Israel building checkpoints ahead of Gaza pullout

By Cynthia Johnston

Israeli & Global News

Saturday, August 13, 2005

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - White dust rises as a mechanised digger cuts into a hillside at a checkpoint on Jerusalem's outskirts where Israel is building a high-tech terminal Palestinians fear could one day be a permanent border.

Towering gray walls have been erected nearby and the new checkpoint will lie in the shadow of a concrete watchtower -- all built in the run-up to Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

The terminal is one of roughly three dozen new crossing points -- many of them close to operational -- that Israel is building along a West Bank barrier it says blocks suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities.

"It is not the border, and it is not final," Israeli Defense Ministry adviser Baruch Spiegel told Reuters.

"But for the time being, until we reach some other understandings, these will be the places where the Palestinians will have to cross from one side to the other."

The United States has touted Israel's pullout from the occupied Gaza Strip and a slice of the northern West Bank as a fresh chance for resuming peace talks. Israel bills the pullout as "disengagement" from conflict with the Palestinians.

Palestinians fear that when the dust clears from Gaza, they will find themselves hemmed behind an impenetrable barrier that will hinder movement and strangle their economy.

"More hardship, that's all," Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "This system will restrict movement and create unnatural barriers between Palestinians and Palestinians."

Palestinians worry the barrier and network of checkpoints being built along its route will also mark the borders of their future state, and that key Arab areas including East Jerusalem that lie on the Israeli side will be lost for good.


Israel is building up to 38 terminal checkpoints -- from simple crossings to massive passenger and cargo terminals -- alongside its barrier, and hopes to have them all operational by early 2006, Spiegel said.

It is also building more than 60 gates to give farmers access to land on the Israeli side of the barrier. At least three West Bank terminals are roughly complete -- near Qalqilya, Bethlehem and Jenin. A fourth near Tulkarm is already open.

The International Crisis Group think tank has said barrier construction and settlement growth, particularly in the Jerusalem area, could drive Palestinians to violence and damage prospects for a comprehensive peace deal.

Some 55,000 Palestinian Jerusalem residents will be on the West Bank side of the barrier, although Israel says they will be allowed to cross. Nearly 200,000 others will be on the Israeli side and would need permits to go to areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Israel, which has dismissed the criticism, is building up to 14 terminals around the holy city including a massive complex next to an existing checkpoint on the road to the Palestinian political and economic hub of Ramallah.

Workers there have flattened a rocky hilltop to make way for the terminal that a Hebrew sign identifies as the Atarot Crossing, named after a disused nearby airstrip.

Meanwhile, Palestinians stream by at the current outdoor checkpoint, where a corrugated metal awning protects them from scorching sun in the summer and rain in the winter. Israelis say the new terminals will make passage easier.

Palestinians will cross the new terminals using biometric identity cards through gates operated by remote control. The checkpoints will be privatised, and contact with Israeli soldiers will be limited to minimise potential friction.

"Once we complete the fence and have these crossings, it will be easier to pass with much more dignity, much more efficiency, better security, better everything," Spiegel said.

But he said Israel was still working out standards on who could cross, or what procedures would be in place.