The checkpoints fall, but soldiers remain

Even as a crane hoisted away the heavy concrete slabs around the Israeli army’s checkpoint into Jericho this week, soldiers were still waving down drivers for inspection.

By the end of the day, the paraphernalia of the roadblock was gone, along with the Israeli flags. But the troops remained.

Israel transferred responsibility for security in Jericho to the Palestinians in a largely symbolic step toward reviving the peace process. The army has not been into the heart of the West Bank town in six months.

Further withdrawals will follow, beginning with Tulkarm, a more volatile city that was home to the man responsible for last month’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five people.
Officials on both sides heralded the symbolism of Wednesday’s move as a turn away from the hopelessness created by the intifada.

But some of Jericho’s residents saw a less dramatic symbolism represented by removing the physical barriers at the checkpoint but leaving the soldiers in place.

“There are many deals made with Israel and they haven’t fulfilled any of them,’’ said Walid Baraba, a restaurant owner in Jericho’s main square. “You always have to look carefully to see if what they say is what you get.’‘

At last month’s summit in Egypt, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that Israel would pull out of five West Bank cities within days and lift many of the burdensome checkpoints in the occupied territories that often make it almost impossible for Palestinians to move around.

But nothing happened as Israel stalled and the Palestinian leadership warned that without some relief from the trying aspects of the occupation, Abbas’s attempts to secure an end to violence would founder.

The stranglehold of the checkpoints, and a trench the Israelis dug around Jericho to seal it off, has embittered residents of the biblical town much more than the periodic military raids. “They say they are moving the checkpoint but as you can see with your own eyes the checkpoint is still here,’’ said Walid Almalki, who drives from Ramallah each day. “I think Abu Mazen [Abbas] is serious but I don’t think Sharon is serious.”

n Meanwhile, Palestinian faction leaders, gathered for crunch talks in Cairo, Egypt, headed towards extending a cooling down period rather than agreeing on a full-fledged truce, despite pressure from Israel and Egypt.

Abbas, who was attending the talks, called on the factions to pursue the period of quiet as he underlined the need to understand Israel’s “obsession with security”.

He said: “The majority of Israelis want peace and do not want to hold on to the occupied territories.”

“We must take seriously their great obsession with security — a serious matter to them,” he said, asking the factions to “pursue the period of quiet even if we stumble upon obstacles and delays”, on the part of Israel. — Â