IDF removes key Nablus roadblock

Barak gives order ahead of Blair meeting. Officials: Roadblock may return if attacks launched from city.

checkpoint 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
checkpoint 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
As part of Israeli efforts to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the IDF lifted a central West Bank roadblock outside Nablus on Monday. The roadblock, called "Checkpoint 804," was one of a series of roadblocks that were part of the Israeli closure on Nablus, a Palestinian city that has been closed off from the rest of the West Bank for the past year. Nablus, defense officials said, was a hotbed of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror activity and if attacks were launched from within the city, the military would consider reestablishing the roadblock. The decision to lift the roadblock was made by Defense Minister Ehud Barak ahead of his meeting Monday afternoon with Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, who arrived in Israel Sunday and leaves on Tuesday. The IDF said the removal of the roadblock would allow Palestinian residents of the area to travel freely between Nablus and outlying villages. "It will ease travel restrictions on tens of thousands of residents of Judea and Samaria," a military statement said. The IDF also said that the checkpoint was lifted following security consultations in the army's Central Command and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). The United Nations, which monitors movement and access in the Palestinian territories, welcomed the move, which meant that a gate outside of Nablus that had been locked since October was opened at 2:30 p.m. The gate, which allowed some 35,000 Palestinians from the city's surrounding area access to vital services in Nablus - including hospitals, commercial centers and jobs - had been opened daily until August 2007, said Allegra Pacheco, who is the deputy head of United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. From August until October, the gate was opened only for ambulances and to allow passage of other humanitarian services, said Pacheco. After that, it was closed altogether, thereby forcing the population to travel an additional 22 kilometers to enter Nablus. On Monday afternoon, for the first time in months, the Palestinians could travel freely between their villages and Nablus without any inspections by the IDF, she said. A spokesperson for Blair's office told The Jerusalem Post that the envoy had spoken with Barak about access issues and other measures to help the Palestinian economy, but had not specifically requested that the checkpoint be opened. The spokesperson said that the office was glad the checkpoint had been removed. The measure comes prior to a visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the start of May and a visit by US President George Bush later in the month. Last month, following a meeting with Rice and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, Barak announced a list of goodwill gestures towards the Palestinians. Since the meeting, the IDF has said that it removed 60 dirt roadblocks from the West Bank and special travel documents had been issued to Palestinian businessmen. But Pacheco said that the actual number of roadblocks the IDF claimed to have removed was 61. Her office, she said, inspected the coordinates provided by the IDF and found that 44 of the 61 had in fact been taken down. Sources in the UN said the UN had a list of some 580 "significant" roadblocks, which it compiled as of February based on criteria set with the IDF. Many of these involve obstacles placed on the road that block Palestinian travel between their villages or to their fields. According to UN sources, 51 of the 61 roadblocks the IDF claimed to have removed were not on the UN's list of 580 significant roadblocks. Out of the 10 on the joint IDF-UN list, only five had been removed, the sources said. There was evidence that 39 roadblocks not on the UN's list had been in fact removed, the sources said. But their absence from the list means that they are very minor. A new UN road block report is due out in the next few days.