- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

TEL, West Bank On a dirt road near this West Bank village, Palestinians were competing loudly for customers in a new trade spawned by Israeli roadblocks: donkey cart taxis.
Wheels slowly churning in the mud, the carriages took passengers around an Israeli barrier blocking a road to Nablus, the largest town in the West Bank. Sometimes drivers helped push the carts uphill, straining against the slippery slope and the heavy burden.
"Don't ask me how many fell down this hill when it rained yesterday," one man called out. "I was one of them."
About 25 miles to the north, in the town of Jenin, paramedics bundled paralyzed Ibrahim Habarieh, 17, into a Palestinian ambulance. Habarieh needs dialysis three times a week, and the nearest treatment center is in Nablus.
He can only get there by ambulance at a cost of $150 a week because private cars aren't allowed through.
Israel says the roadblocks, set up around and between the Palestinians' islands of autonomy, are needed to prevent attacks on its citizens, which have left more than 240 dead in the past 15 months.
To the Palestinians, who have lost more than 820 dead, the closure has turned the West Bank and Gaza Strip into vast open-air prisons. It has stifled the Palestinians' economy, leaving them jobless and humiliated.
U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni is trying to push the two sides to a deal, but until a way is found to keep Palestinian bombers and gunmen out of Israeli lives, Israeli troops will likely continue to paralyze Palestinian lives. And after December's spate of suicide bombings, the closure intensified.
On a recent chilly morning, Palestinians lined roads outside their towns and villages across the West Bank, thumping their hands together for warmth as they waited for bright yellow seven-seater taxis and vans.
Many had left home early to allow more time to get to work, a doctor's appointment or a relative's house.
The trip is often fraught with danger and frustration.
Some roads are open, but traffic jams often build up at checkpoints as Israeli soldiers scrutinize ID cards and search car trunks.
Motorists are often at the mercy of the soldiers, many of them young recruits with little or no Arabic. Some are courteous and wave cars through quickly. Others take their time, chatting among themselves or barking orders as the lines grow longer.
At a checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank town of Jericho, about 200 laborers waited at a concrete barrier, anxious to get home for dinner. Only two soldiers were posted there. They often interrupted the ID check to yell at the workers for not forming a line.
An intricate entanglement of cars and concrete blocks known as the Kalandia checkpoint has taken on legendary proportions. Enduring waits of two or three hours, many motorists give up, park and walk to taxis waiting on either end. Kalandia is a huge bottleneck on the main West Bank thoroughfare linking Jerusalem and the town of Ramallah, the Palestinians' commercial center.
Israel has said it will ease up as soon as the security situation allows it and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat does more to curb militants. A day after restrictions at Kalandia were eased in October, Israeli officials said, gunmen of a radical PLO faction from Ramallah slipped into Jerusalem and assassinated an Israeli Cabinet minister.
The Palestinian Authority says it has lost $8 billion in trade and wages due to the closures. Unemployment, in the low double-digits before the outbreak of fighting, has climbed to about 60 percent, and more than half the 3 million Palestinians now live in poverty, up from one-quarter before September 2000.
Human rights groups say roadblocks amount to collective punishment. The U.N. Committee Against Torture said last month that they can "amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has acknowledged the hardships, saying Palestinians "have grown up with checkpoints and raids and indignities. Too often they have seen their schools shuttered and their parents humiliated."
The harshest complaints concern roadblock deaths.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 28 Palestinians have died at checkpoints because they were delayed and didn't receive medical treatment in time. The Israeli human rights group Betselem said its research indicated that 20 Palestinian patients held up at checkpoints could have been saved. The army refuses to comment on roadblock deaths.
Palestinian motorists trying to circumvent barriers have been killed by soldiers who said they feared they were about to be attacked.
Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, said soldiers are under orders to let ambulances pass without delay. However, Palestinians have used ambulances to smuggle weapons or wanted men, and must be checked thoroughly, Capt. Dallal said.
Habarieh, the dialysis patient from Jenin, made his way to the clinic in Nablus in a small convoy of two ambulances. The main road was blocked by a 6-foot-high pile of dirt dumped there by Israeli bulldozers, so the ambulances detoured onto a rocky trail through farmland, moving slowly with their fragile loads.
Near the Jewish settlement of Homesh, they were stopped at an Israeli checkpoint. Two soldiers approached the first vehicle, rifles cocked. After checking ID cards, one soldier told the driver to open the back door.
In the back, the soldier lifted seats and removed chairs. A 60-year-old woman suffering pulmonary edema excessive fluid in her lungs shivered in the cold wind. After nearly half an hour, the first ambulance was waved through.
The patients in the second ambulance had to get out after soldiers questioned the driver's credentials. A third ambulance picked up the passengers.
Ibrahim Habarieh and the other patients arrived in Nablus after about 90 minutes, more than double what it would normally take.
Near Tel village, where donkey taxis take travelers into Nablus on back roads, business was brisk. Drivers charged 10 shekels ($2.50) for carrying goods and 2 shekels (50 cents) for passengers. Many drivers used to work in Israel as laborers but lost their jobs due to the closure.
Even 50 cents was too much for some. "It's money I don't have," yelled Rahme Khalife, a 54-year-old widow. Carrying a bag of groceries, she slowly covered the distance on foot, her traditional Arab dress splattered with mud.
At the end of the donkey ride, taxis and minivans waited for the travelers, and drivers called out their destinations: Hebron, Ramallah, Jericho. Khaled Zaben, 45, was there selling shoes. "One day a woman lost her shoes in the mud and bought a pair of men's shoes, just to finish the trip," he said.

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