Checkpoint country

Checkpoints stop many terror attacks. But they also up their likelihood.

checkpoint 298 (photo credit: AP)
checkpoint 298
(photo credit: AP)
West Bank checkpoints and encirclements stop many terror attacks. Five explosives belts and 87 bombs were found there in the first six months of the year alone. But they also increase motivation for terror, and go a long way toward preventing the emergence of an economy and quality of life that would reduce the number of potential terrorists We drove up to the IDF checkpoint at Beit Furik, a Palestinian village near Nablus, and saw a white commercial van sitting off to the side. In the back seat was Ramzi, a Palestinian in his 20s. He said he'd been driving home to his nearby village and mistakenly turned onto a "Jewish road" - a road built for settlers that only Israelis are allowed to use - and been flagged down by the soldiers at the checkpoint. "I've been waiting here for three hours," he said, seemingly unperturbed, as if he's not new to this. "I gave them my identity card, my magnetic card [the coveted security clearance a Palestinian needs to enter Israel, and which allows him to pass through West Bank checkpoints with relative ease]. Let them check everything, my record's clean." This was about three weeks ago. It was getting near sundown and we were driving around the West Bank with a few women from Machsom Watch, the women's anti-occupation group that monitors IDF behavior at the checkpoints. I went up to the soldiers and told them what Ramzi had said. "Mistake?" replied one of them cynically. "Don't believe him, he knew what he was doing." Beit Furik is one of the strictest checkpoints in the West Bank. Only villagers with proof of residency are allowed to pass through and enter. This policy, says Machsom Watch veteran Naomi Kalo, has kept doctors who have clinics in the village from going to work, veterinarians from tending to the villagers' herds and even mourners from attending the villagers' funerals. I asked the soldiers why this was so. "Because more than 30 terror attacks came out of there," replied one of them. As for the reason behind the adjacent "Jewish road" where they stopped Ramzi, the soldiers pointed out that a 10-kg. bomb had been discovered on the road a couple of weeks ago. One of the soldiers made no bones about detaining Ramzi not for fear that he was a terrorist, but simply to teach him a lesson about driving on Israeli-only roads. "Now he understands not to do it again," he said. Out of earshot, Kalo predicted the soldiers would hold Ramzi and his van at the checkpoint until they closed it down for the night at 9 p.m., three hours away, and then they would let him go. "Officially, the IDF isn't allowed to detain people purely for the sake of punishment, but of course they do it all the time," she said. The checkpoints have come to symbolize Israeli rule over the 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank. According to Machsom Watch, there are 47 checkpoints, as well as another 455 mounds of dirt, rocks or concrete that block nearly all routes leading out of the villages to prevent, or at least try to prevent, people from driving out without first passing through a checkpoint. (The IDF will not give the official number of these installations. In general, the IDF official authorized to be interviewed offered very little information beyond a laconic recitation of Israeli policy.) The checkpoints and "encirclements" make it extremely difficult for Palestinians to move - to go to work, keep appointments, run errands or visit friends and family who live out of town. The line at checkpoints outside major West Bank cities commonly lasts hours. These friction points are also notorious for the instances of brutality and humiliation visited by some soldiers on unarmed Palestinians. However, they also do what they're intended to do - stop terror attacks. In the first six months of this year, 199 terrorists' weapons - five explosive belts, 87 bombs, 92 guns and knives, and 15 grenades - were discovered by soldiers at checkpoints, according to the IDF. It is mainly because of the IDF's crackdown in the West Bank, along with the security barrier, that Israelis are no longer assailed by continual suicide bombings like they were during the height of the intifada in 2001-4. Until then, there were very few checkpoints and nothing at all encircling Palestinian cities and villages. This system has grown up with the intifada. "It has clearly shown results. There was a logic to the system at the beginning, and to some extent there still is," said Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ilan Paz, who spent the intifada first as commander in Ramallah, then as head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, before retiring from the army a little over two years ago. However, those 199 weapons intercepted in the first half of this year came from literally millions of checkpoint crossings. Over 99 percent of the people whose lives are hamstrung by the checkpoints are unarmed civilians, not terrorists. Paz said he has no problem with the Green Line checkpoints that Palestinians have to pass through before entering Israel; he likens them to border crossings in any other country. Yet he also believes that Israel should "gradually, carefully" take down a great majority of the checkpoints in the interior of the West