As both sides sought to resolve differences this week over how far Israelis troops would withdraw when they hand back control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority, it was clear that whatever agreement is reached about Jericho would set a precedent for Israeli withdrawals from four other major Palestinian West Bank cities in coming weeks.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed in principle to the handover, the Jericho withdrawal was delayed by Israel’s refusal to dismantle its roadblock at the entrance to the city.
In addition, Israel refused to hand over the adjacent Palestinian village of Uja on Jericho’s northern outskirts because the Jordan Valley highway used by Israelis runs through it.
Palestinians have insisted on the removal of all roadblocks ringing Jericho. They note that in the past, Israel has temporarily withdrawn from some West Bank towns but has left roadblocks, thereby impeding Palestinian travel.Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said Israel believes the withdrawal from these cities “must be very gradual.”
“It would be strange after four years of Palestinian terror that we now have full confidence in them,” he said. “We have to be very careful. We need control of the access road until it is proven otherwise. If [the handover] succeeds there, we will move to another city.”
Mekel stressed that even though he believes Abbas “means well,” there might still be “Palestinian elements who will try to disrupt this process. That is why we must take every precaution to ensure that the process is successful and not to have a terrorist use this gesture to renew attacks.”
The issue of Israel’s roadblocks and its West Bank barrier came in for harsh criticism this week in a report compiled by three medical organizations: Medicins du Monde, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
The organizations charged at a Ramallah press conference that the barrier is blocking 10,000 chronically ill Palestinians from receiving medical care, that 100,000 pregnant Palestinian women could also suffer from the lack of access to adequate healthcare, and that more than 130,000 Palestinian children may be denied proper immunizations once the barrier is completed.
“The wall has put Palestinian health care at risk, both for patients and medical staff that have difficulties accessing or are denied access to hospitals,” Francois Jeanson, the president of Medicins Du Monde, was quoted as saying.
Ruchama Marton, a psychiatrist who heads Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, charged that the true purpose of the barrier is to “hide the Palestinians from the Israelis because otherwise it may be possible to identify with their suffering and see them as human beings.”
But The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent institute for policy research, issued a reply claiming the report “lacks credibility and fails to acknowledge evidence that the security barrier has reduced terrorist attacks, and the need for such a barrier to defend the lives of Israeli citizens.”
The Jerusalem Center said the report offered a “one-sided Palestinian narrative” and had offered no proof of its claim that the barrier deprives Palestinians of access to such basic services as water and education, and income from agriculture and other forms of employment.
Although the report offers statements from 83 Palestinians in the West Bank about the impact the barrier has had on their lives, the Jerusalem Center pointed out that because none of the people are identified, “these testimonies lack credibility and cannot be verified.” And the center raised another credibility question, pointing out that the report relied on organizations that have demonized Israel.
The entire report, said the center, “reflects the abuse of medical issues and human rights in order to promote their anti-Israel political goals.”
Mekel pointed out that the barrier being erected around Jerusalem and in southern Israel is still under construction and that its route in Jerusalem was changed at the direction of Israel’s High Court of Justice after Palestinians complained it was unnecessarily impacting their lives.
“The court decided where to put it in order to provide the necessary security and infringe as little as possible on the lives of Palestinian inhabitants,” he said. “We are continuing to build it … according to our security needs and with minimal interference in Palestinian lives.”
The wood barrier now under construction in East Jerusalem — it is similar to that used as a sound buffer along the Long Island Expressway on Long Island except that most of it rises 27 feet — zigzags over hills and valleys, largely along the border between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In an area in which UN officials said there are plans to erect two more Jewish communities, Kidmat Zion with 250 homes and Nov Zahav with 450 homes, an Israeli guard tower has been erected and the barrier is being built directly behind it.
In Abu Dis, Palestinians could be seen climbing over a low fence around a bend from where Israeli troops were stationed along the barrier. The wall itself is filled with anti-Israel and anti-American graffiti. One of the writings said in English: “From Warsaw Ghetto to Abu Dis Ghetto.”
Abu Dis, which the Palestinians at one point wanted to use as their capital, now has the wall running just feet from the building that was built as the Palestinian parliament. A short distance away stands the shell of what appears to have been a hotel.
David Shearer, head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in an interview two weeks ago in his East Jerusalem office that the United Nations regards the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegal.
“But we don’t talk of the route in the Jerusalem area, which follows the settlements,” he said.
“My goal would be that the wall go up along the Green Line [Israel’s 1967 border],” Shearer said. “The removal of all closures and roadblocks … would allow free access for those people who have land here.”
He said the closures and the West Bank barrier “impede us to some degree,” but he said that having an international passport allows his staff to move around the territories “much more freely.” He said, however, that his staff with Israeli passports — he has two Israeli Jews, two Christian Israelis, 10 Palestinians and 10 international staff — were barred from entering Gaza.