At the very heart of the roadmap phase I issues that dominated US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit a week ago are security and settlements. The West Bank-based Palestinian leadership that Israel is negotiating with has little to brag about in terms of improving security. But at least it is sincerely trying. The Olmert government is not trying as hard, particularly with regard to settlements. And settlements are the biggest impediment to security.
On the occasion of Rice’s visit, Defense Minister Ehud Barak yielded to American pressure and offered a series of modest security concessions. These included the deployment of 25 Palestinian security force APCs in the West Bank and of some 700 Palestinian policemen in Jenin, the removal of a checkpoint near Rimonim east of Ramallah and the opening of 50 earth roadblocks preventing transportation between villages and main roads. These represent the minimum that Barak apparently believes the IDF can implement without risking security damage.
Looked at in terms of the security status quo, Barak’s and the IDF’s hesitations are understandable. Take Nablus (biblical Shechem), a city of close to 200,000 that is controlled largely by Hamas and is considered the West Bank’s biggest terrorism base, with bomb factories rooted deep in the subterranean warrens of the old Roman city and the city’s four refugee camps. Because it is set amid high and imposing hills, a few checkpoints enable the IDF to control vehicular and nearly all pedestrian traffic into and out of the city. Vehicles using mountain paths to try to bypass the checkpoints are fairly easily spotted by lookouts and patrols. So high is the terrorist alert around Nablus that even every pedestrian leaving town is checked for ID and by a metal detector–whereas pedestrians leaving Qalqilya, another Hamas-controlled city that borders on the green line, are not checked.
The IDF officers in charge of the checkpoints around Nablus and other Palestinian towns in the West Bank are fully aware of the huge international controversy that surrounds the checkpoints and roadblocks they maintain. They are also proud of their excellent record in intercepting terrorists headed for Israel proper and are loath to jeopardize it by reducing the network of security barriers that they believe, when coupled with highly sophisticated intelligence, does the job. They realistically recognize that the checkpoint system is so demoralizing to the population that it creates new terrorists. But they believe it helps eliminate an even larger number. And they and the Israeli public recognize that a series of suicide bombings inside Israel, which almost certainly would trace their origins to Nablus, would totally unravel the modest accomplishments of the peace process thus far.
What, then, can be done to reduce the disastrous effect of checkpoints on Palestinian lives, freedom of movement and commerce? The introduction of technological improvements like biometric identity checks is beginning to speed checkpoint passage and ease the humanitarian burden imposed by Israel’s restrictions. The deployment of Palestinian police in Nablus and, soon, Jenin, can improve the security atmosphere, though the IDF is convinced they will fight crime but not terrorism. And the IDF should consider replacing particularly intrusive checkpoints like Hawara south of Nablus, which blocks the all-important route 60 to Ramallah, with teams erecting mobile checkpoints at will, as a number of security experts have recently proposed.
But the biggest impediment to removing or streamlining the checkpoints and roadblocks has nothing to do with the IDF. The settlements are far and away the primary factor keeping all those checkpoints and roadblocks in existence and hindering the Palestinian and international effort to develop a viable West Bank economy and polity. According to senior IDF officers, some 50 percent of all terrorism in the West Bank is directed against the settler presence beyond the security barrier. Further, the weakest element in the entire West Bank security network is settler commuter traffic passing through security barrier passages to and from jobs inside Israel proper. There is no way the IDF can seriously check the thousands of Israeli-licensed cars making this trip daily; any driver of such a car, whether Israeli Arab or Jew, can transport illegal workers into Israel almost at will. Among these workers there is eventually and inevitably a terrorist or two.
In other words, removal of the settlements beyond the security fence and completion of that fence (which has been delayed precisely because of settlements) would make the IDF’s security task dramatically easier and render many of the checkpoints and roadblocks superfluous. Until that happens, Barak and the IDF establishment will fight tooth and nail to maintain the present West Bank security network in place.
It all boils down to the settlements. Here, rather than fulfilling its international obligations to cease settlement construction and dismantle outposts or unauthorized settlements, the Olmert government is caught in the familiar pattern of maintaining the very coalition stability that is ostensibly required in order to move ahead with the peace process by fueling the settlement dynamic that obstructs and sabotages a two-state solution.
There can be no better demonstration of the futility of the current peace process than the Olmert government’s failure to begin seriously rolling back the settlement movement. Given Olmert’s clear understanding that the settlers’ excesses constitute a genuine danger to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, this is in many ways even more troubling than Palestinian leadership and security failings and the absence of a genuine American commitment to this process.