The seminal event of Amir Peretz's defense career took place soon after he relinquished his social agenda to don combat gear. One spring day, a request to declare a general curfew in the West Bank, on the eve of Jerusalem Day celebrations, appeared on his desk. The military attache explained to the new defense minister that this was standard procedure: When Jews are celebrating in the streets, Arabs stay home.
Peretz considered this a golden opportunity to display leadership, and decided there was no reason to close off the territories. Jerusalem Day arrived and hundreds of revelers crowded the Ammunition Hill Memorial. At the height of the event, the secretary passed a small note to the minister. His face paled. The note informed him that a suicide bomber had penetrated Israel and was making his way to the ceremony. An hour later, it proved to be a false alarm. Peretz breathed a sigh of relief, but the idea that the story could have ended in tragedy remained with him. He visualized the headlines that would have appeared the following morning: "Terror attack in Jerusalem. Peretz refused to impose curfew on territories."
The minister's constituents do not know, to this day, if it was a false alarm or if someone in the Israel Defense Forces, Shin Bet security service, or both, decided to teach the new minister a lesson. And the student, according to the results, took in the information known to every commander in the territories: Whenever you are deliberating whether to close or open passage to the Palestinians, always close. Checkpoint commanders learn to save themselves questions about the long-term price of a sweeping policy of collective punishment.
This dynamic may explain the checkpoint report that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) presented to the defense minister. The comprehensive document maintains that, since the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August, 2005, the number of physical blockades in the West Bank has increased by 39 percent.
In 2006, after Peretz had assumed the defense minister post for nearly a year, this figure leaped 27 percent over the previous year when Shaul Mofaz filled the seat (a total of 522 blockades). During one week in November, the OCHA investigators found 160 surprise checkpoints, and 38 kilometers of road that were blocked to Palestinians. They also found that eight of the 12 passages along the wall surrounding Jerusalem were only open to Israelis.
Peretz's office tends to refer reporters' questions on what the High Court calls "damage to the fabric of life in the territories," to the IDF Central Command or head of Israeli policy for the territories. Responses are typically reproduced word-for-word on ministerial stationary, and then returned to the journalist. In the two cases in which this writer asked questions, the gap between the response and the situation on the ground could teach something about the relations between the military brass and the big boss.
In one case, it was reported that the Jordan Valley highway was open to Palestinians. However deputy minister Ephraim Sneh is currently applying pressure to open this "open" road.
In the second case, the minister's office received a report that residents of villages whose land was expropriated for the purpose of paving Road 443 ("the Modi'in road"), were permitted to use that road, "following inspection." Apparently, military commanders trusted that Peretz's driver would take Highway 1 to Jerusalem so that the minister would not see the blocks of cement that completely obstruct passage from most villages to the main road. After the issue was highlighted in this column, the IDF erected a permanent blockade at the entrance to the village of Beit Sira. It was obviously a complete coincidence that village council leader Ali Abu Safiyeh complained to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and was quoted here.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can get off easy while making good on promises to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to improve Palestinian movement through the territories. Even MK Gideon Sa'ar of the Likud, who protested the affectionate meeting between the two men, cannot complain. The only thing Olmert has to do is announce that the government of Israel has decided to obey laws, High Court decrees and injunctions from the military commander in the West Bank. An announcement of this type - a matter of course in a state of law - could produce a revolution in the lives of thousands of Palestinians. IDF databases, in Hebron, for example, are full of "daring" directives that were included in violation of law. ACRI found that creative commanders also learned to enhance these directives. According to the military commander's commitment to the High Court, Al Shohada Street in Hebron's Old City is supposed to remain open, along its entire length, to Palestinian pedestrian traffic. Either someone forgot to tell this to the soldiers, who are posted there, or someone did tell them that in the territories, law does not necessarily resemble reality. The soldiers block the paths of Palestinians who attempt to move through the street. They explain to human rights activists, called upon to assist Palestinians, that the commander calls this a "sterile" artery, in security terms, and has ordered them to forbid passage of Palestinians in the street. As a result, Palestinian residents are not allowed to cross the street and go far out of their way, bypassing the center of the city. Moreover, 10 days ago, soldiers also blocked the path of foreign volunteers, claiming that entry is permitted only to Jews.
Forces in the nearby Tel Romeida compound also relate to official military orders, in the best cases, as recommendations. They forbid movement of people who are not settlers, in an area much broader than that outlined in the injunction, which states that the closed area begins next to the settlement itself. The street is supposed to be open to pedestrian traffic.
In a letter more than a month ago to the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria region, ACRI attorney Limor Yehuda wrote that soldiers posted at the site told her when she visited that the brigade war room and company commander had issued an order that "leftists are not permitted to pass through the street." In her presence, they contacted brigade headquarters on their walkie-talkie to ascertain that this was, in fact, the order. Yehuda heard, with her own ears, that Israeli leftists were to be denied entry in the direction of Tel Romeida.
A letter that Yehuda received yesterday from the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria region stated, "in an examination conducted by the Judea Sector Brigade, it was found that, indeed, an error had occurred in which movement of Palestinian pedestrians was not permitted on the Al Shohada artery, west of Gross Square, and that new instructions have been issued, in recent days, that permit movement at the site, subject to security inspections." Yehuda said that the term, "error," appears to have new meaning, that the ban on Palestinian movement is still in existence, as it has been for six years, and that one must assume that the brigade commander noticed that the street is "free of Palestinians."
Tied hands or an outstretched arm
The letter also stated that an order was issued to IDF soldiers to permit movement of "all Israelis" in the vicinity of Tel Romeida. One might understand from this that the IDF was aware of the differentiation between "ordinary" and leftist Israelis.
In response to blockades that prevent passage from Al Shohada Street, reports stated: "This is part of a plan to defend the Jewish settlement in the city." In other words, security forces believe that defending 400 Jews justifies causing suffering to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
Half a year ago, the IDF invented a new system, intended to bypass a High Court ruling regarding military protocol. The system of detaining Palestinian suspects is known as the "outstretched arm," in a reference to God's role in the Exodus from Egypt. The system was designed to minimize risk to soldiers at the expense of risk to Palestinian citizens.
In response to a question from Meretz faction chair Zahava Gal-On, deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh wrote last week that "the system of operations manifests itself in surrounding a structure to prevent wanted men from escaping, and by getting the residents out of the house using bullhorns or by knocking on doors. If necessary, a search of the house is undertaken, as well as questioning. If, after announcements are made, no one leaves the surrounded house, various steps are then taken, including exerting pressure, demolition of the house (at times), in order to cause those inside the house to leave its confines."
The deputy minister emphasized that "exerting pressure" is applied only in cases in which there is a justified fear that an armed and dangerous fugitive is inside, and only after all other non-harmful means have been exhausted. Often this derives from suspicious hostile activity on the part of those inside the structure, or when a wanted man barricades himself. Sneh added that "to our regret," operations of this type sometimes result in casualties and in damage to the structure. The numerical translation of "sometimes": Fourteen Palestinian civilians killed, 114 civilians wounded, and seven structures damaged.
Sneh's remarks did not mollify Gal-On, who views the "outstretched arm" procedure as a way of getting around, the neighbor drill. She cites the ruling of retired chief justice Aharon Barak in the High Court's decision on targeted assassinations. The court ruled that the war on terror must be fought with one hand tied behind one's back. Attorney Michael Sfarad, who represented the plaintiffs in the case against the assassination policy and who first heard of the "outstretched arm" only yesterday, would like to know how those who stretch their arms can know when the residents are remaining in the house voluntarily, and when they are being forcibly held by a wanted man.
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