RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Israel should remove 10 major West Bank checkpoints to give a badly needed boost to the Palestinian economy and can do so without compromising security, a group of Israeli ex-generals and Palestinian officials said in a joint report Wednesday.
The 10 checkpoints cause major disruptions to Palestinian trade and movement, said the report, whose authors include two former chiefs of Israel’s military government in the West Bank.
The findings came just days after the World Bank warned that the Palestinian economy is not likely to grow this year, largely due to continued Israeli restrictions on movement, and despite massive foreign aid.
Representatives of donor countries meet in London later this week to review the aid effort, $7.7 billion (¤4.95 billion) pledged over three years. The bank warned that more aid may be needed if the Palestinian economy doesn’t recover from several years of downturn. A recovery depends on an easing of restrictions, the bank said. Israel says it’s willing, in principle, to ease restrictions, but that Palestinian militants still pose a threat. A hasty removal of checkpoints could lead to more attacks which would then harm peace efforts, Israel argues.
Israel erected a network of hundreds of roadblocks, dirt mounts and gates after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, and insists it’s still the most effective way to deter militants. However, Wednesday’s study said Israel could ease up without compromising security.
“While there was once a serious security need for checkpoints and roadblocks, this need is diminishing with time,” the study said. “The checkpoints and roadblocks policy, however, has not changed accordingly, despite the fact that it has an extremely negative impact on Palestinian economy and society.”
A removal of checkpoints is in Israel’s long-term interest because it would help defuse Palestinian resentment and improve the standard of living in the Palestinian territories, said one of the authors, reserve Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz, who headed the West Bank’s military government from 2002-2005.
“If Israel wants the Palestinian economy to improve … we have to change the reality in the West Bank,” said Paz. “We want to create a light at the end of the tunnel for the Palestinians, so they won’t search for revenge or hatred against the Israelis.”
The six-member group, which also included three senior Palestinian government officials, said the majority of West Bank roadblocks should be removed, arguing they’ve become unnecessary with the construction of Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. The barrier, expected to stretch about 500 miles (800 kilometers) is two-thirds complete. However, the report noted that a blanket removal “is currently unrealistic owing to the strength of opposition made by the Israeli security forces and the Jewish settlers centering around security considerations,” the report said.
Instead, the group focused on 10 checkpoints that Palestinian officials said are particularly harmful to Palestinian trade. The list included three checkpoints around Nablus, the West Bank’s second largest city and a former militant stronghold.
In recent months, the Palestinian government tried to assert control in Nablus, deploying security forces and trying to get gunmen off the streets. Israel has portrayed the deployment as a good start, but said the Palestinian Authority needs to do more. In the meantime, Israeli troops carry out almost nightly arrest raids in the city, saying it’s too early to rely on Palestinian forces. The study said even the Nablus checkpoints can be removed, provided Israeli and Palestinian forces step up coordination and Palestinian forces heighten their activity in the city.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev reiterated that Israel is taking some risks, but does not want to be hasty. “We have an obligation to protect our people from a very real terrorist threat that exists in the West Bank,” he said.
On Tuesday, the commander of Israeli military intelligence warned that Palestinian militants will try to stage a large-scale attack during Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which begin next week.
In other developments, Israeli troops on Wednesday shut down a women’s sewing cooperative run by the Islamic Charitable Association, the largest Islamic charity in the West Bank city of Hebron.
The Israeli military says the charity is a Hamas front, and that it funds violent activity against Israel. The military has ordered all of the charity’s operations closed, including private schools, among them a boarding school for children from disadvantaged homes. The charity denies it’s linked to Hamas.
Early Wednesday, Israeli soldiers seized sewing machines, tables and bolts of fabric from the sewing workshop, said a school official.
Israel closed other offices of the charity earlier this year. That closure came after two Hamas members from the city carried out a suicide bombing that killed an Israeli.
Hamas advocates Israel’s destruction, and the group violently seized power in the Gaza Strip last year. Both Israel and the moderate Palestinians rulers of the West Bank fear Hamas will try to wrest control of the West Bank as well.