Bank, the ones that regulate Palestinian movements outside of Israel proper. "After seven years in which people are not able to move freely in and out of their hometowns, after so much distress has built up, so much humiliation, depression and hopelessness, not only are these interior checkpoints inhumane, but they also create an atmosphere that can actually cause terror, not prevent it," he said. THE ARMY has statistics on how many deadly weapons have been confiscated at the checkpoints, but there are no statistics, of course, on how many Palestinians became terrorists or terrorists-in-the-making because of their daily ordeals at them. Nor are there any statistics on how many terrorists might have chosen a different path if they hadn't been forced to live under the checkpoint regime. "By restricting people's basic mobility, the checkpoints have a decisive effect on preventing the Palestinian economy from raising its head," said Paz. A few hours before we arrived at the crowded Hawara checkpoint at the southern entrance to Nablus, an unarmed man who had been waiting there in line had to be taken to the hospital. No Machsom Watch women witnessed the incident, but they said the IDF told them he had jumped the long, nearly-motionless queue and run through the crowded parking lot, where he was accidentally run over by one of the many taxis waiting for fares. However, Palestinians at the checkpoint told the Machsom Watch women a totally different story - that after the man jumped the queue, soldiers chased him into the parking lot, caught him and beat him with their rifles. "The one thing we know for sure is that the man jumped the queue," Kalo said sarcastically. At every one of the 10 or so checkpoints we visited in two days, the crowds waiting in line to be waved through appeared docile, cowed and above all anxious over whether or not the soldiers would allow them to pass. A few times, angry disputes broke out between people jostling for a place in line, and the soldiers would order them to quiet down. Among the many hundreds of people we saw at the checkpoints, only one openly voiced his frustration at the soldiers. "There's no reason to punish everybody like this," said a man in his 20s while waiting to come through the turnstile and present his ID card to the soldiers. He spoke in English; since 2001, he'd been living in the West, and was now on a visit home to his nearby village. A young woman soldier felt obliged to respond: "Do you know that we caught a boy trying to come through here with a bomb?" The young man wasn't impressed. "Even animals in a pen aren't treated this way. You can't treat people like this," he said, assertively but in control of himself. Losing control of oneself tends to be self-defeating at Hawara checkpoint. A soldier checking his bag found a Che Guevara key chain inside. "Oh, he's a great guy," the woman soldier said sarcastically. "Yeah, he's my hero, he's a freedom fighter," the Palestinian shot back, growing bolder, possibly because a group of Machsom Watch women and journalists were watching this little confrontation. After he got through the line, he told us he'd been waiting there for two hours, adding that he'd never seen people's freedom so strictly curtailed by the IDF as it was now. He attributed his reaction to his years abroad. "After you've lived in a civilized country, you're not ready for this, you get used to a different way of thinking," he suggested. Noa Perelman, who's been with Machsom Watch for five years, seemed impressed by the man's outspokenness. "You never see Palestinians get angry like that," she said. "Sometimes we ask ourselves how they can take it like they do." The IDF's stance on the checkpoints is that conditions are easing up, that "humanitarian lanes" have been set up to ensure that pregnant women, the aged and the sick don't have to wait for hours to pass, and that any improper behavior by soldiers is investigated and, when necessary, punished. "It's clear that you can't relate to the Palestinians at the checkpoints as if they're all terrorists, but the statistics show that you can't just blindly wave any of them through, either," said an IDF officer. "The policy is to let the Palestinians live as normal a life as possible." TO THIS END, the IDF has manned the checkpoints with more military police, who, unlike infantrymen, are thoroughly trained to deal with civilians, the officer added. As a result, Palestinian complaints over their treatment at the checkpoints are decreasing, he said, as are "irregular" incidents of IDF abusiveness. The army, however, provided no statistics to verify this. The officer declined to offer an opinion on whether any of the checkpoints could be taken down without undue risk to security, saying such a move was up to the government. I asked him if he saw any downside to the system. "None that I can see at the checkpoints I'm involved in." he replied. And when I asked if the road policy dividing Israeli drivers from Palestinian drivers was giving greater security, he said: "The fact is that there are fewer terror attacks in Israel now." Paz, who now meets frequently with Palestinian officials to seek solutions to the conflict, is absolutely opposed to the separate roads policy, to the point that he sees nothing inaccurate or unfair in the common reference to them as "apartheid roads." "In this context," he said, "the word 