Colour codes guard roads to Jerusalem

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AT A check-point yesterday on the outskirts of Jerusalem, boys in sunglasses were carrying out their New Year task with a nice and easy rhythm as the cars and trucks from the West Bank backed up along the road to Ramallah. Policing the Green Line on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is an easy enough task for an Israeli border guard as long as he obeys the colour guide.

Green-, blue- and the occasional white-plated cars must all be flagged down. Green is for a West Bank taxi; blue is for a private West bank car and white is for vehicles from the Gaza Strip. One after another they are turned around with no more than a casual wave and a swing of a gun.

The yellow plates - indicating Jerusalem or Israeli registration - can be waved through, but only after passengers have been checked for pink or orange ID cards, revealing the give-away Gaza or West Bank identity. Offenders are turfed out on the spot.

Road-block humiliations on the Green Line, officially the line between Israel and the lands it seized in the 1967 war, have long been a tradition of Jewish holidays. In this way, Palestinian life is forced to answer to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar.

Palestinians in the occupied territories are barred from entering not only Israel proper, but also Palestinian East Jerusalem, which Israel has swept up behind its own 'green line' and unilaterally annexed. Thus West Bankers are cut off for three days from fellow Palestinians in their main centre.

This year, as Palestinians and Israelis are talking for the first time about autonomy, the closures have served as a brutal reminder of the real barriers that still stand between these communities. Diplomats may be talking about peace, but the checkpoints illustrate the depth of Israeli fear and distrust of their Palestinian neighbours. The queues of cars trying to pass through illustrate Palestinian dependency on the occupying power from which it seeks to be unshackled.

More than 90,000 Palestinians cross into Israel each day to work. And Palestinians from the West Bank pour in and out of East Jerusalem every day to do business, to shop, to worship, to go to hospitals or schools.

Of all the holidays, Rosh Hashanah, which lasts a full three days, always causes the most disruption. 'This is my business. I have to try and get through. How can I make any money?' asked Rahim Moussa, who had just been ordered to turn his taxi back to Ramallah and drop his passengers at the checkpoint. 'We are all Arabs, but I cannot get through to pick up my Arab brothers.'

Awad Mohammed Awad was trying to reach Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Because he had to pass through Jerusalem he, too, had been turned back. 'I can try a back route but I might be arrested,' he said.

And down the main street of East Jerusalem the money changers, loitering in the doorways, were complaining loudest of the slow business. West Bank Palestinians may earn their money in Israeli shekels but they like to save and do private business in Jordanian dinars or US dollars. 'When the borders close I lose 70 per cent of my business,' said one money- changer. 'They don't trust the shekel and they come here to change, but not today.'

In the context of peace negotiations, Israel does not like to use the term 'Green Line'. To do so might be to talk about borders and thereby to concede in some way on the question of sovereignty and land before these issues are negotiated.

When it comes to security, the Green Line - or Israel's drawing of it - suddenly becomes a useful term: a border to be patrolled. The checkpoints, therefore, are a means of guessing at Israel's view of the shape of a Palestinian entity. The New Year message is that this entity is certain to be severed from East Jerusalem.