According to B’Tselem, in October 2010, there were 99 fixed checkpoints in the West Bank. Sixty-two are internal checkpoints, which are situated well within the West Bank. These checkpoints include 18 in Area H2 in Hebron, where Israeli settlement enclaves are found. Thirty-six of the internal checkpoints are regularly staffed.
In addition to permanent and partial checkpoints, the movement of Palestinians along West Bank roads is controlled by checkpoints deployed on an ad hoc basis in places without pre-existing infrastructure, also known as ‘flying; checkpoints.
According to a paper released by the World Bank recently on ‘Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank’, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territories (OCHA) reported that the number of physical impediments in the West Bank had increased by 44% to 540 in the year from the Agreement on Movement and Access in November 2005. As of March 2007, that number had once again increased to 546.
Under the Agreement on Movement and Access, Israel is to ‘facilitate the movement of people and goods within the West Bank and minimize disruption to Palestinian lives’. This is Israel’s duty as the occupying force. However, these checkpoints still exist as excessive, cumbersome and thorough as ever before, making life incredibly difficult for West Bank residents.
What are they?
These ‘physical impediments’ have been in operation since Israel’s victory over the combined Arab forces in 1967. The checkpoints allegedly protect Israel, however, they are not just stationed on the border of Israel and the West Bank but most of them operate and are dispersed throughout the West Bank, isolating Palestinians from each other, separating communities and making the entry into towns and cities within the West Bank almost inaccessible.
According to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on checkpoints, the total number of closure obstacles in June 2010 was 505, down from 626 on March 2009. (19 percent decrease)
However, they also reported that there was ‘no significant improvement in the access of Palestinians to areas behind the barrier, including East Jerusalem. Access to East Jerusalem for Palestinians holding West Bank IDs, who obtained an entry permit, remained limited to three of the 16 checkpoints along the barrier. Restricted access to East Jerusalem has had a particularly negative impact on patients and medical staff trying to reach the six specialized Palestinian hospitals located in the city.’
‘Additionally, the Israeli authorities have intensified the enforcement of access restrictions to areas designated as ‘firing zones’ and ‘nature reserves’ which cover approximately 26 percent of the West Bank. Measures adopted in this context targeted primarily vulnerable herder communities who reside in such areas or who use them to graze their livestock.
B’Tselem reported that, in addition to permanent checkpoints, the army erects hundreds of surprise flying checkpoints along West Bank roads. The number of these has appreciably grown recently: from April 2009 to March 2010, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) counted a monthly average of 310 flying checkpoints. From September 2008 to March 2009, the monthly average was 65.
The checkpoints (hawajez) are not all permanent military stations armed with Israeli soldiers at the helm. Out of the 528 recorded checkpoints in September 2006, 83 were manned by armed Israeli personnel while 445 were simple road blocks preventing travel, consisting of metal fencing, earth mounds or concrete barricades. There are also ‘flying checkpoints’, which are temporary barriers erected at the discretion of the Israeli commanding officers.
The World Bank report estimates that ‘Palestinians are restricted from some 41 sections of roads in the West Bank covering an approximate distance of 700 km’.
According to B'Tselem, as of May 2008, the Israeli army operates 62 permanent checkpoints inside the West Bank. Permanent checkpoints form the most severe restriction on movement of Palestinians, who are subjected to checks that often cause prolonged delays.
According to OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) 2.4 million people in the West Bank are affected by physical impediments. From September 4, 2007 through April 29, 2008 there has been an increase in the number of closure obstacles from 566 to 607. In Bethlehem, Hebron, Qalqilia, Salfit, Tubas, Tulkarm, there was an increase of 7%-21% in the number of obstacles since the last reporting time period. In Jenin, Jerusalem, and Ramallah, there was an increase of 6% to 12%.
April 2008, Israel announced that 61 obstacles were removed, but only 44 were actually confirmed (6 were still in place, 11 were not found at the location). 44 of 61 announced as having been removed had little or no impact on movement of Palestinian people in the West Bank.
In March 2008, the Israeli army announced the removal of At Tayba partial checkpoint; however, only a part was removed and the checkpoint itself functions as usual.
Nablus has been the most negatively affected area by physical impediments in the northern West Bank. Delays of up to 90 minutes were registered at rush hours at checkpoints in this area. All Palestinian vehicles need special permission from Israeli authorities to pass through these checkpoints.
