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At 6:30 last Friday morning, two cars waited for soldiers to open the checkpoint at the eastern entrance to Ramallah. This checkpoint is only for diplomats, Palestinian VIPs, journalists, employees of international organizations and anyone whose presence is welcomed by the military authorities. The checkpoint obligates thousands of villagers living in the vicinity to travel from 30 to 60 kilometers, instead of three to four km, so the settlers of Beit El and Psagot and of the outposts of Migron and Givat Asaf can exercise their landlordism.

The cars waited but the soldiers did not come, even though the checkpoint officially opens at 6 A.M. The iron gate was unlocked; one could have opened it and advanced toward the watchtower. Drivers began honking to attract the soldiers' attention, but if they were sleeping they did not wake up; if they were in the guard tower, they did not come out. Were they derelict in their duty to uphold national security?

Of course not. As in hundreds of other blockades and checkpoints, the security pretext serves consistent strategic aims. Their function is to mark territory, to distinguish between "territorial units" (in Israel Defense Forces lingo), into which the Palestinians will be restricted as part of the permanent arrangements that will be imposed upon them, and the area Israel intends to annex. The territorial marking took place before September 2000 as well: generous construction permits for the settlements, prohibitions against construction and the prevention of development for the Palestinians, and an expansion of the settlements' jurisdiction. The means change, the ends do not.

The declaration of "easements" helps to divert discussion from the real intentions. And still, if at a few checkpoints (out of about 80), people will wait for 20 minutes instead of three hours, they will feel some relief. If a few of the 400 obstructions between villages are removed, their residents can reach their plots of land by tractor rather than on foot. And if, in the third promised stage, Palestinians will be permitted to travel to the Jordan Valley, then that will be a real celebration.

But it is doubtful this stage will ever come. Sooner or later, a Palestinian carrying a rifle in his car will be detained at a checkpoint where "easements" were instituted. The military spokesmen will wave the rifle about as proof that the state's security is endangered. Or a teenager from Nablus will be found carrying an improvized, home-made, pistol or an explosives belt, and the security "ring" around Nablus will be drawn taut once more. The IDF will describe the boy's handlers as "senior commanders," and at some point they will be killed "in an exchange of gunfire" or an assassination that will not be termed as such.

The IDF is not the only one marking territory, after all. The armed Palestinian organizations are doing it as well. But the IDF marks territory as part of a strategic plan that unites parties such as Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor. The Palestinian militants and their handlers mark territory in the absence of a united policy, as part of their infighting. They compete for admiration, for salaries from the Palestinian Authority and for foreign funding. They pretend that what they are doing, have done and promise to do brings their people closer to liberation.

From the first days of the second Palestinian popular uprising against the Israeli occupation, the militants have expropriated it and turned it into hopeless exchanges of fire with the military might of the IDF, and afterward to counting the Israeli dead as proof of its success. They provided, in some measure, the desire to avenge the many civilian deaths caused by the IDF. But they also provided Israel with an excuse to hew to its policy of continuing to expand its marked territory. The ritual of the "armed struggle" turned it into a target that needs no strategy.

The desire not to insult those who are liable to be killed, and fear of the hot-blooded militants, stifle the internal debate over the failure caused by the use of arms and the reinforcement it gave to Israel. And so, the militant organizations and their many offshoots are sure to provide, soon enough, the next pretext for canceling the "easements."