RAMALLAH, West Bank—Fadi Shawneh is a fugitive in his own land. Like thousands of men between the ages of 15 and 30, Shawneh is barred by Israeli restrictions from traveling far from his northern West Bank home in Jenin.
But the taxi driver, 23, has a huge car loan to pay off. So every night he sets out to shuttle Palestinians across closed Israeli military zones, skirting checkpoints and outrunning soldiers on an arduous seven-hour journey from Jenin to Ramallah that should take 90 minutes.
"Every day when I leave my house I'm not sure if I'll return," Shawneh said as he showed the latest drive's dents and scrapes running along the side of his new yellow taxi.
The obstacles that Shawneh faces every day aren't just inconvenient. A complex network of Israeli checkpoints and restrictions, some of which have been put in place in the past few weeks, has severely crippled life in the West Bank, Palestinians and U.N. officials complain.
Commerce has been all but halted in some parts of the West Bank, and acres of fruits and vegetables have spoiled because they can't be moved to market. U.N. officials say restrictions on travel in and out of the Jordan River Valley, along the border with Jordan, have forced farmers to let crops rot in the field.
"The Jordan Valley right now is disastrous," said David Shearer, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem. "It's practically locked down. What you're seeing on the ground is essentially the stopping of almost all Palestinian movement."
The valley is off-limits to all but the 50,000 Palestinians who live there and those with special permits, which generally require that they be gone before dark. Even those who live there must steer clear of nearly half of the valley land, by U.N. estimates, because Israel has declared that area a closed military zone to control any infiltration from Jordan.
Palestinian movement is also tightly restricted elsewhere. Thousands of Palestinians living in the northern West Bank, like Shawneh, are barred from moving any farther south than Nablus, a restriction imposed last month in the wake of a suicide bombing that killed nine people in Tel Aviv.
About 30,000 Palestinians live in political limbo on the western side of Israel's separation barrier in an area that the Jewish nation hopes to absorb. Many of those are cut off from land they had farmed, Palestinian and U.N. officials said.
To Israeli officials, the obstacles may be challenging for West Bank residents, but they help prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from sneaking in the country and protect Israel from other attacks.
"The purpose of these restrictions is to defend the citizens of Israel from Palestinian terrorists," the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
But more than that, there's a growing sense that the security measures could serve as a template for how new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to execute his well-publicized plan to withdraw from isolated Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. Olmert would then officially annex into Israel the remaining settlements around Jerusalem and along the 1967 Israeli-West Bank border.
Olmert has left the door open for renewed talks with the Palestinians aimed at settling the decades-old conflict. But that seems unlikely with the Islamist militant group Hamas now dominating the Palestinian government and refusing to accept Israel's right to exist.
Sandwiched between Israel and Jordan, more than 2.4 million West Bank Palestinians live in an area not much bigger than Delaware, which, for comparison, is home to about 800,000 people.
But getting from one place to another is often a daunting, if not impossible, task.
Israel has banned Palestinian travel on a number of West Bank roads and closely controls access to many others through a system of about 60 military checkpoints. There are 400 other rudimentary barriers such as gates, dirt mounds and trenches that essentially close off roads.
At many checkpoints, drivers with green and white Palestinian plates often wait for hours while Jewish settlers with yellow Israeli plates easily zip past. Israel also is creating a network of separate roads and tunnels that would allow Israelis to travel in the area without facing the same restrictions that Palestinians face.
For the past two months, Israel also has banned Palestinians from entering the country from the West Bank, something they'd been allowed to do previously with permits. Israel is turning the 11 checkpoints that Palestinians were allowed to use into permanent border crossing stations.
Israeli officials say they have little choice.
The "cynical use of the civilian Palestinian population by terror organizations has forced Israel's security forces to rethink and modify passage methods," the Israeli military said in a statement.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-WESTBANK
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060511 WESTBANK map
Need to map