A line of cars hundreds of meters long now stretches every day on the road that connects the villages of the Tul Karm area, in the West Bank. The Palestinian drivers sometimes have to wait for hours in the punishing sun. They now have to cross an iron gate in the new separation fence, located next to Nazlat al-Garbiya, and go through a check by Border Police, car after car, in order to move from a village in the north to a village in the south within areas under occupation. Since the advent of the cease-fire, the lives of the residents in this area have taken a turn for the worse. Their district seat, Tul Karm, remains under tight siege, as before. Last Wednesday night, tanks burst into the city and the residents awoke to the sounds of gunfire and explosions. They have definitely heard about the promises Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made to U.S. President George Bush about easing the restrictions on the Palestinians, but for them, life just keeps getting harder.
Similarly, the five ambulance drivers who were held up one day last week at a surprise army roadblock near Sanjil, not far from Nablus, honking and howling without any of the soldiers even thinking about going over to them, have only heard about the lifting of restrictions. The patients in their ambulances felt no relief. The thousands of drivers who use the main road in the Gaza Strip every day and are forced to leave the highway and drive on a twisting road because the army won't let them go by the settlement of Kfar Darom, can only smile bitterly when they hear the news that the Israel Defense Forces have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. A similar impression is made on the owners of the stores and businesses near Rachel's Tomb, in Bethlehem, that are forced to remain shut down.
Entire streets in Hebron continue to resemble sections of a ghost town. Beit Hanun, in the Gaza Strip, is largely heaps of rubble. Nablus is under siege, as usual. Qalqilyah is completely encircled. The children of Salem, east of Nablus, haven't left their village for the past two and a half years. The Al-Fawar refugee camp, south of Hebron, is sealed off by a dirt rampart. The road from Jenin to its satellite villages continues to be dangerous and roundabout.
After more than a month of the hudna and nearly two months in which there has not been a large-scale terrorist attack in Israel, almost nothing has changed in the conditions of the Palestinians. Even the release of prisoners is talked about without anyone actually being released. That is certainly not an incentive for the cessation of violence. The few things that have been done to facilitate the Palestinians' conditions - the army's partial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem, and the removal of three checkpoints in the Ramallah area - have generated some satisfaction among the residents, but too little and too late.
Yet, even these small measures were not aimed at the Palestinians. The three checkpoints around Ramallah, out of about 100 in the West Bank, were removed on the eve of the prime minister's visit to Washington, without anyone even making an effort to conceal the reason: to curry favor with the president. The point was not to make conditions easier for the Palestinians, but to facilitate the conditions for Sharon's meeting with Bush. So there is no reason to think that these steps will advance by even a little the relations between Israel and the Palestinians - after all, that is not their purpose. If Israel were to take steps with the genuine intention of easing life for the Palestinian population, a new atmosphere would be created along with the opportunity for true dialogue. Significant steps would prove to the Palestinian people that the cessation of violence pays off, and would in the long run also make life easier for the Israelis. For that, however, the government of Israel would have to demonstrate a far greater level of generosity.
The tiny steps taken by Sharon are intended to please Bush so that he relaxes his pressure on Israel, thereby letting it perpetuate the occupation. It's not only the Sharon government - virtually all of Israel's governments did not want America to intervene and act - heaven forbid - to remove the occupation. What is the famous "American pressure" that all Israeli leaders are afraid of, if not pressure to end of the occupation? From the Rogers Plan of the 1970s to the current road map, every American attempt to stop the occupation - attempts that were never resolute enough - has encountered Israeli resistance. No one here has ever entertained the notion of acceding to such pressure for Israeli interests - certainly not Ariel Sharon.
The government, any Israeli government, harbors no greater fear than that the American giant will force us to end the occupation. So we are willing even to remove three blockades, withdraw from a city or two, even release a few hundred prisoners - only to gain more occupation time. In the meantime, a new tender can be issued for the construction of 22 homes in the settlement of Neveh Dekalim, in the heart of the Gaza Strip, build another scandalous settlers-only road in the southern Mount Hebron area, observe the constant increase in the population of the settlements - 5,145 new settlers since the beginning of this year - and hope for the best.
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