Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat – At a time when there is talk of an ‘ease’ in the situation in the West Bank (population 2.5 million) as a result of Israel breaking down three barriers and 50 roadblocks [unmanned earth mounds and other types of barricades], the Palestinian Authority (PA) is skeptical of what has been labeled an achievement. This development followed Condoleezza Rice’s most recent visit to the region, however most Palestinians regard it as “a small opening in a large prison”.
Those who are aware of the reality of the Israeli occupation over this stretch of Palestinian land would know that it is a huge prison; in fact, it the biggest prison in history. And if the residents of the West Bank have tolerated this and not exploded in anger over these conditions then it is only because they regard the crisis of the siege in Gaza to be graver than their situation.
The West Bank is effectively a large Israeli prison that is not only surrounded by the Israeli West Bank barrier and a number of Israeli settlements, but also has scores of military checkpoints spread throughout the areas. These checkpoints are the vehicle through which Israel defines the features of the Palestinian state and controls the lives of its residents.
It is customary to see Palestinians standing in long queues in front of the main barriers that block the city’s chief entrances. No one crossing these checkpoints as part of their daily routine can confirm their safe return – they could get arrested or possibly even killed. Many Palestinians have been killed at these barriers under various pretexts.
Israel controls its grip of the land by using fixed barricades and others that are mobile and appear randomly without warning. Some take on the form of iron gates while others are cement blocks and unmanned earth mounds. No Palestinian living in the West Bank is spared this suffering at the barriers; everyone without exception has been subjected to it time and again.
According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, up until 2007, the occupation army had imposed approximately 600 barriers in the West Bank; 99 fixed military checkpoints of which 63 are located in the central West Bank area and between its cities and towns; 36 barriers between the West bank and Israel and 486 smaller barriers to obstruct the entry routes in towns, in addition to 87 gates stretched over the expanse of the wall [Israeli West Bank barrier]. Moreover, some of these blockades have been privatized, according to B’Tselem, and they are backed by private security companies.
On a daily basis, scores of Palestinians cross from one checkpoint to the other so that it has become part of their culture. They use the term ‘mahsoum’, the Hebrew word for barrier, dozens of times a day. Most barricades necessitate an identity card and some of them entail searching cars and interrogating the passengers as to the purpose of their trips. In checkpoints where IDs are required, the pedestrians or passengers could end up waiting for hours on end if the officers seek to verify the presented information.
Such procedures mean that travelers from Jenin (north) to Ramallah (central) for example, could take a full day to reach their final destination when in fact the distance may be traversed in an hour and a half without obstructions.
Raed Abu Bakr, a journalist who commutes between Ramallah and Jenin frequently said that it was as though he was travelling between two countries, calling the Israeli procedures “ridiculous”. “These are state borders not checkpoints,” he said.
Some of these blockades, such as the Zaatara barrier that separates between the northern and central region of the West Bank, has police-trained dogs to search cars. Those trying to cross are forced to wait for long stretches of time whilst the searches and interrogation procedures are completed. There are cases of people dying, women going into labor and their newly born infants dying as people are forced to wait by the barriers. Furthermore, tens of thousands have lost money because they have been delayed getting to work.
However, luck plays a big role in determining the fate of Palestinians at checkpoints; some have disclosed to Asharq Al-Awsat that they would much rather confront Israeli army personnel than the Israeli border police. They maintain that despite the army officers’ vicious brutality, they are still less severe than the border police.
Abu Bakr said, “We read the Quran and invoke God when we find out that the Israeli border police are manning the checkpoints. They are ruthless.” Others added that mood plays a significant part in the outcome of their fate.
Abu Bakr leaves his house extra early in the mornings to ensure that he crosses before the shift changes. “I leave Jenin at dawn before they change shifts,” he revealed, “at dawn the guards are usually tired and bored of working whereas if I wait until after the morning shift at 6am, the guards are fresh and eager to work, which means it would take me hours to get through.”
