'Karni is acid test of Abbas abilities'

Ex-defense adviser says Israel can ease W. Bank restrictions with less risk.

karni crossing 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
karni crossing 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel can do more to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank without taking disproportionate security risks, Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Baruch Spiegel, former adviser to the defense minister, told The Jerusalem Post in his first interview since leaving his position last month. Spiegel also said Israel is hoping that US efforts to help Abu Mazen successfully take control of the operation of the Karni border crossing, including protecting it from attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, will be the first step toward turning the Palestinian Authority president into a viable leader. For two and a half years, ending on November 30, Spiegel served as adviser to defense ministers Shaul Mofaz and Amir Peretz on humanitarian and quality of life issues relating to the Palestinian civilian population in the West Bank and Gaza. His official title was "special adviser to the minister of defense in matters pertaining to the fabric of life." He was also the Defense Ministry's liaison with the US on issues pertaining to the Road Map, including prime minister Ariel Sharon's promise to dismantle 26 illegal outposts. Among the various projects he worked on, Spiegel prepared a master plan for reducing the number of military checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank. Earlier this week, the government approved the first stage of the plan, which calls for the removal of 27 roadblocks. There are two additional stages which, if implemented, could eventually reduce the number of roadblocks and checkpoints from the current 379 to about 100, said Spiegel. The next stage calls for removing roadblocks around Nablus, which he described as "a source of terrorism and an extremely dangerous city." Since Nablus is centrally located, the roadblocks seriously affect civilian traffic in a wide perimeter around the city. If the security problems in the city are resolved, many of the road obstacles can be removed, he said. The third stage will take place when the security barrier is completed and the army will be able to remove roadblocks in the southern area of the West Bank. But Spiegel stressed that for the time being, Israel cannot do much to alleviate the problems of Palestinian mobility. "As long as the barrier is incomplete, we cannot remove many roadblocks," he said. "Ultimately, only when the barrier is completed and a solution is found for the movement of the settlers can we ease up. Everyone must understand that one of the reasons there are no terror attacks these days is that they are under pressure inside [the West Bank.] It isn't just by chance that there are no terror attacks today." Regarding the Karni crossing, Spiegel said that resolution of the problems there is critical for improving the life of the Palestinian population in Gaza. It is the only crossing where goods can be imported and exported by truck and is therefore the lifeline to Gaza. In the past, Israeli authorities have closed it frequently because it has been the target of terrorists out to destroy any form of coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians. But Spiegel also regards Karni as a test case for the forces of Abu Mazen. Not only must the Palestinian Authority president overcome the terrorist threat to the crossing, but he must also prove that he can run a highly complicated system efficiently. Karni, in other words, could be a prototype for running Palestine. "Abu Mazen needs a lot of support," said Spiegel. "If he gets that support and if there is a constructive process where we can see that he is really succeeding in one project, we can move forward step by step. If we see that he is succeeding and there begins a process of training the presidential guard and there is discipline and a chain of command and they will do what they need to do to control the situation and there is a mechanism that works, it will be extremely important for how things develop in the future." Spiegel added that Israel is waiting to see how Abu Mazen handles the Karni project, which is being coordinated by Lt.-Gen. Keith W. Dayton, Washington's security coordinator to the Palestinians, with two aims in mind. One is to see whether he is capable of governing the West Bank and Gaza. The other is to see whether he can defeat Hamas and other terrorist organizations. A key element in the plans to protect Karni is to introduce a strong force loyal to Abu Mazen, including the presidential guard and the Bader Brigade, currently located in Jordan. If a potent force is developed, it will later be able to prevent the Kassam attacks on Israel and the arms smuggling across the Philadelphi border separating Egyptian and Palestinian Rafiah. Spiegel added that Israel and the US are in agreement on this strategy and that the US keeps Israel well informed of its plans in this regard. On another matter, Spiegel said plans were in place to evacuate the 26 illegal outposts in the West Bank that former prime minister Ariel Sharon had promised the Americans. During the past two and a half years, a team headed by Spiegel prepared an up-to-date, computerized data base clearly spelling out the status of each outpost and each structure on the outpost. All that was needed was a government decision to give the order. "It's a political question now," he said.