Ex-Israeli Generals Denounce Checkpoints
By LAURIE COPANS
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 13, 2008; 9:55 AM
JERUSALEM -- A group of retired Israeli generals has launched a campaign urging the army to remove West Bank roadblocks, warning on Wednesday that the travel restrictions sow Palestinian hatred of Israel and stymie the peace process.
The 12 top former commanders say the hundreds of checkpoints dotting the West Bank are excessive and other military means can be used to prevent suicide bombings in Israel.
The Palestinians have long demanded that Israel remove the roadblocks as a way to build faith in recently renewed peace talks.
The generals have written a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak in an effort to persuade him to gradually remove the checkpoints, which severely restrict movement of the some 2 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and have crippled their economy. Israel maintains the checkpoints are vital for its security.
"You have to understand that there is damage in having the Palestinian people with its back to the wall, not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, unable to improve their economy, unable to move from place to place," Ilan Paz, a signatory of the letter and a former head of the army's administration of Palestinian civilian affairs, told Israel Radio. " This creates a reality that creates terror, and we have to remember that."
Barak, currently on a visit to Turkey, was not immediately available for comment, and the Israeli army declined to comment.
The retired commanders hope to persuade defense officials to make a gesture to the Palestinians and thus give Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a free hand in peace talks, said Shlomo Brom, another signatory and a former chief of the army's planning division.
The removal of the checkpoints is a key issue in the U.S-backed negotiations now under way between the sides, who have said they aim to reach a final peace agreement this year. The talks were renewed after a high-profile peace meeting in November in Annapolis, Md., sponsored by President Bush.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians are seeking an independent state in those territories.
"The feeling of humiliation and the hate the roadblocks create increase the tendency of Palestinians to join militant groups and Hamas," Brom said. "I think that this can help the peace process. Of course the goal is to help the ... plans of Olmert in striving for a peace agreement."
As an alternative, Brom suggested using mobile army forces to set up temporary checkpoints when they receive concrete information of militant activity.
"We believe these alternatives are no worse than the movement restrictions" in preventing terror attacks, said Paz.
Brom noted that the current measures, which include impassable dirt barriers and permanent checkpoints where Palestinians can only pass after showing permits to soldiers, are not entirely effective.
He added that Israel should quickly complete construction of its separation barrier with the West Bank, which has proven effective in keeping out suicide bombers. The planned 490-mile barrier, a complex of concrete walls and electronic fence, is two-thirds complete.
The removal of checkpoints also would bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel's partner in peace talks, in facing the militant Hamas and preventing its takeover of the West Bank, Brom said.
Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in fighting with Abbas-allied forces in June.
West Bank checkpoints didn't prevent a suicide bombing in the southern town of Dimona last week, Brom noted. One woman was killed and 11 wounded in the attack, in which two bombers sneaked from the West Bank city of Hebron through a section of the barrier that is not yet completed.
The 12 former generals who signed the letter include retired chiefs of army branches that oversee the civil affairs of Palestinians in occupied areas and the former commander of the Hebron area. Other signatories include a former police commissioner and two former directors of Israel's Foreign Ministry.
As part of the ongoing peace talks, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni may meet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week during a trip to the United States this week, officials said.
The talks have been marred by ongoing Palestinian rocket fire from Hamas- controlled Gaza and by disputes over Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed but which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
On Wednesday, the Palestinians' top negotiator sharply protested an Israeli plan announced Tuesday to build more than 1,000 new apartments in Jewish neighborhoods in the city's eastern sector.
Ahmed Qureia called the plan a "declaration of war on the peace process," and said it aimed "at sabotaging and paralyzing any efforts for real work toward real peace in the area."
© 2008 The Associated Press
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