OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) â€” The Israeli army has increased the number of roadblocks and barriers in the West Bank by 25 per cent since last summer, tightening travel restrictions for Palestinians and making it harder for them to reach properties, markets and medical services, according to a new United Nations report. Palestinian officials said the roadblocks have worsened life in the West Bank in recent months and made their goal of establishing an independent state in the territory increasingly remote.
Israel says its network of permanent checkpoints, concrete barriers and temporary mobile roadblocks are needed to protect Israeli towns and Jewish settlements from Palestinian attacks.
In its report, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said the number of road obstacles rose to 471 in January, from 376 last August, at the time of Israel’s Gaza pullout.
The entire increase was in unmanned structures â€” such as concrete barriers and earth mounds â€” and temporary checkpoints that are easily moved from place to place.
The Gaza pullout had raised hopes for improved relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and a further easing of conditions in the West Bank. But since then, fighting in the West Bank has intensified, particularly near the northern towns of Nablus and Jenin.
The World Bank has identified Israel’s “closure” system as a leading cause for the Palestinians’ economic woes, and Palestinians have long complained that the roadblocks are excessive, collective punishment.
“As we see here, after the Gaza withdrawal, things have become much worse,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator. “This is destroying the livelihoods of Palestinians, the economy, agriculture, education and health situation.” The report said “a picture is emerging” of a West Bank divided into three areas â€” north, central and south.
“Movement is easier inside these areas, but travel between them is hampered by a combination of checkpoints and other physical obstacles,” the report said.
It said the roadblocks have helped create a system of roads limited for Israeli use, while funneling Palestinian motorists onto alternative routes where movement is restricted. “The new physical obstacles have further restricted access to land, markets, services and social relations,” it said.
It cited a new permit system limiting Palestinian access to the Jordan Valley, where many farmers own land. Farmers also have difficulty reaching fields in the northern town of Salfit and southern city of Hebron, while rural communities have been isolated from cities because of the travel difficulties, it said.
The travel restrictions have made it difficult for farmers to ship their produce to markets in the West Bank, prevented residents from reaching medical services and make it difficult for people to visit relatives, the report said.
Erekat said the travel restrictions, coupled with Israel’s construction of its West Bank separation barrier, “will kill the viability of an independent state.” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the increase in roadblocks is in response to “an escalation of terrorist activity,” noting a rash of stabbings and shootings in the West Bank in recent weeks.
“These actions on the ground are defensive and responsive to that increased threat,” he said.