For West Bank, It’s a Highway to Frustration

By Greg Myre

ROAD 60, West Bank (NYT) — For four years, the separation barrier Israel has been building just inside the West Bank boundary has drawn protests from Palestinians and international censure for the hardship it imposes on their movement and access to jobs and land.

But getting much less notice have been parallel and perhaps even more restrictive measures imposed by the Israeli military much deeper inside the West Bank. The internal checkpoints and barriers on roads have increasingly limited movement, something Palestinians say they find especially grating, because they are not trying to enter Israel, only to go from one Palestinian area to another.

On a two-day, 75-mile trip along Road 60, the main north-south highway that runs along the hilly spine of the West Bank, a reporter and a photographer for The New York Times examined the daily friction between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers.

In one of the more sweeping restrictions, men under 35 from the northern West Bank are generally not allowed to leave the area. The rules often change, but this one has been enforced most days for the last four months, Palestinians say. “My main job now is waiting in line,” Hakim Abu Shamli, 40, said during a two-hour delay at a teeming checkpoint. Mr. Abu Shamli, an electrical engineer, lives in Tubas near the city of Nablus, and for years his commute to work was a 20-minute taxi ride. Now he leaves home at 5:30 a.m. to reach his job by 8, and he is often late. There are always two checkpoints, and one recent day there were seven, he said.

The Israeli military says that the web of travel restrictions was imposed in response to the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 and that the measures have greatly reduced the number of deadly attacks by Palestinians. “We’re seeing an increasing fragmentation of the West Bank,” said David Shearer, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which monitors the West Bank. “The whole fabric of life for the Palestinians has been disrupted.” His office says Palestinians traveling within the West Bank now face 542 obstacles, 83 of which are guarded by soldiers, compared with fewer than 400 a year ago. The obstacles have effectively divided the West Bank into three sectors — northern, central and southern — and limited movement among them. “We know these measures harm the quality of life of the Palestinians, but they save the lives of Israelis,” said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the government department that deals with the Palestinians.

As Palestinians make their way through dozens of military checkpoints, they are delayed for hours, rerouted to dirt roads and sometimes turned back altogether on their way to jobs, schools and family visits. They also face hundreds of unattended obstacles that include earth mounds, concrete blocks and trenches that have cut many roads, forcing lengthy detours. “I used to work as a laborer in Israel,” said Mutie Milhem, 33, a taxi driver near Jenin who had just endured a lengthy wait at a checkpoint. “When that became difficult, I thought it would be easier to be a driver in the West Bank. But every day here becomes harder. We never know what we are going to face.” Jenin has the reputation as the most radical West Bank town, a center for militancy, and Israel has increasingly isolated it. Israel’s separation barrier, which consists of fences and walls, blocks travel in three directions, and the only way out of Jenin to another city is Road 60 to the south.

The town’s economy has been hit hard, and the main taxi stand overflows with frustrated drivers working their way through packs of cheap cigarettes. The drivers write their names on a blackboard and wait, sometimes for a day or more, before they are called to take passengers outside Jenin. Then they begin hitting obstacles well before reaching the closest Palestinian city, Nablus, less than 20 miles away.

Road 60 is closed to Palestinians for a short stretch that passes by Shavei Shomron, one of many Jewish settlements built on hilltops overlooking the road. To circumvent the blockade there, Palestinian taxi and truck drivers created a rutted path that travels across open fields for several miles.

By the western entrance to Nablus, at the Beit Iba checkpoint where Mr. Abu Shamli, the engineer, was stuck, the Israeli soldiers grew angry as the Palestinian crowd began bunching around them. The soldiers began confiscating identity documents as a punishment, though they later returned them.

Israel says the multiple layers of security not only keep Palestinian attackers out of Israel but also protect the 250,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Before the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, obstacles in the West Bank were relatively few. “Route 60, used both by the Israeli and Palestinian populations, is a designated location for terrorist attacks against Israelis,” the Israeli military said in a statement. “If it were not for Palestinian terrorism, the crossings would not have been established.” The Israeli military listed 13 actual or attempted Palestinian attacks on Road 60 in the last year, with four Israelis killed. In addition, Palestinians threw stones or fired on cars dozens of times.

In the northern West Bank, jobs are extremely scarce and the movement restriction on men under 35 has made it virtually impossible for them to look elsewhere in the West Bank for work. University students, most of them commuters, also face a tough time with changing rules. “Sometimes I can’t make it to the university,” said Ala Suboh, 21, an engineering student at Al Najah University in Nablus. “Other times I make it but I’m not allowed to leave the city and have to spend the night on the floor of a friend’s house.” The Hawara checkpoint, on the southeastern edge of Nablus, is about 15 miles from the closest West Bank boundary, and a few years back it consisted of several soldiers on the side of the road checking identity documents. Now it resembles an international border.

Israel says internal checkpoints like the one at Hawara are crucial. Numerous would-be suicide bombers have been stopped there.

In 2002, West Bank Palestinians carried out more than 50 suicide bombings; this year there have been two that killed Israelis.

Many Palestinians going through the checkpoint are commuting to Nablus from their homes in surrounding villages. Yet Palestinians must go through turnstiles and metal detectors, while soldiers work on computers in glass booths.

It routinely takes an hour or more to pass during the morning and evening rush hours. Cars cannot pass unless they have permits from Israel. Some taxis and trucks have them, but private Palestinian cars on Road 60 are rare, because the permits are so hard to obtain.

The next major city along the road is Ramallah, the de facto political capital. Traditionally Palestinians have regarded the contiguous cities of Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem as one metropolitan area.

But now Israel does not allow the vast majority of West Bank Palestinians to enter Jerusalem. So they can no longer take Road 60 to Bethlehem and the south, but instead must take a lengthy detour on a narrow, winding road through the barren hills east of the city, which also includes a checkpoint.

Gabriel Jacoman, 50, was raised in a house on Road 60 as it enters Bethlehem. In 1994 he opened a chicken restaurant that thrived by serving the tourists who came from Jerusalem to visit the tomb of Rachel, the biblical matriarch.

Today his home and neighboring restaurant, now shuttered, are sandwiched between 25-foot concrete walls built across Road 60. One wall is several hundred yards north of his home and serves as the border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The second wall is a few paces south of his front door, part of the wall built around Rachel’s Tomb. “This was the road everyone took from Jerusalem to the southern West Bank,” Mr. Jacoman said. “Now you can’t take it in either direction.” In the 1990s, Israel rerouted parts of Road 60 so that it looped around some Palestinian towns. Those bypasses allowed Jewish settlers to travel the West Bank without having to go through Palestinian towns, where they often faced stones or worse.

The center of Hebron, the southernmost West Bank town on Road 60, is ghostly quiet. Aside from occasional pedestrians, the only activity consists of Israeli security forces patrolling near the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Several hundred Jewish settlers live in the city. Israel has imposed some of its most severe restrictions on roughly 30,000 Palestinians who used to live in the center; many have moved out, at least temporarily. “The whole area is completely dead,” said Talib Karaki, 50, who lives with more than 100 members of his extended family in a two-house compound near the tomb.

Last month Mr. Karaki’s 3-year-old grandson, Walid, picked up gravel and started tossing it toward a soldier at the checkpoint, Mr. Karaki said. The soldier came to complain, and a big argument ensued. “The whole thing was ridiculous,” the grandfather said. “But it shows how crazy our life has become.”

Copy Rights The New York Times, 18 November. 2006 

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