Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Monday, 29 June 2009 12:29 UK

Working the West Bank checkpoints

Matthew Bell
BBC News, Jerusalem

ael Shyuri is a truck driver who lives in the West Bank
Wael Shyuri says without the checkpoints he could do three runs a day into Jerusalem

It is getting close to 0600 and the moon is still on the horizon.

Palestinian storefronts are still closed on the empty streets of Hebron.

But workers at the al-Junaidy Dairy Company are finishing the night shift, loading delivery trucks with milk, yogurt and cheese. At about 0615, truck driver Wael Shyuri climbs into one of the vehicles and rumbles out of the car park.

The five tonnes of dairy products he is hauling are to be sold in shops in and around Jerusalem.

Mr Shyuri says he makes this same delivery run between three and six times every week.

If he was allowed to drive straight from Hebron to Jerusalem, he says the 26 miles (45km) trip would only take about 45 minutes - and he could do two or three trips a day.

But it usually takes him two to three hours, he says, and occasionally much longer.

"It all depends on what happens at the checkpoints," he says.

Barrier to trade

All vehicles with green Palestinian licence plates are subject to strict rules of movement in the West Bank, enforced through a network of Israeli military checkpoints and roadblocks.

Israel, which has in the past suffered deadly suicide bombings launched from the West Bank, says they are necessary for security.

Men loading a truck in the West Bank
The World Bank calls the checkpoints a barrier to economic growth

The World Bank and many others in the international community have said they are not only an inconvenience for Palestinians, but a major brake on economic growth.

A few minutes into the drive, another driver calls Mr Shyuri to say he has been waiting 45 minutes at a checkpoint ahead.

It takes about an hour to reach the checkpoint and sure enough, a long line of vehicles is waiting.

But traffic creeps along steadily and in less than a half-hour, Mr Shyuri is allowed to pass unstopped.

Mr Shyuri is in his 50s and he has been a truck driver all his life.

He remembers the days before the second Palestinian intifada and the building of the West Bank barrier.

Back in the 1990s, he says he made truck deliveries all over Israel.

But now that much of the barrier is built, the World Bank says exporting into and through Israel has got harder for Palestinians in the West Bank.

'Collective punishment'

Israel says the barrier, too, is necessary to maintain security, pointing to a drop in Palestinian militant attacks as proof that it is working.

But like many Palestinians, Mr Shyuri sees the barrier and the checkpoints as a heavy-handed form of collective punishment.

"Ordinary people are suffering tremendously," he says.

There are some recent signs of change however.

In the month since President Barack Obama called on Israel to improve conditions for Palestinians in a keynote speech, the Israeli military has, it says, removed six "central" checkpoints in the West Bank.

Phillippe Lazzarini, the West Bank and Gaza head of the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, which monitors the West Bank closely, says the change will "help with freedom of movement", but it is far too early to say how the moves might affect the West Bank economy.

A view of the Israeli-built West Bank wall from the cab of a truck

Ordinary people are suffering tremendously
Wael Shyuri

The infrastructure for several of the checkpoints is still there. In the past, checkpoints that have been removed have later reappeared.

OCHA says the checkpoints are "just one layer" of a system of restricted access for Palestinians - including roads, military zones, Israeli settlements and nature reserves - that is becoming increasingly entrenched.

The Israeli military says there are hopeful signs already. "Things are changing on the ground," according to spokesman Peter Lerner.

"We're at the lowest number of manned checkpoints in 7 or 8 years," Mr Lerner says.

'Economic peace'

A new cinema in Nablus and shopping mall in Jenin, he says, are examples of the kind of economic activity that Israel wants to encourage in the West Bank.

The recent easing of restrictions has not altered Mr Shyuri's route.

At several points, the ultimate destination for his dairy products is tantalizingly close.

Jerusalem is in plain sight. And it would be just a few minutes drive away, were it not for the barrier - at several points on Mr Shyuri's route it's a concrete wall.

Israel requires all Palestinian commercial goods bound for Jerusalem to pass through a single entry point - the checkpoint at Beitunya to the north of the city.

Mr Shyuri finally arrives and parks. One by one, Palestinians walk through a metal gate and up to a guardhouse to show their paperwork.

Lorries queueing at an Israeli checkpoint
It can sometimes take hours for trucks to pass through Israeli checkpoints

Mr Shyuri returns from the guardhouse and waits. It is approaching lunch time and it is getting hot. He says this wait can take an hour or more.

He smiles when his name is called on a loudspeaker 15 minutes later, which means he can drive into the inspection area to have his cargo unloaded and inspected by guards and sniffer dogs.

The goods are then loaded into another truck waiting on the other side. Unlike Mr Shyuri and his vehicle, this truck and its driver are authorized to travel inside Israel.

Israel says the "back-to-back" transfer system is intended to allow stringent security checks, but the World Bank has criticised it as likely to slow trade.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long emphasised "economic peace" - boosting the stalled Palestinian economy - although Palestinians fear he sees it as an alternative to the sovereign statehood they want.

But it's practices such as this that Palestinians want to see changed.

About four hours after leaving company headquarters in Hebron, Mr Shyuri climbs back into his truck to begin the return trip.

"For me, it's an easy day," he says.

Map of the truck route

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