Roadblocks cripple West Bank economy

A new checkpoint at Tarqumia in the southern West Bank. (Mel Frykberg/IPS)

HEBRON (IPS) - The Israeli military has erected three additional roadblocks, further blocking vehicular access on the road between the south Hebron village of al-Tuwani and the commercial hub of Yatta in the southern West Bank.

The West Bank is the Palestinian area west of the Jordan river, much of it under Israeli control.

Besides being the main economic hub for the region, Yatta is also the principal provider of critical services such as hospitals, secondary schools and public administration offices.

Yatta is a town of just under 45,000 people situated eight kilometers south of Hebron, which is 30 kilometers south of Jerusalem in the southern West Bank.

Several communities in the South Hebron Hills continue to be cut off from basic supplies. This is particularly problematic as the road is the main artery for the supply of water to these areas which are currently experiencing a severe drought.

According to Palestinian residents of the area, roadblocks have doubled the commercial price of water. A UN worker reported that roadblocks here will increase the cost of transporting essential water aid by 30 percent.

These are amongst a number of new roadblocks and checkpoints that have been erected in the West Bank despite promises by the Israeli government to ease access and travel restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied territory.

The World Bank released a report earlier in the year stating that Israel’s closure system was a leading cause for the Palestinians’ economic woes and that if there was no ease on these restrictions the Palestinian economy would continue to rapidly decline despite the $7.4 billion in aid pledged at the international donors conference in Paris at the beginning of the year.

The Israeli Justice Ministry responded to the World Bank report claiming that, “on occasion, access to certain roads is restricted in the face of a real security threat. However, as soon as such a threat no longer exists, such restrictions are lifted.”

But Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem accused the ministry of skewing the facts. “In reality, over 300 kilometers of roads in the West Bank are either partially or completely restricted for the use of Palestinians, on a permanent basis, regardless of any specific threat,” it says.

In addition to the damage that these restrictions cause to the economy, they have also affected the ability of Palestinians to receive medical treatment as ambulances have often been delayed for hours at checkpoints or been forced to turn back even with critically ill patients. Women have been forced to give birth at checkpoints while other patients have died at the roadblocks.

Dr. Bassen Abu Mahdi, medical director of primary healthcare for the Salfit district in the northern West Bank, told IPS that patients awaiting emergency medical treatment at Salfit Hospital were being delayed for hours at the three big checkpoints in the district.

“Another problem facing motorists and pedestrians trying to cross the checkpoints is the threat of being accidentally shot at night by nervous Israeli soldiers,” said Abu Mahdi. “This has happened before. To avoid this problem people delay seeking urgent treatment during the night and postpone it until morning, when time is of the essence.”

The Israelis claim that these roadblocks and restrictions are necessary for their security but critics argue that they constitute collective punishment on the Palestinian population, and are aimed primarily at protecting Israeli settlers and settlements in the Palestinian territories.

“This is destroying the livelihoods of Palestinians, the economy, agriculture, education and health situation,” says Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator.

An annual report in January of this year to the UN human rights committee by the former special rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, John Dugard, stated that a picture was emerging of a West Bank divided into three areas — north, central and south.

This has limited the ability of Palestinians to move freely around the West Bank for social, medical, business or educational purposes, as the West Bank is now practically divided into three cantons. The Nablus district in the north of the West Bank is for example practically encircled by the Israeli army, and only those with the necessary documentation can exit and enter the city.

“Movement is easier inside these areas, but travel between them is hampered by a combination of checkpoints and other physical obstacles,” the report said.

It said the roadblocks had helped create a system of roads limited for Israeli use, while funneling Palestinian motorists onto alternative routes where movement is restricted.

“The new physical obstacles have further limited access to land, markets, services and social relations,” added the report.

The report also cited a new Israeli permit system limiting Palestinian access to the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, where many farmers own land. Farmers are struggling to reach their fields and ship their produce to markets, while rural communities have been isolated from cities because of the travel difficulties.

In April Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel had removed 61 of the more than 500 roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank “to make life easier for the Palestinians.”

This followed promises made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Annapolis, Maryland, peace talks towards the end of last year, to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the number of roadblocks in the West Bank would be significantly reduced.

However, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in May that the number of West Bank closure obstacles had risen from 566 to 607 from September last year to the end of April this year.

According to OCHA, six of the roadblocks on Barak’s list of 61 were left in place. Another 11 simply never existed. A close examination of the 44 roadblocks which existed and were removed revealed that most of them had no implications whatsoever for Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Only five of these 44 obstacles were classified by the UN as “significant” for Palestinians living in the area.

OCHA further explained that some of the checkpoints had been abandoned years ago. Others had been erected by Israeli army that day, only to be removed later the same day while still counted in the tally of checkpoints allegedly removed.

According to the humanitarian organization some of the roadblocks removed were situated in the middle of fields and therefore had little impact on movement and access.

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