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A sharply worded report from the World Bank this week says that Israeli travel restrictions have chopped up the West Bank into economically isolated districts that damage the economy and deny Palestinians access to almost half of the land. Israel calls the report overstated and defends its network of checkpoints and road closures as being vital for security.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: In unusually pointed language, the World Bank says Israeli travel restrictions in the West Bank have, quote, "fragmented the territory into ever smaller and more disconnected cantons."
The report by the U.S.-based global lending agency confirms what 32-year-old Abet Abdestarmasud(ph) knows all too well. At his noisy, outdoor metalwork site in a grimy industrial zone in South Ramallah, Abdestarmasud sorts, stacks and hauls the metal bars and beams used in construction. Facing multiple checkpoints, his 24-mile commute from his home near Nablis to work in Ramala often takes him 6 hours or more roundtrip everyday.
Mr. ABET ABDESTARMASUD (Worker, Israel): (Through translator) I get very demoralized, and so does my family. I spend almost as much time waiting at checkpoints as I do at my job.
WESTERVELT: The metal that Abdestarmasud loads onto his boss' trucks for delivery has an equality tough commute to get to construction sites within the West Bank or markets outside the territory. Mohammed Samara(ph) is a co-owner of his family's metal business.
Mr. MOHAMMED SAMARA (Business Owner, Israel): (Through translator) We used to be able to do four or more deliveries a day to Nablis. Now, we can make only one. You have to have all the correct receipts and documents or you or you can wait for hours. And then, even if you have all your proper papers, they can stop you at another checkpoint or a flying checkpoint, and you have to wait all over again.
WESTERVELT: The newly released World Bank report calls Israeli security concerns undeniable, and said they must be addressed. But the reports says Israel's elaborate network of 537 full checkpoints, road closures, permanent restrictions and its massive concrete and wire barrier support the physical and economic expansion of Jewish settlements at the economic expense of the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.
More than 250,000 Jewish settlers live in the territory Israel captured 40 years ago in the 1967 war. Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti welcomed the report as more evidence of what he calls Israel's systematic cantonization of the occupied West Bank.
Dr. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI (Information Minister, Palestine): It's a system of segregation. People in Nablis cannot go to the Jordan Valley because they need a special permit for that. I, as a minister, cannot go to Jordan Valley without a permit, cannot go to Gaza without a permit, to Jerusalem without a permit. I need four permits to move around and I don't have any of them. And that applies to farmers and the producers. The economy is being killed.
WESTERVELT: The American security coordinator for Israel on the Palestinian territories, U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, has drawn up a draft timeline for Israel to ease travel restrictions and removed specific checkpoints this summer. Under General Dayton's proposal in exchange for greater freedom of movement, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas would deploy his men to stop rocket fire to Israel from the Gaza Strip and crackdown on weapons smuggling.
Hamas, a partner of Abbas in the new unity government, has already rejected the plan. And Israel's skeptical President Abbas could really deliver an enhanced security. Foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel's travel restrictions are legitimate and remain vital for protecting its citizens.
Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel): And Let's say tomorrow, yes, as an act of good will, Israel removed all checkpoints. What, in fact, would happen the day after tomorrow with that wave of terrorist bombings throughout this country with scores of people being murdered? And we just have to - on day three - put all the checkpoints back up again.
WESTERVELT: Despite several recent public pledges by Israel's leader, Ehud Olmert, to alleviate West Bank's travel restrictions, the United Nations says, in fact, the opposite has happened so far this year. According to the latest U.N. figures, the number of flying or mobile checkpoints averaged 200 a week in March and April up from 120 a week in January.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramallah.