Israel prevents Palestinians from free movement

September 15, 2011 - 3:15 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians Stuck in Place

In this photo taken Friday, Sept. 9, 2011 Palestinian children play in the yard of the fenced-in house of al-Ghirayim family between the Jewish settlement of Givon Hahadasha and the West Bank village of Beit Ijza. Ahmad Ayyash once labored in Israel, earning a comfortable salary in a coveted construction job. These days, he's been forced to eek out a living as a goat herder, barred from working in Israel and restricted from entering his family olive grove next to this West Bank village. Ayyash's story is familiar to Palestinians, who face what may be the most complicated system of travel restrictions in the world. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

BIDDU, West Bank (AP) — Ahmad Ayyash once had a construction job in Israel, earning good money. Now he is a goat herder struggling to eke out a living, barred from working in Israel and restricted from entering his olive grove next to this West Bank village.

Ayyash's story is familiar to Palestinians, who face a complicated system of travel restrictions that Israel mostly developed during the height of violence between them and Palestinians, hoping to prevent militants from reaching the Jewish state and West Bank settlements.

The lone Palestinian airport was destroyed in the fighting. The seaport in Gaza is blockaded by Israel's navy. In the West Bank, a system of military checkpoints constrains movement between a hodgepodge of autonomous zones. Movement between the two territories — the linchpins of a future Palestinian state — is virtually impossible.

These restrictions highlight why Palestinians are asking the United Nations this month to recognize their independence in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. It would be a symbolic acknowledgment that Palestinians deserve a cohesive state and give them moral — if not legal — support in challenging restrictions in the West Bank, which are to ensure the safety of Israeli Jews who live there and not within Israel's de facto borders, in defiance of international opinion.

Still, it won't immediately change realities on the ground, where Israel remains in control.

"I'm choking here," said Ayyash, 40. "I'm stuck."

Just over a decade ago, Ayyash entered Israel each morning, earning $50 a day as a laborer — enough to support his wife and five daughters. After peace proposals were rejected in 2000, a violent Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation flared, and his job quickly ended.

Reacting to waves of Palestinian suicide bombings, Israel banned most laborers from entry. Checkpoints and roadblocks were erected throughout the West Bank.

The territory's 2.6 million Palestinians have some self-rule under the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, but Israel retains overall control. Some 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and adjacent east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital.

Israel's military built a massive separation barrier that kept out attackers but has also gobbled chunks of the West Bank along its meandering route.

The barrier prevents many Palestinians, including Ayyash, from reaching their farmland. Despairing, two years ago he purchased a dozen goats to sell their milk and meat. He earns about $10 a day herding in his village of Biddu, next to the Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev, and only a mile and a half from the Green Line dividing the West Bank from Israel.

Restrictions have kept Israelis safe from attack, alongside security coordination with Palestinian officials. With a lull in violence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed dozens of checkpoints in the past 2½ years, contributing to an economic revival in the West Bank.

"The whole problem is to find a reasonable balance between the demands of the security and allowing the Palestinian population in the West Bank as normal a life as possible and to allow the economy to thrive," said Israeli security analyst Ephraim Sneh, a retired general who once led the military administration overseeing civilian affairs in the West Bank.

But Palestinians say easing restrictions isn't enough. Officials argue while they can understand Israel defending its de-facto border, there are still some 500 obstacles — road blocks, checkpoints, dirt mounds — scattered through the West Bank to protect dozens of Jewish settlements. Those settlements — particularly those deep within the West Bank — hinder the possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state.

In a recent report, the U.N. said Palestinians in some 70 West Bank villages encountered Israeli roadblocks that forced them to use indirect routes that dramatically lengthened their travels and affected their access to employment, education and medical care. The roadblocks were to protect Jewish settlements, military bases and roads used by Israelis.

The Israeli military says it is alleviating restrictions and that thousands of landowners have permits to reach their farms. But Palestinian farmers said the army frequently refuses permission and doesn't allow them — and their helpers — the regular access they need to tend their land.

In parts of the West Bank, Palestinians cannot reach their lands near some settlements because they fear attacks by extremist Jews. In other areas, hard-line Jews fenced off Palestinian land. Israel's army must secure some areas for Palestinians to enter.

Roadblocks and checkpoints string through the biblical West Bank city of Hebron to protect several hundred Jewish settlers who live in fortified enclaves amid 180,000 Palestinians.

The effects are palpable. Palestinian mothers and fathers clutched the hands of their children hands on a recent morning as they walked through Israeli checkpoints to school.

"Come on, champion!" one father urged his sleepy son.

A soldier ordered one youth to stand against a wall, patting him down before he passed. Another soldier spoke in polite Arabic and joked with the youths — some just younger than he.

Access to the Jordan Valley, a fertile strip of land farther north, is largely restricted to registered residents. Even then, most of the area is closed as military zones, nature reserves and Jewish settlements, U.N. officials said.

Entering Israel requires special permission. About 30,000 Palestinians enter Israel for work every day, according to the military, while others receive permission for medical care or to visit relatives.

These restrictions include entrance to east Jerusalem. The area — home to key Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites — was annexed by Israel decades ago as part of its capital. Palestinians say the moves are to cement Israeli control.

In Gaza, 1.5 million Palestinians are mostly penned into the tiny territory.

Palestinians hope to link the West Bank and Gaza, located on either side of Israel, into a single state. But the two territories have little contact, especially since the militant group Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Since then, Israel and Egypt enforced a blockade to try keep the group in check. Few may leave through the Israeli-controlled border, and Egypt limits movement through its frontier. Hamas demands that Gaza residents obtain its permission before they leave and have denied it to students seeking to study in the U.S.

Miyada Ghanem, a blind Palestinian woman in the West Bank village of Beitin, has little faith that the U.N. vote will change her life.

Fed up with a lengthy bus ride to her university in nearby Ramallah — the result of an Israeli road closure to protect a settlement, Ghanem said she is leaving to pursue her studies in the U.S.

"It's a long wait for this bus," said Ghanem, 24. "I don't think that is going to change."