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Last update - 01:49 October 12, 2003

A prison that keeps getting smaller

By Gideon Levy

Last Wednesday, Hoda Shadub, a woman of about 50, wanted to go home after having eye surgery at an East Jerusalem hospital. She waited for hours at the Hawara checkpoint, which blocks access to her city, Nablus, but the soldiers refused to let her through. According to the new orders, they said, only ambulances could pass. The Physicians for Human Rights association had to intervene to get an ambulance for Shadub, who finally got home - exhausted and embittered.

No one can seriously claim that security reasons are behind the decision to keep an ailing Palestinian woman from getting home. Nor can anyone find a connection between a murderous terrorist attack in Haifa and the return of an innocent resident to her hometown.

Last week, following the suicide bombing at the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa, the Israel Defense Forces again imposed harsh new restrictions on movement in the territories. In the West Bank, the ban on the use of Palestinian cars was expanded, and farmers were forbidden to work their fields across the separation barrier. The Gaza Strip was sliced into four sections, in the course of which several roads south of Gaza City were destroyed, according to a report on the weekend by the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Not one suicide bombing in Israel has originated in the Gaza Strip, but that makes no difference when Israel decides to impose collective punishments on the Palestinians.

Whenever the Palestinians start to think the worst is behind them, they get a rude jolt from reality. Since 1991, when the first closure was imposed on the territories, their prison has been getting smaller. The imprisonment of the Palestinian people, which has been ongoing for more than a decade, is perpetrated with varying degrees of severity, not all of which have been related to security for Israelis. Even the few "relaxations of the closure" that were occasionally declared in the media did not meet the test of reality in the field. When Israel finally declared a "goodwill gesture" -- opening a road to traffic -- tanks deployed on the road and prevented anyone from getting through, as occurred, for example, a few months ago on the Jenin-Yabad road or on the Tancher road in the Gaza Strip.

From the moment the decision was made to imprison the Palestinian people, the only changes have been in the size of the prison and the prison cells. They are continually becoming smaller and narrower: from the big prison of the occupied territories, to the solitary confinement cell, in which residents are not allowed to leave their towns or villages, sometimes even their homes, and even rooms within the home when the IDF seizes control of it. At first, they were all allowed to enter Israel, apart from those on a list who were denied access. In short order, the situation was reversed: everyone was denied access, apart from those on a list who were allowed in. The latter number was constantly reduced, and, in parallel, Israel began systematically to narrow the detention cells that were alloted to the Palestinians.

First, the Gaza Strip was cut off from the West Bank, and East Jerusalem from the rest of the Palestinian territories. Then, with the eruption of the current intifada, Israel added the siege to the closure: in order to get from town to town, a special permit - which was difficult to obtain - was needed, and the living area was made smaller and smaller. The measures utilized were also aggravated and their cruelty intensified: from manned roadblocks - where it was still perhaps possible to rely on the humanity of the soldiers to allow women in labor or dying people to pass - to locked iron gates, earth ramparts, trenches and concrete blocks that make passage totally impossible. These means have now been bolstered by the separation barrier, which severs farmers from their land, students from their schools and workers from their place of employment. It was obvious from the outset that the gates in the separation fence, which initially were open, would quickly be closed after every attack or warning of an attack. And that is exactly what happened last week.

Security considerations can no longer be cited as an excuse for this array of edicts and decrees. It has long since been shown that the mass imprisonment, far from preventing terrorism, only encourages it. The IDF prevented the terminally ill father of the woman who blew herself up in the Haifa restaurant from entering Israel for medical treatment, as MK Ahmed Tibi (Hadash) related last week. (Tibi was involved in the attempt to get him the entry permit.) A few days after Tibi's secretary informed the family that, for security reasons, the father would not be able to get to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for treatment, his daughter carried out the suicide bombing. It's hard to understand what went through the mind of the woman, whose brother and cousin were killed by the IDF, but isn't it possible that if her father had been taken for medical treatment in Israel, the monstrous deed she committed might have been avoided?

Nor can anyone seriously claim that preventing passage from Beit Fouriq to Nablus, preventing the olive harvest at Jeyus or preventing the harvest in the hothouses at Zeita, or building gigantic earth ramparts at Azoun last week, after the residents destroyed the lock on their cage/village, have anything to do with security.

This week, while the Jewish people celebrate Sukkot in trips throughout Israel and trips abroad, it's worth remembering that living alongside us is a nation in a narrow prison, which is constantly closing in on them, almost to the limits of human endurance.