BY CHRIS SMITH
BEIT UMMAR, West Bank — As soon as the Israeli army jeep disappears around the bend, a dusty minivan emerges from the grape fields outside this farming town in southern West Bank. Revving the engine as he accelerates into the turn, the driver leans out the window and yells, "Go! Go!".
On cue, eight Palestinian workers bolt from their hiding places in the bushes and run alongside the van, jumping in as it tears down the empty highway. After just a few hundred metres, the van turns back into the fields to evade an Israeli armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint down the road. To get here, the van had followed a tortuous dirt path over the hills from Bethlehem — in which a five-minute drive became an hour-long journey. The return trip would be just as gruelling.
Up the highway at another checkpoint, two taxi drivers stand under the midday sun, their vans impounded for trying to pass the roadblock. "Since 7am we've been here", says one, pointing to his watch. "They took our identification cards." Upon hearing this, an Israeli soldier lounging in the shade tells him to shut up.
Like much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Beit Ummar is blocked off — in this case, by four Israeli army checkpoints in little more than two kilometres. Palestinian traffic is barred from most major roads and, to avoid the roadblocks, Palestinians spend hours bumping over rutted donkey tracks or traversing olive groves.
The penalties for getting caught can be severe: residents and human rights groups report that soldiers often confiscate car keys and shoot tyres out, and have detained and beaten travellers.
Such cat-and-mouse games have become common all over the Palestinian occupied territories since the second intifada began, when the Israelis clamped down on Palestinian movement with a policy called "internal closure".
Closure is less dramatic than Israel's headline-grabbing assassinations of Palestinian leaders, such as the August 27 killing of Abu Ali Mustafa, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But the closures are the daily reality of occupation for most Palestinians, who often find it impossible to move from one town to another — whether to go to work, to visit relatives or to get to school. Beit Ummar has been under closure for most of the summer. "We're like birds in a cage", says the manager of the local power grid.
Internal closures are nothing new — the Israeli military first introduced them in 1996 following suicide bombings inside Israel — but Palestinians say they have gotten tighter and more widespread in recent months. ("External closures", by which Israel prohibits Palestinian workers and goods from entering or passing through Israel, were first employed in March 1993.)
By the Palestinian Authority's latest count, there are 97 military checkpoints in the West Bank and 32 in the Gaza Strip, allowing Israel to shut down Palestinian movement at will.
The Israel Defence Force (IDF) claims that internal closures are necessary security measures. "Internal closures around cities are based on intelligence assessments of specific threats", said an IDF spokesperson. "When [Israeli] intelligence knows that terrorists are planning to leave a city, we'll institute a closure. It prevents a large number of terrorist attacks. It's not 100% effective, but it does help."
But to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, the closures are simply collective punishment. "The sweeping nature of the restrictions imposed by Israel, which are not directed at specific individuals who constitute a security danger, but indiscriminately against millions of people", turns the closure policy into a "clear form" of collective punishment, according to a January 2001 report published by the organisation.
Once thriving town
In the West Bank, closure is perhaps most consistent in Jericho, the once thriving tourist town in the Jordan valley. Flanked by bare brown hills to the west and the Jordanian border to the east, the city is almost totally cut off from the outside world.
There are only three roads in or out: one to Jordan across the Allenby Bridge, one to the north and one to the south. Nowadays, all three are often shut tight by army barricades. Non-Jericho residents and foreigners are denied entry, and locals are only intermittently allowed in or out. On a recent visit, all three roads had been closed for four days. The southern checkpoint was deserted — no taxis, no people, just Israeli soldiers in sunglasses drinking orange soft drink.
No one has counted the days of total closure in Jericho, but its effects are obvious. Tell al-Sultan, an archaeological site holding the remains of the oldest city in the world, sits forlornly at the edge of an empty car park. Nearby hotels and restaurants are shuttered, and the newly built gondola — designed to whisk tourists up from town to a monastery on the mountainside — hasn't moved since October. Its cherry-red cable cars hang in the air, swaying slightly in the breeze. Arabic pop music, startlingly loud in the silence, drifts from a radio in the distance.
At Tell al-Sultan, the ticket-taker sits in the shade chewing his lip. "Every month there were 10,000 people, maybe 14,000", he says. "Now there's no one. The parking lot was so full of buses we couldn't hold them all. They spilled out into the street." He sold six tickets last month — about average these days, he says. According to the city's department of tourism, from October 1999 to February 2000, approximately 35,000 tourists visited Jericho each month. From October 2000 to February 2001, the number of monthly visitors was no more than 10.
The ticket-taker is lucky. He still has a job, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) still pays him, if not always on time. By local estimates, some 80% of Jericho's work force is now unemployed. This figure is double the United Nations Special Coordinator's estimate for the Occupied Territories as a whole.
The town's biggest money-maker, the Austrian-run Oasis Casino, laid off all 1500 of its employees in November. In addition, the closure prevents farmers from taking their produce to market and rural Palestinians and Bedouin from reaching the Jericho hospital, which is the only one in the area.
Iman Amleh, who directs three Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committee (UPMRC) clinics in outlying villages, says that even she has problems passing the checkpoints sometimes, despite official permission from the Israeli authorities.
Jericho's isolation makes it especially vulnerable to the closure. "It's impossible to close Ramallah [completely] — there are houses all the way from Jerusalem", says Mohammad Attiyeh, a general practitioner who works at a local UPMRC clinic. "But Jericho is an oasis, all by itself."
The remote but strategically important Jordan valley has seen less Palestinian guerrilla activity than the rest of the West Bank, but the IDF has tightened the closure here as the months have worn on.
Shortly after the February election of Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the army began digging a network of trenches — three metres deep and almost as wide — along the town's eastern, southern and northern reaches, with the declared aim of preventing Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers driving on a nearby bypass road.
On many days, the only way in or out is through the desert to the west in cars rugged enough to stand the journey. Even then, residents and rights groups claim that the IDF sometimes bars the way with tank patrols. On one bad day in June, locals say, soldiers made a taxi driver strip to his underwear and dance for them. They also say that soldiers forced another driver to drop to his knees and bark like a dog.
Jericho, ironically, was one of the first cities transferred to PA control following the 1993 Oslo accords. The first phase of Israel's "redeployment" under these accords was known as "Gaza and Jericho First". Amid great fanfare and international approval, Israeli troops pulled out of Jericho in 1994, but they never went very far.
A sprawling military post overlooks the town from a mountainside to the west, and now the IDF is back, its choke hold on Jericho enforced not by soldiers patrolling the streets but by concrete barriers and trenches on the outskirts of town.
Inside the boarded-up town, residents have little to do but wait for things to change.
Abu Hani, a bus driver, shuttles travellers between town and the border crossing. When the roads are closed there's no work. One closure, he remembers, lasted 17 days. "I have nothing to do when there's closure", he says. "No job, no money. I just sit".
Umm Hani, Abu's wife, has watched the family's grocery store lose 60% of its business since the closure began last [northern] autumn. The couple's oldest son, Youssef, has left for New York to try and find work with a cousin. "He just called this morning", says his mother. "I wanted to tell him to come back because we miss him. But if he came back he would just sit. It's better that he's away."
[Chris Smith is a freelance journalist recently returned from the West Bank. Abridged from a Middle East Research and Information Project press information note 66. Visit MERIP's web site at <http://www.merip.org>.]