'apartheid' and the word 'separate' are synonyms. Building different roads for different populations, even just for what that symbolizes, is something Israel cannot permit itself to do." But his objections aren't only moral, they're also practical. "These roads don't provide security, just the opposite," he said, maintaining that nighttime attacks on settler cars are easier now that terrorists don't have to worry about accidentally hitting a Palestinian car. "Israel is building more and more of these separate roads because people here think that if they don't see Palestinians driving next to them, they're safe. It's not true." Paz stressed that he's not saying the checkpoints have no security value. He even disputed the commonly-heard criticism that they protect only West Bank settlers and not Israelis inside the Green Line. "You need some security depth to fight terror; you can't expect to stop it all with checkpoints on the Green Line," he pointed out. What he opposes, rather, is the near-blind faith in the checkpoints and other collective military measures as the solution to terror. This attitude fails to recognize that while the checkpoints and encirclements do stop many terror attacks, they also increase motivation for terror, and go a long way toward preventing the emergence of an economy and quality of life that would reduce the number of potential terrorists. "For a long time there's been a lack of balance in Israel's approach to the West Bank," he said. And although Paz's approach has fallen from favor since the intifada began, he insisted that most experienced security officials share his view, yet are reluctant to speak out for fear of antagonizing their superiors, military and political. And while Paz agreed that the checkpoints have contributed to the sharp downturn in terror during recent years, he dismissed the common claim that whenever Israel tried removing them, the result was an upsurge in terror. "First of all, hardly any checkpoints have actually been removed," he said, official announcements notwithstanding. "And even if you can point to a rise in terror following the removal of one or two checkpoints, it's a little demagogic to claim that that was the only reason. There are many reasons behind the rise and fall of terror." Asked what security measures could take the place of the interior checkpoints, or at least of the large majority of them, he suggested that in the short run, the security fence could be completed, security at the settlements could be enhanced and more use could be made of moveable, temporary checkpoints to surprise terrorists. "The more a stationary checkpoint becomes permanent, the more terrorists learn to work around it and the less security value it has," he maintained. For the longer run, Paz said the only solution is to turn West Bank security over to the Palestinian police. DRIVING THROUGH the West Bank, we saw mounds of dirt and debris blocking the entrances to several villages. A Machsom Watch volunteer pointed to the mound cutting off the single road leading to a hilltop village. "The only way those residents can return home now is by donkey," she said. At one point we saw a Palestinian taxi driving bumpily through fields, looking for an impromptu route out of a village so he wouldn't have to wait in line at a checkpoint. At a checkpoint near Tulkarm, soldiers waved on most of the cars leaving the city with no more than a glance at the driver and passengers. "If we know who they are, we don't check the cars," said a soldier, "because they're not going into Israel, and they're not driving on roads for Israelis." At another checkpoint near Tulkarm, we saw a young man was standing off to the side. He told us he lived in a nearby village, and that a couple of days ago he'd snaked his way through the fields and hills, away from the checkpoints, across the Green Line and into the Israeli Arab town of Tira to look for construction work. He said he had no permit to enter Israel, but he risks it because there's so little work in the West Bank. This time the young man had found no work in Tira, so he crossed back over the Green Line and was wending his way back home when the soldiers at this checkpoint caught him. It was an old story, he said, and he didn't seem upset at all. "Every week, every two weeks, I go into Israel to find construction work. If the border police or the 'blue' police catch me over there, they beat me, and then they make me sign a paper saying I wasn't beaten and tell me to go back home. If I don't sign the paper, they beat me some more. But if I'm caught over here by the Israeli soldiers, all they do is hold me for a couple of hours and release me." At the main checkpoint outside Tulkarm, which lies on the road to Nablus, soldiers were letting Palestinian cars out of the city with no more than a look and a word to the driver. I asked one soldier what was the purpose of this checkpoint, since the Palestinians driving through obviously could have smuggled out loads of explosives. "Look, you can't stop all the smuggling, agreed?" replied the soldier, a jaunty young man no more than 20, blowing cigarette smoke. I asked what he understood the goal, or mission, to be at the checkpoint. "To defend the [settlement] residents, to defend the roads," he replied. Showing us the bullet holes in one of the concrete blocks shielding the checkpoint, he explained they'd