GUSH KATIF, Gaza Strip -- The four-hour wait at an Israeli roadblock had left Wafa Ashur exhausted and enraged -- again.
In her arms, she held her 8-month-old daughter, Rawiya. Wedged between her and another passenger in the stifling taxi was her 5-year-old son, Saado, his eyes dulled with boredom and fatigue. And as far as the eye could see ahead and behind them were hundreds of other Palestinian mothers, fathers, children, workers and students, caught in what for thousands of Palestinians is a daily ritual. Roadblocks have become the most hated and ubiquitous symbol of Israel's military intrusion into Palestinian lives in the last 21 months. And no roadblock is more tortuous than the one here at Gush Katif, where the only north-south artery of the Gaza Strip intersects a road that connects a cluster of 15 Jewish settlements to pre-1967 Israel.
On this desolate and dusty stretch of roadway, Israel's stated policy of sparing Palestinian civilians in its fight against militants has broken down. Here, and at dozens of other roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the endless waits at checkpoints that the army says are vital security measures have created the sort of mass misery for Palestinians that successive Israeli governments tried for decades to avoid.
Exacting a heavy toll
In the last two years, Palestinians have repeatedly attacked civilian and military convoys traveling to and from Gush Katif, killing and wounding Jewish settlers and soldiers in suicide bombings and drive-by shootings.
In response to the attacks, the army has imposed what it acknowledges are draconian measures designed to separate the two peoples. They are steps that the army says it knows exact a heavy toll.
"This pressure we are putting on them is no good for us," said Brig. Gen. Zvi Fogel, chief of staff for the army's southern command. "When normal civilians are kept here for hours, they become angry and frustrated. We know that if the situation goes on like this for a few more months, the potential for suicide bombers will be much greater."
Fogel said he is trying to limit the hardships imposed on Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians as the army tries to protect the 8,000 Jewish settlers living in closely guarded communities scattered among them. But in a conflict where Palestinian teen-agers and even women are now carrying out suicide attacks on Israelis, anything resembling normality is becoming a fading memory for most of the people living here.
"It is purely harassment, to blackmail us," fumed Abdel Rahman Katrousi, an engineer with the Palestinian Authority who was stuck at the Gush Katif roadblock on the same day as Ashur. "They would love to make us surrender. This is a prelude to transfer."
He was referring to a concept once embraced only by the radical fringe of Israeli politics that is gaining popularity with the right wing as the fighting wears on and Israeli casualties mount. Under such a "transfer," large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be voluntarily or forcibly expelled to neighboring Arab states.
Palestinians say they believe it is not just out of security concerns that the Jewish state blocks their roads, barricades their towns and bans their workers from entering Israel. Many believe that the measures are meant to deny them the possibility of earning a living or leading a productive life and force them to emigrate.
Katrousi, who lives in Rafah, on Gaza's southern border, said he leaves his house at 8 a.m. every day for what used to be a half-hour commute to his office in Gaza City. These days, he said, he is lucky if he makes it to work by 11 a.m. Sometimes, he arrives as late as 1 p.m.
Making life impossible
Fogel vehemently denies that the army is trying to make life impossible for Palestinians. "The settlers of Gush Katif need the Palestinian workers, and the Palestinians need the settlements as places to work," he said.
It takes too long for cars and trucks to pass through the Gush Katif roadblock, Fogel acknowledged, but Palestinian civilians are suffering because "we have become much more suspicious of the population." On the day that Ashur and her children and several hundred other Palestinians ended up sleeping at the roadblock, he pointed out, soldiers had found weapons in some cars, wanted militants in others.
Over the protests of Palestinians and some settlers, the army is in the process of completing a $3-million east-west overpass that will allow the settlers of Gush Katif to drive on a bridge over the intersecting north-south artery on which the Palestinians drive.
The bridge is guarded by two reinforced concrete towers equipped with night-vision devices and other high-tech systems, Fogel said. Concrete blocks make it impossible to see who is driving on it.