Matthew Kalman
The Media Line
July 10, 2009 - 12:00am

Israeli officials say they have removed more than 140 security obstacles in the West Bank over the past year, enabling Palestinians to move more freely between towns and helping to boost the local economy.

But the United Nations says that more than 600 checkpoints, roadblocks, gates and earth mounds still remain, blocking off short-cuts and causing long delays. Permanent checkpoints have been removed from Qalqilyah, Jericho, Nablus and Ramallah, reducing travel times throughout the northern West Bank and speeding up the movement of food and other goods.

“We have crossings in which every week we arrest someone: we stop someone carrying an explosive belt on his body or grenades or trying to smuggle bullets. We are really trying to make it as easy as possible. Each decision whether to keep a roadblock or to remove it actually has to do only with one thing, which is the security limitations,” Israeli Military Spokesperson Col. Avital Leibovitch told The Media Line.

Judeh Jamal, general manager of the Holyland Company for Agriculture Marketing and Investment in the northern Jordan Valley, said his trucks were able to move produce around more quickly, saving hours in wasted travel time and reducing uncertainty.

“You couldn’t imagine, you couldn’t predict, what checkpoints you will find. You have to stay in the queue without doing anything. Instead of taking your products in two hours, you have to be patient and take it in 12 hours,” Jamal said in an interview.

Jamal said that on the journey from Jericho to Ramallah there was now only one checkpoint instead of three. He said the Israelis should lift all the checkpoints if they really wanted the Palestinian economy to flourish.

At the main exit on the south side of Jericho, drivers were able to speed straight from the Palestinian security checkpoint near the now-defunct Oasis Casino onto the road leading south towards the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. Large red and white signs warned Israeli drivers they were approaching Palestinian territory, where entrance to most Israelis is forbidden.

During the weekends, thousands of Arab-Israelis have been pouring into the town, taking advantage of cheap shop prices and filling the sprawling resort hotels, originally built for the tourist boom expected in the millennium year that was cut short by the outbreak of the intifada in October 2000.

But despite the Israeli moves, many obstacles remain. Palestinian traffic travelling between Bethlehem and Hebron in the south to Ramallah and Nablus in the north is still routed through Wadi Nar, a dangerous, winding road that emerges close to Abu Dis in East Jerusalem, where there is a lengthy wait at a notoriously slow checkpoint.

“They check every thing, every person, every truck, every car and it takes a lot of time staying in the queue,” said Odeh Shehadeh, CEO of the Wassel Group, a major Palestinian logistics company.

“If you manage to take one shipment from Hebron to Jenin in one day, that will be good,” Wassel told The Media Line at his headquarters in Ramallah.

Shehadeh said that while some Israeli restrictions had indeed been lifted, other new ones had been imposed. As the holder of a Businessman’s Card, he is supposed to have easy access to Israel but he is not allowed to drive his car out of the West Bank, even though it is registered in Israel.

“I have to get out and walk through the checkpoint while my driver, who is an Arab-Israeli, drives the car through to the other side,” he said.

Shehadeh said the building of the Israeli security barrier had severely restricted the flow of goods in and out of the West Bank, and commercial vehicles were now forced to use designated crossing-points in the barrier, which slowed them down even further.

“If I bring a truck through another crossing, I am accused of smuggling,” he said, adding that he suspected the Israeli removal of some roadblocks was a public relations exercise intended to fool the Americans.

“What happened within the last two weeks is that they took off some of the checkpoints but not totally, I mean not for the whole time. For instance, the one north of Ramallah, A-Tara, it’s been back now, within less than two weeks it’s been back. In fact, Thursday night it was closed,” he said.

Col. Leibovitch said the incident followed a security warning that terrorists were planning to use the route and the road was re-opened soon afterwards. Palestinians say that if the roadblocks can return at a moment’s notice, it is as though they were never removed in the first place.


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