The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B'Tselem, has issued a report finding that the Israeli government has continued to maintain severe and comprehensive restrictions on movement in the West Bank, despite claims to the contrary. Removal of some of the 700 Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks is one of several things that the Israeli government agreed to do as part of an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. But the Israeli government has not removed roadblocks as promised. The Israeli government also promised to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank, but has instead increased settlement expansion.
According to B'Tselem, the Israeli government recently announced that at the end of March 2008, the army began removing 61 physical obstructions – dirt piles, boulders, and blocks – it had placed inside the West Bank. The obstructions were purportedly removed following Israel’s commitment, made in March to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to reduce restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank. However, B'Tselem’s investigation and investigations by other human rights organizations indicate that the government’s declaration was no more than sleight of hand.
B'Tselem requested from the public-relations unit of the Ministry of Defense and from the Coordinator of Government Operations in the Territories a list of the physical obstructions that had allegedly been removed. To date, neither of the two governmental bodies has provided such a list. Relying on reports given to journalists, diplomats, and international organizations, B'Tselem independently compiled the list. When it investigated further, B'Tselem found that Israel’s claims were false.
Most of the physical obstructions on the list had, in fact, been breached by local Palestinians or had been removed by the army before Israel made its commitment to Secretary Rice. An appreciable number of the obstructions and been placed in the northern West Bank, primarily in the area of Tulkarm, Qalqiliya, and Jenin, immediately after the terror attack in Dimona, on 4 February 2008, and were removed in the following weeks. Other physical obstructions on the list, many of which had been placed at the entrance to dirt roads leading to private farmland, had little effect on the fabric of life of the general population. However, obstructions placed on vital roads, affecting the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank, were not on the list.
Furthermore, at a number of places in the northern West Bank, obstructions that had previously been removed by the residents were moved back into place by army bulldozers. The army then took pictures of these obstructions before removing them the same day or the following day.
B'Tselem gave the following examples of these 'staged' removals:
In early February, the army placed three obstructions composed of boulders and dirt piles at the southern entrance to Bal’a, a town northeast of Tulkarm. On 5-7 March, in coordination with the army, the Bal’a municipality removed the obstructions and reopened the entrance. According to local residents, at the end of March, an Israeli bulldozer, guarded by soldiers, again placed an obstruction blocking the entrance. Residents wanting to ride along the road were delayed by the army, which filmed the vehicles waiting on either side of the physical obstruction. Immediately afterward, the bulldozer removed the obstruction, which the army also filmed. This obstruction is on the list of physical obstructions that the army contends were removed as part of its efforts to “ease” Palestinian movement.
On 31 March, the army placed three obstructions made of boulders and dirt piles on the road running between Deir al-Ghussun and al-Jarushiya, which lie about one kilometer apart, north of Tulkarm. According to local residents, the next day, an Israeli bulldozer removed the three obstructions, while an army film crew documented the obstructions before and during their removal. These obstructions, too, appear on the list.
At the end of November 2007, the army placed three dirt obstructions on the road linking the villages of al-Funduq and Hajja, east of Qalqiliya, and another obstruction at the exit from the village of Jinsafut, in the direction of Route 55. These obstructions were removed by residents in early January 2008. Another obstruction, placed at the exit from the village of al-Masqufa, was removed by residents on 7 March. These five obstructions are also on the list.
Another prominent example involves Bizzariya, a village situated east of Tulkarm. In February, following the terrorist attack in Dimona, the army blocked the main roads linking the village and Tulkarm. Later that same month, the army removed the temporary checkpoints and residents removed the dirt piles. Residents state that, on 31 March, the army closed the exits from the village by means of boulders and dirt piles, and immediately afterwards an army bulldozer came and removed them. The army filmed the placement and removal of the obstructions, which are on the list of obstructions that were removed to ease Palestinian movement.
In addition to the government’s declaration that some physical obstructions had been removed, the media reported that two permanent checkpoints had purportedly been removed: the Rimonim (a-Tayba) checkpoint, east of a-Tayba, and the Almog checkpoint on Route 1, the road running between Jericho and the northern Dead Sea. B'Tselem’s investigation shows that while the Rimonim checkpoint was indeed removed, the Almog checkpoint remains operational, and Palestinians are not allowed to cross it to get to the northern Dead Sea.
Its repeated promises to “ease” restrictions on movement imply that Israel views the Palestinians’ fundamental right to freedom of movement as a privilege that it can grant or deny as it wishes. In practice, Israel continues to restrict Palestinian movement inside the West Bank with a variety of means, including hundreds of physical obstructions and dozens of permanent checkpoints. The objective of many of these obstructions and checkpoints is not to prevent entry into Israel but to make it difficult for residents to travel between towns and villages inside the West Bank, and for terrorists to reach the last checkpoints before entering Israel. These restrictions gravely affect the residents’ right to freedom of movement and other fundamental rights, such as the right to proper medical treatment, to education, and to work. This harm has great long-term effects on Palestinians, including their ability to rebuild the Palestinian economy and Palestinian society.
B'Tselem called on Israel to immediately remove all restrictions on movement inside the West Bank and to concentrate its efforts to protect Israelis on checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel.