New barriers widen gulf on West Bank

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Fences, trenches and travel restrictions are growing across the occupied West Bank as Israel tightens its lock-down of the Palestinians.

Fences, trenches and travel restrictions are growing across the occupied West Bank as Israel tightens its lock-down of the Palestinians.

Palestinians and liberal Israeli critics of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, see this as further evidence that he has a covert long-term strategy of destroying the Oslo accords, establishing control over the bulk of the West Bank, and confining the Palestinians to unconnected, autonomous, urban pockets.

Israeli officials say that the measures are temporary and intended to stop Palestinians from infiltrating into Israeli areas to kill civilians. Regular attacks inside Israel have resumed, less than a month after Israel wound down the military offensive, Operation Defensive Shield.

Last week five Israelis were killed by two suicide bombings inside Israel – one by a 16-year-old. There were also three failed suicide bombings.

Anger among the Palestinians over Israel's long military blockade of their towns and cities grew still further this month after a change in travel rules for Palestinians, requiring them to obtain Israeli permits to move between the eight main West Bank towns. Exceptions are supposed to be made for people needing medical attention, but Palestinians argue that ill or pregnant people have repeatedly been turned away from Israeli army checkpoints, or even shot.

The issue rose to the fore yesterday. Palestinians said a new-born baby died in Bethlehem after the mother gave birth at an Israeli checkpoint where Israeli soldiers refused to let her pass "We arrived at the al-Khader checkpoint, but Israeli soldiers refused to let us pass even though they saw the situation," the mother, Fadia Najajra, 23, told Reuters. "I was crying and asking for them to let the car pass."

Mrs Najajra, from the village of Nahhalin, south-west of Bethlehem, said her husband had tried a different route, only to be stopped at another checkpoint near the town of Beit Jala at about 4 am. "We called a Palestinian ambulance. The soldiers surrounded the car and watched me give birth," she said. A doctor at the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem said that the baby died of a lung disorder, 40 minutes after admission.

The Israeli army denied obstructing the woman. A spokesman said an Israeli army jeep approached her vehicle when they saw it making a rendezvous with a Palestinian ambulance near Beit Jala. As she was being transferred to the ambulance, the woman fell, the spokesman said. It was allowed to travel unhindered to hospital in Bethlehem.

The incident occurred at one of several hundred Israeli checkpoints now operational in the West Bank. Israeli officials said yesterday that the travel permits were not new, but were "improvements" intended to ease the passage through these roadblocks.

Parts of Ramallah and the outskirts of Bethlehem are now surrounded by long stretches of razor wire. Some 50 miles of barriers are planned along the north-western edge of the West Bank.

Israel says it has no choice but to enclose the Palestinians in the name of security; Palestinians say that they are being collectively punished with measures that strengthen extremist elements and have not ended attacks.