The West Bank checkpoints: The last lines of defense

The ‘Post’ tours the West Bank checkpoints that are meant to keep terrorists out, while causing a minimum of disruption to the fabric of life of Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers check cars at a checkpoint near the West Bank City of Jericho (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers check cars at a checkpoint near the West Bank City of Jericho
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is midday on a sunny January afternoon and a jeep driven by Lt.-Col. Gil Mamon, Military Police’s Erez (Cedar) Battalion commander, pulls up at Beitunya checkpoint, a few kilometers west of Ramallah.
On a steep and rocky hill overlooking the checkpoint, several masked Palestinian youths from local residential apartment buildings gather. Soon, they begin hurling rocks down at two Border Police jeeps that monitor them.
There is a reason for Mamon’s presence at the scene of the disturbance.
His battalion is in charge of running 15 checkpoints and passages that dot the West Bank, and this is one of them.
Mamon took The Jerusalem Post on a tour of several of the flash points, which have seen a steep rise in violence, and continue to filter out armed terrorists bent on murderous attacks from among peaceful Palestinians seeking to earn another day’s wages to feed their families.
“I tell the soldiers, ‘You are the last line. The next time a terrorist can surface after encountering you is in Tel Aviv,’” Mamon says.
“Of the thousands of peaceful Palestinians who cross through, we have to find the few who have come to murder Israelis,” he explains. “I tell the soldiers that they are protecting their homes and families; we drive home that message all the time.”
Mamon and his battalion work in a tough environment, and are never far from trouble. It is vital, he stresses, that his soldiers stay clear of perceptions that demonize all Palestinians; to that end, he makes his battalion study aspects of Palestinian society, to ensure the soldiers guarding the checkpoint and making decisions on who can pass do not begin viewing all Palestinians as terrorists.
Nearby, at the notorious Kalandiya checkpoint, routine large-scale disturbances break out; the position has come under armed attack in recent months.
These challenges will not deter the battalion from staffing the checkpoints, Mamon states. “We face a range of weapons used against us – firebombings, rock throwing and fireworks fired directly at us, like little rockets.” Kalandiya has also, for the first time, come under live fire from gunmen in surrounding neighborhoods.
“We can absorb fire in our bulletproof booths; the soldiers can identify the sources of fire and shoot back. But in some cases, when shots come from built-up areas, it is hard to identify the source of fire,” the battalion commander states.
“Until now, gunmen have fired in the air.”
“We have identified an increase in the quantity of weapons we intercept at the checkpoints, both firearms and cold weapons [such as knives],” adds Mamon. In 2014, more than 12 terrorists who were on the way to carry out attacks were apprehended by soldiers at the checkpoints, including four attackers caught in the last two months alone.
The Erez battalion’s checkpoints spread out from Route 443/Ofer Prison to Maccabim. They include the Hizma checkpoint, just outside of Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood, as well as positions in Shuafat, east of Jerusalem, and Zeitim, where an attacker who stabbed shoppers at the Rami Levi supermarket in early December was turned away before going on the spree.
The attacker was stopped at the checkpoint – although soldiers did not apprehend him, and he turned back – because he was not authorized to pass from the “red zone” (Palestinian territories beyond the security barrier) to the “blue zone,” Mamon explains.
Other checkpoints run by the battalion, situated deep within the West Bank, include Kedar, which is on the border between Judea and Samaria, Rahel and Betar, as well as the Tunnels checkpoint that protects Gush Etzion.
The battalion’s 600 personnel are comprised of 40 percent women, who are both soldiers and officers, and are fully integrated into every mission, Mamon says. “Two-thirds of the company commanders are women. There is no difference; they have the same missions.” Women serve for two years and men for three years in this frontline role.
In his office at a Military Police base near Pisgat Ze’ev, Mamon delves into the intricacies of checkpoint security controls.
His battalion monitors two types of Palestinian traffic, pedestrian and vehicular. Palestinians on foot who hold Palestinian Authority identification cards must meet a number of set criteria before they can cross into Israel proper; vehicles with yellow Israeli license plates can cross after passing security.
