Thursday, March 6, 2008

West Bank Barriers Keep Rising Despite Promises of Relief

West Bank Barriers Keep Rising Despite Promises of Relief

By Griff Witte

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Commute becomes "daily humiliation."

Azun, West Bank - Karim Edwan's skepticism about the U.S.-backed Middle East peace process is rooted in his morning commute.

To travel from his home in this West Bank village to his job as an emergency room doctor, the 35-year-old must take at least two cabs, skirt a barbed-wire fence, climb a dirt mound, talk his way through multiple Israeli checkpoints and remove his shoes for a full-body security check.

Before the obstacles were imposed, the trip to his hospital in the West Bank city of Nablus took 30 minutes. Now it takes two hours.

"It's my daily humiliation," he said.

It's also part of the explanation for why there is little enthusiasm in the West Bank for negotiations with Israel, and why Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in a bind over how to proceed.

The hope of Abbas and other participants in the Annapolis peace talks last November was that the Israeli-occupied West Bank would become a model for what negotiations could bring.

They envisioned the residents of Gaza suffering under the radical Islamic group Hamas, which opposes Israel's right to exist and is not participating in the talks. Meanwhile, the West Bank, where Abbas holds sway, would be rewarded with a reduction of the internal barriers that Israel has imposed in the name of security. Checkpoints, barbed wire, roadblocks and trenches slice through the territory, cutting areas off from one another and causing economic hardship.

But in the more than three months since the Annapolis talks, more barriers have gone up than have come down.

"There has been no significant improvement in movement or access. And in fact, there's been an increase in the number of physical obstacles since Annapolis," said Allegra Pacheco, head of information and advocacy for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem.

The organization's latest count of barriers in the West Bank is 580, up from 563 recorded in November and about 50 percent higher than it was 2 1/2 years ago.

To senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the barriers represent a breach of trust. He said he has been assured repeatedly by Israel that a significant number of the blockades would come down.

"It's ridiculous to talk about anything involving economic development when this system of suffocation continues," he said.

But Israel contends that the Palestinian Authority has not upheld its end of the bargain by improving its security services.

"The Palestinian Authority could help us move on this issue," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"The goal is to have a situation where a Palestinian can go from one part of the Palestinian Authority to another part of the Palestinian Authority without a roadblock," and reaching that goal is important for the peace process, he said.

But for now, the Israeli military says the barriers remain necessary. They are "designed to minimize inconvenience to the Palestinian population while preserving the safety and lives of Israelis," said Capt. Noa Meir, a military spokeswoman.

In Azun, for instance, the military said it installed new barriers after a recent surge of incidents in which Palestinians hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at cars traveling to and from a nearby Israeli settlement.

To Azun's residents, however, that's just an excuse for a policy of harassment designed to protect the settlers' interests and drive the Palestinians away.

This village of 10,000 is ringed by olive trees and is home to a couple of dozen small shops. For the past month, residents have had to contend with coils of barbed wire and a freshly deposited dirt mound in the center of what was once a busy street. Both obstacles are designed to keep cars and people from easily accessing a primary road along the edge of town that is used by the settlers.

"This crossing was the life of the town," said Khalid Hammed, 40, a laborer who spoke from behind the coils of wire. "Now our life has stopped."

The road closures are not the only problem. The army has frequently imposed curfews in recent weeks, residents say, effectively shutting down not just individual roads but the entire town. The curfews often extend throughout the day, making it impossible for the people of Azun to get to their jobs or buy food at the market.

If a curfew is imposed while Edwan is at work, the doctor has to return stealthily - creeping from house to house until he reaches his home, all the while on the lookout for patrolling Israeli troops.

"It's like a big jail," Edwan said. "Nothing is in our hands."

One day this week, all of the shops were locked tight at noon. The streets of Azun were empty of vehicle traffic, and children who occasionally peaked out from side streets ran for cover at the sound of a vehicle approaching down the desolate main road.

Three soldiers in an armored jeep were stationed in the center of town, stopping anyone in sight and asking for identification.

Residents were instructed to go home immediately. Outsiders were ordered to leave.

"The village," one of the soldiers said, "is closed."


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UK Rights Groups: Gaza in Severe Crisis
By Aron Heller
The Associated Press

Wednesday 05 March 2008

Jerusalem - A human rights coalition charged Thursday that the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip has reached its worst point since Israel captured the territory in 1967.

In a scathing report, eight British-based rights organizations said that more than 1.1 million people, about 80 percent of Gaza's residents, are now dependent on food aid, as opposed to 63 percent in 2006. It said that overall unemployment is close to 40 percent.

It also said that hospitals are suffering from power cuts of up to 12 hours a day, and the water and sewage systems were close to collapse.

The report follows strident international condemnation of Israel after it struck hard against Palestinian militants in Gaza, killing more than 120 in the past week, including many civilians, after Palestinians militants escalated their daily rocket fire at Israel.

The Palestinian rockets have killed 13 people, wounded dozens more, traumatized thousands and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Israel's Defense Ministry rejected the report, blaming the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza for the hardships.

"The main responsibility for events in Gaza - since the withdrawal of Israel from the territory and the uprooting of the settlements there - is the Hamas organization, to which all complaints should be addressed," read a statement by spokesman, Maj. Peter Lerner.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said Israel must protect its citizens, "but as the occupying power in Gaza it also has a legal duty to ensure that Gazans have access to food, clean water, electricity and medical care."

Israel removed all 21 settlements and withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005. Israel maintains that ended its occupation, but rights groups say that since Israel still controls Gaza's land, sea and air access, it is still the occupier.

After Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June, Israel closed its crossings, allowing only shipments of vital goods into Gaza.

The 16-page report - sponsored by Amnesty, along with CARE International UK, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trocaire - calls on the British government to exert greater pressure on Israel and to reverse its policy on not negotiating with Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Israel and the West shun Hamas and label it a terrorist organization. Hamas does not accept the presence of a Jewish state.

Replying to the report, Israel's Defense Ministry said it was misdirected.

The Israeli Defense Ministry also said medicines and medical equipment are shipped into Gaza with no limitation. On Wednesday, a typical day, the military said it allowed 69 truckloads of supplies into Gaza, including basic food and baby formula.

This week NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based watchdog, called on human rights groups to end what it called their political use of international law. It cited an Amnesty International press release that it said made unsubstantiated accusations that Israeli responses "are being carried out with reckless disregard for civilian life".

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On the Net:

http://www.amnesty.org

http://www.ngo-monitor.org

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