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Travel Restrictions Affect Palestinian Lives, Cause Traffic Delays - 2002-01-04

Israel's military has removed some roadblocks around Palestinian-ruled towns in the West Bank as a goodwill gesture for U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni's peace mission. Many of the blockades were imposed after suicide attacks against Israelis last December.

The travel restrictions seriously affect Palestinian life. Highway 60 cuts through the center of the West Bank. It is the fastest route to get from Jerusalem to Nablus, some 60 kilometers to the north - but it's not fast for Palestinians.

After the Palestinian uprising erupted 15 months ago, the road has been eerily empty - except for Jewish settlers shuttling between Israel and their West Bank settlements and a few Palestinian trucks and taxis.

Israel barred private Palestinian vehicles and added more military checkpoints as it intensified security operations in the West Bank. Bulldozers dumped mounds of dirt to seal off Palestinian villages along the way.

Palestinian taxis and trucks that are allowed on the road are often delayed for hours.

On the outskirts of Nablus one day recently, two dozen trucks line up in the rain at a military checkpoint, waiting for permission to move their loads of fresh vegetables, breads and other goods to markets across the West Bank.

Distributors like Faisel complain they are losing business. Faisel says he has been waiting nearly three hours to pass the checkpoint and deliver the load of cakes and chocolates to his customers. "Usually, I make one or two trips a day. Now," he says, "I only make the trip once a week."

At every checkpoint, Faisel explains, a soldier checks his ID and often opens one or two boxes to check the contents.

To get around the checkpoint hassles, Palestinians have carved out detours through muddy fields and hilly slopes. But, if a truck or car gets stuck in the tracks, everyone coming behind it ends up finishing the journey on foot.

Faisel says half the time he is turned back at the checkpoint without an explanation. So he often uses the dirt roads too. When it rains and the tracks are too muddy, he says, he ends up going home without making any deliveries.

Near Tulkarem farther north, a yellow metal gate blocks the road. It is locked most of the time so no vehicles can pass.

So travelers wriggle under the gate or climb over the dirt mounds on the side of the road. Young boys help carry heavy parcels from one side of the checkpoint to the other where taxis line up to complete the journey.

Palestinian staff of international relief agencies often find their way blocked too.

A Palestinian driver for the United Nations trying to deliver equipment for the handicapped waited at the Nablus checkpoint for nearly two hours until another U.N. employee came to his rescue.

Mohammed has been driving U.N. supply trucks for 13 years. He says the situation is a lot worse since Israel tightened its military blockades a year ago.

Operations Support Officers for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees - UNRWA for short patrol the West Bank daily to assist U.N. employees and get refugee supplies through the traffic jams. UNRWA support officer Jeremy Chivers says the delays have been significant.

"We recorded in December a total of 172 work days lost for UNRWA staff and this represents delays at Israeli checkpoints where staff members are stopped from going to their duty stations. That could be teachers, doctors or relief workers. We have 3,500 staff on the West Bank and our office was called out 92 times to intervene," he says.

Israel says the security measures help curb violence and prevent attacks against Israelis.

Ghassan Shemlawi helps run the Palestinian Authority's welfare services in Nablus. He says all the security measures are destroying Palestinian life.

Ghassan says all the closures, roadblocks and checkpoints aim at alienating Palestinians and forcing them to focus more on finding food for their families than on struggling for independence.

Palestinians cautiously welcomed Israeli bulldozers that arrived this week to remove some of the shoulder-high dirt barricades that have sliced up roads and stranded villages along the highway.

Forty-year-old Adnan smiled as a bulldozer opened the way to his village of Sinjil. A year ago, Israel cut off the village and barred private cars from entering the highway.

That turned Adnan's short commute to his shop in Ramallah into a two hour relay between taxis and checkpoints. "Some days you have to go through three checkpoints and they check you. Sometimes one will check you, sometimes they won't but you cannot go through in the car. Before we used to go from here 15 minutes only," he says.

Adnan has welcomed the freedom to travel the main road again but he is not sure how long it will last.