And yet notwithstanding all the tricks that Abu Bakr resorts to, he still has to go through checkpoints aside from the one in Zaatara, such as the one in Einab, which is also known to be harsh. This, of course, is apart from the mobile checkpoints that appear without warning and which no one can predict when, where or how they are set up.
According to B’Tselem reports, some of the checkpoints sometimes have signs warning certain age groups from crossing every once in a while, such as under 35 year olds for example.
Residents of the West Bank disclosed to Asharq Al-Awsat that it is compulsory to present a special ID to get past the checkpoint that separates between Bartaa and Jenin and only Bartaa town residents can cross it. Recently, the residents of Bartaa were surprised to learn that they were not allowed to transport fruits and vegetables.
However the most notorious checkpoint in Nablus, Hawara, according to Reema, a local resident, is “extremely difficult”. Those trying to get through cross on foot since cars are not allowed in unless they have special permits, which in turn are limited and difficult to obtain. By the checkpoint in Hawara, there are two paths; one for women and the elderly and another for the male youth who line up in four queues sometimes and have to endure waiting many hours. But Reema, a young woman, also reveals that women are subjected to strict and exhausting searches just like the men, while the cars are left to the trained police dogs.
The road from Nablus to Ramallah takes approximately 45 minutes, however the Hawara crossing means that the journey takes three hours. One hundred meters past the crossing, Palestinians are confronted by another barrier. According to Reema; if one of the crossings is difficult to get past then the other checkpoint is likely to be as well. Often times Israel imposes a curfew that bans everyone, without exceptions, from accessing a certain area – even pedestrians. Israel cites security reasons.
Moreover, Israel has closed off various roads that lead to the main roads using checkpoints, cement blocks, earth mounds, iron gates and water canals. These barriers vary in number and type in accordance with the political and security situation.
Today, Israel’s latest announcement to remove 50 barriers from the West Bank is not deemed a new development for the Palestinians. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent a letter to the US ambassador to Tel Aviv Richard H. Jones and to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stating that the Rimonim checkpoint had been dismantled and that other developments would be implemented in the coming few days. Among the developments underway are granting permits for the passage of hundreds of Palestinian merchants, in addition to high-ranking officials, following coordination with Fayyad’s government.
Meanwhile, at a press conference in Ramallah and following a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “There are no new developments on the ground. Israel’s announcement is for propaganda and for the media’s benefit.”
Various Palestinian politicians uphold that Israel’s announcement is all lies and that the number of checkpoints has increased since the Annapolis Conference. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is calling for the elimination of these barriers to facilitate the movement of the Palestinian people.
Meanwhile, Barak refuses to remove the barriers and said in reference to these checkpoints that “they have demonstrated their efficiency in curbing Palestinian terrorist operations against Israel,” moreover calling upon Palestinians to “crush the terrorism that is labeled resistance.”
According to a study that was conducted last year in the circles of Israeli army personnel and border police who had manned the checkpoints in the West Bank; one in four Israeli guards had abused a Palestinian at a checkpoint. The study ranged over 1,000 soldiers after they had obtained guarantees of anonymity and confidential status. The study also reveals that 25 percent of those surveyed had participated in, witnessed, or reported torture practices.
This study took place following an incident in which a Palestinian taxi driver was subjected to severe harassment in the town of al Zaheria near Hebron. The guards stopped the car, blindfolded the taxi driver, tied his arms together and sat on either side of him. They were dressed in Arab clothes and the other guards dispersed so that they would not be spotted by the residents. After driving around the town for a while they drove out of al Zaheria at which point they were approached by a Palestinian youth whom they shot, gravely wounded and left bleeding on the road.
B’Tselem has issued reports that reveal that Israeli guards who have tortured or abused Palestinian citizens have not been punished for their crimes, which are considered to be part of the reality of the occupation. The report also revealed that the Palestinians are reluctant to issue complaints to the PA since they believe that this would be fruitless and are concerned that it could subject them to further abuse by the occupation forces.