Ester Galia, who was killed when militants fired on her car not far from the Rimonim junction as she drove from Jerusalem to her home in the settlement of Kochav HaShachar.

To be sure, the army is far from leaving the area. Soldiers still occupy an outpost with a pillbox guard tower right next to the junction.

But 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 that 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.”

Therein lies the tradeoff that’s supposed to add momentum to the behind-the-scenes negotiations on a final Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. While Israel eases off on policing the West Bank, the moves are supposed to free up the Palestinians to do business, and recover a measure of normalcy from before the second intifada.

During her latest round of shuttle diplomacy, Rice said the Israeli moves amount to a “a very good start to improving movement and access, to improving the potential economic prospects and to gaining momentum with the [negotiating] tracks that we have to deal with on the ground.”

In addition to the roadblocks, Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. have agreed on deploying more Palestinian police in the militant beehive of Jenin and giving it more responsibility for fighting terrorists; granting 5,000 work permits inside Israel for Palestinian laborers; promoting a business conference in Bethlehem and a new joint industrial zone near Bethlehem. 

The U.S. sees the political negotiations and the confidence-building measures like roadblock removal as part of a two-tiered peace process. While the negotiations are supposed to provide the political push to encourage the sides to make politically risky concessions — such as freeing up Palestinian movement and fighting terrorism — those same measures are also the prerequisites for establishing a Palestinian state. 

To give teeth to the confidence-building promises — both sides have made numerous commitments in the past, but never made good on them — Rice will send Lt. Gen. William Fraser throughout the West Bank to monitor implementation.

“We want to be much more systematic on what is being proposed and what is being done,” Rice said during a roundtable with reporters. The secretary of state added that Fraser will have an “improved ability to monitor.”

According to a count by the United Nations, Israel has erected hundreds barriers and gates around the West Bank — including permanent road checkpoints, dirt mounds that block the entrance to villages, and trenches to block motor vehicles. The UN also counted an average of 69 surprise checkpoints a week last November.

The roadblock removals are also aimed at creating the political and economic conditions that will strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas so the Palestinian Authority is capable of implementing a treaty.

But there’s been little progress on reforming Palestinian government, and Abbas’ political party, Fatah, remains in tatters ever since Hamas’ political and military takeover of the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Hamas’ popularity has surged in recent months at the expense of Abbas.

Analysts say that if a peace accord just collects dust as a “shelf” agreement because the PA is too weak to carry it out, it is likely to strengthen radicals.

“The organizing logic of the peace process is gradually being rendered irrelevant,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think thank. “It is increasingly clear this process is bringing a two-state solution to a moment of truth under very unfavorable circumstances.

“We should be very concerned about the failure of the negotiations,” Grinstein continued, “but we should be equally worried about its success.” Grinstein has said that Hamas would likely not abide by any deal cut with the PA, which could lead to a new round of violence.

The Rimonim junction lies along the “Allon Road,” which marks the border of a plan by former cabinet minister Yigal Alon for Israel to withdraw from about two-thirds of the West Bank while keeping Jordan Valley — considered Israel’s new strategic border after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Just a few minutes south along the Allon Road lies Ma’aleh Mikhmas, one of several settlements meant to sit on the western edge of Israel’s territory in the Jordan valley. At the beginning of the second intifada, residents of this small, isolated settlement were afraid to travel the roads because of the constant gunfire from Palestinian militants. Now the biggest worry is of house theft.

“This could upset the calm,” said Aryeh Baratz, a security guard stationed at the entrance to Ma’aleh Mikhmas, of the removal of the Rimonim roadblock. “Relaxation measures only impact in one direction — that there will be more terror.”

While few of the Jewish settlers here believe that the recently revived peace talks will produce a peace treaty, there is a fear that Israel may one day decide to evacuate the settlement. “People know that the same thing can happen here that happened in Gaza. It’s a small settlement, so they can trample it.”

Ma’aleh Mikhmas resident Ariel Tzuruyah, 26, said he noticed the unmanned checkpoint as he drove his wife to work in Kochav Hashachar. Though soldiers are no longer checking vehicles at the Rimonim Junction, he noted that the army hasn’t left the region.

Still, he criticized Israel’s government for what he described as an abandonment of the settlers’ security to prop up the Palestinian Authority. “It doesn’t matter whether Abbas is a moderate. He’s not relevant for the Palestinians. His own people don’t care about him.”

Tzachi Hanegbi, a parliament member from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party, said the removal of roadblocks had been approved by Israeli security officials. In an interview with Israel Radio, he said, “the security establishment understands that it can move in the direction of the Palestinian and American demands in a minimal way that won’t cause irreparable security damage and won’t sow the seeds of disaster.”

But Yuval Steinitz, a Likud Knesset member, said the relaxation of security measures in the West Bank will bring Hamas to the doorstep of Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport. “The removal of the roadblocks,” he said, “will endanger not only the daily lives of all of us, but of the entire Zionist enterprise.”


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