West Bank under lockdown

A Palestinian woman carrying a bundled infant looks through a small hole in the bars at an Israeli checkpoint controlling entry and exit from Nablus. (Edward Parsons/IRIN)

WEST BANK - The number of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank has risen by 40 per cent since the start of 2006, with 528 permanent and temporary checkpoints and physical roadblocks disrupting all aspects of Palestinian life, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Jerusalem.

In addition to stifling Palestinians’ ability to work, these obstacles are causing increasing desperation among the population.

“My city is nothing more than a big prison,” said Tamer Mohammed, a 26-year-old Nablus Municipality employee.

Like every male between the ages of 16 and 35 carrying a Nablus identification card, Tamer is not allowed to travel south of Nablus, a city of 191,000 inhabitants in the north of the West Bank, to the central and southern areas of the West Bank.

In theory, he is also banned from travelling north of Nablus, although he said soldiers at the northern checkpoint are more lenient and, depending on their mood, may let young Nablus men through.

The restriction on men such as Tamer is just one of an increasing number of limitations on Palestinian movement between different areas of the West Bank, the UN has warned.

“The ability to get to work or get goods to market is severely compromised. It’s a continuing shutting down and locking down of the Palestinian areas,” said David Shearer, head of OCHA’s office in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“We are seeing an increasing fragmentation of the West Bank, which has been chopped into three areas - north, central and south - and it is increasingly difficult for Palestinians to move from one area to another. The whole fabric of life for Palestinians has been disrupted,” he added.

The West Bank is a landlocked territory neighbouring Jordan and Israel. With 2.4 million Palestinian residents and some 400,000 Jewish settlers, 40 percent of the area is under the limited civilian jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, while Israel maintains overall control.

Until recently, young Nabulsis, residents of Nablus, used to circumvent major checkpoints like the Huwwara checkpoint immediately south of the city by sneaking through nearby woods and fields or driving on remote and little-used roads.

Shoot on sight policy

However, they say Israeli soldiers have now adopted a shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy for anyone suspected of trying to get past checkpoints. In September, Israeli troops opened fire on a Palestinian car passing near Huwwara, killing one Palestinian civilian and wounding two others.

“I used to just go around Huwwara but now the soldiers are shooting I won’t do it any more. It affects me. I have had to cancel meetings in Jericho as a result. I am trapped in this city [Nablus],” said Ashraf Al Salah, 27.

The only exception to the rule for young Nabulsi men is if they have special permission from Israeli authorities to leave the country, which they can get for reasons including study or visiting relatives overseas. They are then required to order a special taxi at 3am, which takes them to Huwwara and then on towards the border with Jordan, Al Salah said.

Even if Nabulsis get past Huwwara, they still face being turned back at any one of the numerous checkpoints lying further south, all of which are on the lookout for Nablus ID cards.

Journalist Mervat Shafai, 32, described running through woodland after soldiers refused her and her group permission through the Atara checkpoint north of Ramallah, in the centre of the West Bank.

“I was going to Ramallah to do a report. But no Palestinian with a Nablus ID was being allowed through Atara. It all depends on the soldiers’ mood and right then they were not even allowing women to pass,” she said.

“So all 15 of us ran through a field and a wood and passed the checkpoint. I was scared - the soldiers can kill you if you use other routes. There was nothing around so if they came they could do what they want and no one would see. It was a risk but I have to work. It is a big challenge but the Israelis must not stop us living. We have to have a life.”

The system of roadblocks, checkpoints and permits to travel is constantly changing across the West Bank. While the blanket ban on young men from Nablus leaving the city has been in place since the Hamas government was elected in January, the Israeli authorities at times increase the minimum age for those wanting to leave if they say there is a security alert.

Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union because it refuses to recognise Israel and refuses to renounce violence.

Before the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, there were a maximum of 30 checkpoints in the West Bank, the UN’s Shearer said. The checkpoint and permit system had eased at the time of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year but had already begun tightening before the Hamas government was elected in January 2006 and has continued to tighten progressively since, he added.

Militant Palestinian activity

Israel maintains that all its closures and roadblocks are designed to stop terrorist attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians in the West Bank and in Israel itself. It regards Nablus and the northern West Bank in general as strongholds of militant Palestinian activity.

“In the recent period there has been an upsurge in the number of terrorist attempts to harm Israeli civilians and IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] soldiers,” the Israeli military said in a statement given to IRIN.

“The various crossing points and roadblocks positioned in Judea and Samaria [Biblical terms for the West Bank] are intended to thwart Palestinian terrorist intentions that cynically operate from within and hide behind the civilian population, the elderly, women and children solely for the purpose of terrorising Israeli civilians.

“The IDF does its utmost in order to preserve the routine Palestinian life makeup. At the same time, the IDF will continue to work relentlessly in order to thwart the threat of terror and protect Israeli civilians,” the Israeli military statement read.

Shearer said OCHA has lobbied the IDF to loosen its grip on Palestinian movement - but without much success. “We did sit with the IDF but that has now pretty much stopped. We do have discussions with them about situations where Palestinians are particularly hurt by what’s on the ground. Sometimes we get some easing but overall our discussions have made no real difference,” he said.

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