I have written before about the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of checkpoints and obstacles to movement in the West Bank.
Trying to get some progress on easing this closure—which is a prerequisite for improving Palestinian daily life and economic prospects—was again a focus of Secretary Rice’s visit to Israel and the PA this past weekend.
Rice met with the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on no less than three occasions in the course of what was only a two-day visit. The main subject of these confabs: these restrictions on movement. On the one hand Rice scores high for perseverance and effort—and not just because one meeting with Barak, let alone three, is not much fun. But alongside that it is remarkable, and not in a good way, that the top diplomat of the world’s only superpower is reduced to the role of arguing over and counting a couple of dozen obstacles to movement out of a total of over 600 in place in the West Bank.
In his wonderfully insightful and honest new book “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace”, Aaron David Miller discusses what he calls ‘Gulliver’s troubles’—how America as a great power is made to look Lilliputian when it gets sucked in to unsuccessful micro-management by the small powers of the Middle East.
The checkpoint debacle is the perfect example of a phenomenon that Miler accurately identifies.
Secretary Rice, to be fair, seems not particularly amused and is beginning to suggest that she is aware that not only is she being given the run around, but that ‘improving’ the occupation is something of a thankless task; while ending it—well that’s also not so easy. It appears that Rice now realizes that the latter may actually be more doable than the former.
Here’s how she responded to press questions on the checkpoints and settlements issue during her Ramallah stop with PA President Abbas:
The best way to handle all of this, of course, is to get an agreement because we need to have a Palestinian state and Israeli state. We need to know what belongs in each of them.
Rice also began drawing the distinction that ‘not all checkpoints are created equal’, suggesting that she would start focusing on the real bottlenecks rather than just a numbers game.
Thus far precious little has been achieved either in the border negotiations or in improving the day-to-day realities.
Here is the situation:
Israel maintains an elaborate network of obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement in the West Bank—for the most reliable data visit the website of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA). That closure system includes manned checkpoints, fixed-barriers, earth-mounds and fences—in total they number over 600. These are not, repeat not, checkpoints or obstacles that prevent Palestinians from entering Israel proper—that function is fulfilled by the wall/separation barrier and by crossing terminals. These are physical obstacles to movement whose function is to prevent Palestinians from moving freely within the West Bank—from getting to one village or town to another within the Palestinian areas.
To get a sense of the dimensions involved, the West Bank—home to 2.6 million Palestinians and 600 such obstacles—is smaller than the size of the state of Delaware, the 49th largest state in the Union.
The Israeli army (IDF) maintains this network of restrictions for two ostensible reasons: (1) it helps keep control, keeps tabs on what is going on in the West Bank, provides useful intel, which makes the lives of militants more difficult…etc.; and thus is part of an overall preventive security deployment (2) to protect the freedom of movement of Israelis in the West Bank—mainly the settlers and also the IDF itself. The approximately 260,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank of course face no such restrictions on movement. The IDF is doing its job—as long as there are Israeli citizens in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—settlers—the IDF is duty bound to protect them. They should not be there—but while they are—the IDF provides their defense. Unless and until the occupation ends, this will be the lot of the IDF—a terrible drain in itself on the military—but that is also another story.
The effects—on Palestinian daily life, society, family life, and economic opportunity—is devastating. Oh, and people are very angry—more easily recruited to violence…etc. So all this aggravation, yet the net result is that it actually makes Israel’s security worse in the long-term.
So what is the correct scorecard on checkpoints and obstacles to freedom of movement: Here are the numbers from OCHA—the credible source—that even the IDF asks to verify checkpoint removal when it happens:
Count during the previous Rice visit on March 30th (when Israel promised the removal of 50)—580
Count when Annapolis launched (November ’07)—561.
And just to round it all off: the count when Secretary Rice negotiated the Agreement on Movement and Access (November ’05, designed to systematically reduce the closure and the date from which OCHA keeps score)—376.
Now there’s progress!!
The World Bank by the way argues that if these restrictions are not removed, the Palestinian economy will continue to contract—even if all of the pledged donor aid is disbursed.
And one final, yet more disturbing thing to note: the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem is reporting that there are IDF attempts to intentionally falsify data by putting up obstacles just in order to film their being removed—in order to claim (presumably to the US) that action is really being taken.
Here is an excerpt from a newly released B’Tselem report, which can be read in full here:
On March 31st , the army placed three obstructions made of boulders and dirt piles on the road running between Deir al-Ghussun and al-Jarushiya, which lie about one kilometer apart, north of Tulkarm. According to local residents, the next day, an Israeli bulldozer removed the three obstructions, while an army film crew documented the obstructions before and during their removal. These obstructions appear…on the list of physical obstructions that the army contends were removed as part of its efforts to ‘ease’ Palestinian movement.
Tomorrow I will indeed be celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary—Israel is a truly remarkable achievement—but not the checkpoints, not the occupation—they are not something to celebrate.