Checkpoints spell end of the road for Nablus

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The Independent Online

Nablus, West Bank

"If we do not control the roads, it would be the realisation of a Palestinian nightmare," says Dr Khalil Shakaki, a leading Palestinian political scientist. Pointing to the three main choke points on the roads leading into Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, where he lives, he says: "If the Israelis have the right to set up checkpoints here, then they have the ability to suffocate us."

Israeli troops are to withdraw from Nablus and three other cities in the northern West Bank under the terms of a deal being negotiated yesterday by Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, and the Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman, Yasser Arafat. But among the 120,000 Palestinians who live in Nablus there are serious doubts about the benefits to them of the next stage of self-rule.

What if Israeli soldiers, who will only withdraw to the outskirts of the town, decide to check the papers of everybody entering or leaving Nablus? Professor Hisham Awartani, an economist at an-Najah university, says: "All they have to do is to ask every worker on a bus leaving Nablus to get off and produce his papers to delay it an hour."

On the busy two-lane highway linking the city to the north, this would bring all traffic to halt. Professor Awartani says that if Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm and Qalqilya all become closely supervised cantons, then their economies will be crippled. The precedents are not good. Gaza and Jericho suffered because they were cut off from the rest of the country by Israeli troops after gaining autonomy last year. The four small cities from which Israel is redeploying cannot afford to be cut off.

Dr Shikaki, who is director of the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, says it would be very dangerous for Mr Arafat to make concessions giving Israel control of communications. He suggests that the solution is joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols which provide security but do not threaten anybody: "Otherwise in terms of daily life ordinary Palestinians will face a worse situation than under Israeli occupation."

None of this is affecting Mr Arafat's popularity. Polls show 55 per cent of Palestinians will vote for him in an election. He has ridden out the frustrations of the last year by blaming all delays on Israel. He has also strengthened his position through his security services, establishing his own radio station and employing some 60,000 Palestinians in the army, health care system and education.

Palestinians fear thatIsrael is orchestrating the political fragmentation of the West Bank. Once Israeli concerns over security, settlers, and Jerusalem have been met, there may be little left for them. But if Nablus and the other Palestinian cities are isolated and impoverished, there will be a reaction. Professor Awartani says the biggest reason for optimism is that Israel and the US have too much invested in the peace talks to let them collapse because of one checkpoint too many.