“Our challenge lies in balancing out the security needs, and the desire to cause minimal disruption to the fabric of life of Palestinians,” the officer says.
Conjuring a scale, he adds,”If one side is tipped too far to security, there would be a line of thousands of vehicles stretching back. Checks would be 100 percent secure, but there would be severe harm to the fabric of life.
On the other side of the spectrum, Palestinians would have full freedom of movement, but terrorists and deadly weapons would move into Israel with ease.”
“We always have to balance between the needs. To create security, and cause as little disruption to Palestinians; most of them come to work, and want quiet. There is a handful of extremists,” he maintains.
The battalion’s key role is to differentiate between the malevolent and the hostile.
To assist his soldiers in that task, Mamon trains them to observe a series of signs that give away hostile intent.
Close cooperation with other security bodies – namely the Defense Ministry, Israel Police and the sister Teoz checkpoint battalion – is also key, he argues.
“Operationally, this requires a full training program. We know that the next incident will meet us. As IDF Chief of Staff [Lt.-Gen.] Benny Gantz once said, ‘We know who the enemy is, we know what weapons it has, we know where the attack will happen. We just do not know when it will happen.’ So we must be prepared and on-alert all the time. We also seek to improve our training, and ensure the soldiers have set responses to all possible incidents.”
In this high-risk job, training is aimed at getting the battalion’s soldiers to make the right decision in microseconds. They must identify an attacker in time, and note if he or she has the means and the intentions to harm them, before responding accordingly – which in some cases means opening fire.
“The process takes time. Sometimes, they can’t always prepare a firearm response in time, so they also study krav maga handto- hand combat techniques,” Mamon says.
Over the past year, Mamon has been busy setting up what he describes as a “common language” with other security forces, to avoid wasting precious time. The code he came up with ensures that soldiers do not interpret orders and updates in different ways.
Additionally, Mamon notes, a graded chart is used to determine the level of scrutiny at the checkpoints. According to this chart, level one means vehicles should be checked in accordance with the number of warning signs detected by the soldier. Level two means “stop every vehicle at the checkpoint, question driver,” the commander says. “Level three means every driver shows ID, and level four that a terrorist is on the way; it is the highest level of checks, including close inspection of the car’s trunk and goods onboard.”
Trouble-prone checkpoints like Kalandiya are always at levels two or three.
Mamon does not expect the security situation to improve any time soon, and sees his checkpoints as the foremost buffer zone.
“Greater Jerusalem has never recovered from the summer’s unrest. The murder of [Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, for which three Israeli youths are on trial] placed all of Jerusalem into the cycle of violence. The IDF cannot be in every place in Judea and Samaria. When a lone terrorist wakes up, the first place he encounters a military presence and sign of Israeli sovereignty is the checkpoint,” he says.
“We have seen a significant increase in rioting and attacks directed at us… We quickly built an infrastructure to deal with the spike in vehicular attacks.”
Outside of base, at Kalandiya checkpoint, soldiers wearing ceramic vests weighing 10 kilograms spend eight hours standing and checking Palestinian traffic.
Maj. Irit Ma’ayan is company commander at Kalandiya checkpoint, and a mother of two. “This place has a history,” she says warily. “Three explosives were thrown here recently, and we were shot at a month ago.” Gesturing to a blacked-out watchtower, Ma’ayan says, “That is not its natural color; it is the result of burning tires.”
“This place is open 24/7. At the end of the day, we run into incidents without end.”
“When schools close in the afternoon in Beitunya, youths gather for riots, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails. Some of them wear gas masks against tear gas,” Ma’ayan, who has been a company commander for five months, recounts.
“Yesterday, we seized a knife, a knuckleduster and a slingshot. On the other hand, we do not want to create a traffic jam from here to Ramallah,” she says thoughtfully.
Mamon sums up the battalion’s role as he sees it, stating that ultimately, “It is about winning, and remaining human.”