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Israeli Checks Slow Gaza Traffic

May 17, 2002

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ABU HOULI CHECKPOINT, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Just after dark, the Palestinians waiting at this Israeli army checkpoint settled in for a night on the road, squatting on blankets spread on the pavement, sipping black tea or coffee and eating falafel and pickle sandwiches.

The scores of travelers who chose to spend the night in their cars or on the road _ rather than leave and try again the next day _ would wait nearly 12 hours before their journey could resume.

Though Palestinians are used to having to wait at checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the difficulties at Abu Houli are the worst. The checkpoint severs Gaza’s north-south road, a vital lifeline in the densely populated coastal strip wedged between Israel and Egypt.

The line, often two or three cars wide, sometimes stretches two miles on both sides of the checkpoint. Motorists who have to cross it say they have spent 24 hours or more completing journeys that would normally take no more than 45 minutes.

Located near a Jewish settlement 10 miles south of Gaza City and a short distance away from a road exclusively used by settlers and the Israeli army, Abu Houli is one of the notorious hardships endured by Gazans during nearly two years of Palestinian-Israeli violence.

``It’s psychological torture,″ said Moussa Salem Al-Jarf, a 62-year-old high school teacher from the town of Khan Younis. He said long delays at Abu Houli and his health had forced him to put off an appointment with his neurologist for two months.

His frustration was aggravated by the sight of Jewish settlers speeding down the nearby road they had shared until Israel forced Palestinians to use the checkpoint shortly after fighting began in September 2000.

``This sort of thing breeds more hatred of the Israelis,″ he said.

An Israeli army spokesman, Maj. Assaf Librati, said the nearby road was the only route linking several settlements and has been the target of dozens of Palestinian attacks. The army aimed at total separation between Palestinians and Israelis, he said.

In addition to stoking their anger at Israel, the delays feed Palestinian feelings that Yasser Arafat’s administration has failed to secure them a normal life.

Access through Abu Houli has become severely limited following recent attacks by Palestinian militants in the area. Lately, it has opened intermittently for about two hours a day.

This month, the United Nations said not even ``lifesaving transport of patients and medicines is possible″ when the checkpoint is closed.

Al-Jarf was in luck the day he decided to make it through Abu Houli. He left home at 5 a.m. and was at his doctor’s office, 13 miles away, four hours later. His wait on the way back was about the same.

Some entrepreneurs thrive on the wait, transforming the checkpoint into something like a small town. A half dozen roadside cafes have sprung up, offering sandwiches, canned food, soda and chocolate to those waiting.

Young people prowl the area hawking American cigarettes, newspapers, ice cream and cups of sweet black tea and bitter Arabic coffee.

``I gave up selling outside schools when I knew that things were good here,″ said Tawfeeq El-Imawy, 28, who sells a local version of ice cream called ``birada″ from a box on his bicycle. He makes about $9 a day, a small fortune in the depressed territory.

For long stretches of time, the stoplight controlled by Israeli soldiers inside a concrete booth is red, and life at the checkpoint comes to a standstill.

Some travelers sleep soundly on the pavement, their vehicles sheltering them from the sun. Others pass the time resting on rugs or straw mats and puffing on water pipes.

When it’s time for one of the five daily Muslim prayers, a group of men forms to pray in ``jama’a,″ or together, an Islamic ritual preferable to praying alone.

When the light turns green, dozens of engines roar to life, scores of men jump into the backs of trucks, and vehicles of all types aggressively jockey for space.

Drivers without passengers scream for people to join them: Following several suicide and bombing attacks, Israeli soldiers only allow cars with at least two passengers to go through Abu Houli. Motorists who ignore the rule are warned with a single shot in the air.

In early May, the line was surrounded by tanks and armored personnel carriers. Soldiers checked the identity papers of male drivers and motorists of fighting age and made them lift their shirts to make sure they were not wearing belts packed with explosives.

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