been put there a few weeks earlier by a Palestinian man who'd been sitting in line in his car before jumping out and shooting at the soldiers. "By a miracle, the shooter hit the concrete block," he said, adding that the soldiers on duty shot the gunman dead. Yifat Doron, a Machsom Watch woman accompanying us, said she had been in the vicinity that day and heard the same account from Palestinian witnesses. I asked the young soldier how it was to deal with long lines of Palestinians every day for months on end. "Some of them are the worst, some are okay," he answered. What sort of problems do you have with them? "They jump the queue, they yell, they complain, sometimes they fight." How do you respond? "We send them to the back of the line, we pull them out of line and make them stand off on the side. There are ways to handle them, it's not a problem." During our two days at the checkpoints, the soldiers we saw seemed to want to get their monotonous, unpleasant job over with as simply and quickly as possible. We saw no soldier raise a hand or verbally abuse anyone. However, this might have had something to do with the presence of the women from Machsom Watch. "They serve a very important function; they clearly have a moderating influence on the soldiers they monitor," said Paz. At one checkpoint we overheard a soldier telling another over the walkie-talkie that a contingent from Machsom Watch had arrived. ALL THE VETERAN volunteers have their war stories to tell. Noa Perelman said that on her very first shift about five years ago, a soldier at Beit Iba checkpoint north of Nablus "began talking to this Palestinian waiting in line, and suddenly he started beating him on the head. The man ran and the soldier took aim and shot him in the arm." The soldier, who served six months in prison for the shooting, was known to Machsom Watch for being unusually agitated and hostile toward Palestinians. "We warned the IDF about him, but they didn't do anything until it was too late," said Naomi Kalo, who's been with the organization nearly since its beginning in 2001. She told of a soldier at a Jordan Valley checkpoint "who was a true sadist. He would urinate on the shoes of women. It took us many months of complaining to the IDF before he was taken off checkpoint duty." Susan Lourenco, who's been with Machsom Watch for three years, and Yifat Doron, who joined a year-and-a-half ago, each said they'd never witnessed any physical violence by soldiers. But they also said they see non-violent abusiveness as a matter of course. "You'll see a Palestinian handing a soldier his ID card, and the soldier will deliberately drop it on the ground and the man will have to pick it up and hand it to him again before he's allowed to go through," said Lourenco. "You see soldiers ridiculing the Palestinians, making fun of them with little remarks and little guessing games," said Doron. The most common mistreatment, they said, is to send people back to the end of the line to wait additional hours as punishment for "answering back." "I've challenged soldiers about this and they tell me, 'What's the difference, they're just Arabs,'" said Lourenco. I asked if this was rare or common. "We've heard it plenty of times," said Doron. The last we saw of Ramzi, the driver detained at Beit Furik checkpoint after being caught on a "Jewish" road, he'd been sitting there for three hours. Another three hours were left before the checkpoint closed for the night at 9 p.m. I called Kalo, who'd predicted that the soldiers would release Ramzi at closing time, and asked what had happened to him. "I was right," she said without a hint of surprise. "I called him about 9:15, and he said he'd just gotten home." Six hours detention for driving home from work on the wrong segregated road. A good way to improve treatment of people at the checkpoints, or so many observers believe, would be to staff them with reserve soldiers, who are older, wiser and no longer need to prove their toughness and "manhood" like 19-year-old recruits often do. "For young recruits, orders are like holy writ, they won't dare bend them," said Kalo. "The reserve soldiers tend to be more flexible." But not always. "There was one reserve unit that was going into a village and terrorizing it every night," she recalled. "We told the brigade commander about it and he said, 'I know, I can't wait till these guys finish their duty.' The soldiers' behavior depends a lot more on the attitude of their commander, or on the natural leader among them, than it does on the policy handed down by the General Staff." Paz tends to agree. And, in contradiction to the IDF source, he insists the phenomenon of soldiers mistreating people at the checkpoints "has not diminished." However, he doesn't blame the soldiers so much as he does the situation. "You've got 19- and 20-year-old boys there who are afraid, who are under pressure, who are going without enough sleep. They don't know who the suicide bomber might be - it's no longer just the young, male religious fanatic, now it could be a grandmother or a child," he said. "You put these soldiers up against long lines of Palestinians whose impatience and frustration have been growing for seven years, and some soldiers are going to do terrible things. It's inevitable. There are ways of reducing these incidents, but the only way to end them for good is to get the soldiers out of there."