For three days in September 2007 and for 25 days in February 2008, the Israeli army prohibited male and female residents aged 16- to 35 from Jenin, Tubas, Nablus and Tulkarm from crossing staffed checkpoints.
In September 2007, two checkpoints that allow access to Qalqiliya (the DCO and Isbat Jal'ud) were turned into full checkpoints which check all the vehicles that attempt to cross. All Palestinians with Jerusalem ID cards can enter the city only by foot and trucks that are transporting goods into the city must perform the "back –to-back" trucking procedure.
When Palestinians travel to and from work, they must take into account the time it takes to pass through the checkpoints. Reuters journalist, Mohammed Assadi, states that a 60 mile journey from Jenin, in the northern West Bank, to Ramallah, can now take up to five hours as he must pass through at least four checkpoints.
Driving through checkpoints without an Israeli license plate can prove a risky gamble as it may take an extensive amount of time for the ID’s and searches to be completed, normally resulting in vast queues. Therefore most Palestinians choose to take a bus to the checkpoint, walk through and then catch another bus on the other side.
As checkpoints have become a somewhat unavoidable and regular thread in the fabric of Palestinian society, they provide Palestinian vendors with a position where they can guarantee their goods will be exposed to a high concentration of potential Palestinian consumers. Thousands of Palestinian commuters are forced to make their way through checkpoints everyday which thus opens a fresh market place for these vendors. Everything from fruits, vegetables, shoes, toys, drinks and even song birds are sold at these market stalls.
The pedestrian part of the checkpoint is sheltered from the sun to offer some relief to the Palestinian commuter and this is welcomed as it is uncertain how long a commuter may wait. Palestinians wait in line until they see a green light, which gives them permission to pass through the revolving metal cage forward to the metal detector. Once they pass through the metal detector, they must answer some questions and present their specific ID (Jordanian, West Bank, Jerusalemite, Israeli work permit or passport [for foreigners]). If someone is considered as not having the sufficient documents for their travel requirements, they are escorted back out of the checkpoint by an Israeli soldier.
At an important strategically placed checkpoint, such as Qalandia, dividing Ramallah from East Jerusalem, there will be up to 26 Israeli soldiers on duty. Twenty are soldiers who monitor and control the checkpoint while the other six are conscripts.
The quarter of a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank do not have to pass through the checkpoints. They are given access to bypass roads, only available to them, which connect West Bank settlements to Israel.
Incidents at the Checkpoints
The checkpoints scattered all over the West Bank affect Palestinians and their way of life in many different ways. The economy is suffering, education is in a dangerous state of decline and families are divided, but these problems are superseded momentarily by the overwhelming complaints over the major injustices at the checkpoints, namely the violation of human rights.
- Human Rights Watch reports that in September 2000, three Palestinian laborers required hospitalization after being beaten by Israeli soldiers, according to Ha’aretz. In response to the event, the Israeli soldier commented, ‘what we did was nothing special…everyone does it.’
- A Palestinian father was cuffed and beaten at the Hawara checkpoint near Nablus by an Israeli soldier as his son clung onto his father’s clothes. A blanket was then placed over the head of the father so that his cries could not be heard. The Israeli sergeant reportedly stated that because he was beaten ‘everybody learns and nobody fools with us’.
- Before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, a female Israeli soldier forced a Palestinian to drink a bottle of cleaning fluid at gunpoint.
- According to the International Middle East Media Centre there are instances of strip searches being performed on women as well as young girls.
- B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, has reported that just since the breakout of the Aqsa Intifada in 2000, 38 people have died as a result of being stopped or delayed at checkpoints while they were on their way to hospital.
- Palestine Monitor details that there have been 116 deaths in total as a result of people needing medical care being delayed or prevented from continuing at checkpoints. 31 of these deaths resulted from stillbirths.
- The same report describes how 19 women and 29 newborn babies died at checkpoints between September 2000 and December 2002.
This sort of inhumane treatment of the occupied population is a complete antithesis to how an occupying power should act regarding the manner in dealing with occupied peoples.
- Article II 1979 UN Code of Conduct for law enforcement officers stresses that they ‘respect and protect human dignity, maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons’.
- Article 55 of the IV Geneva Convention – ‘Ensuring the food and medical supplies of the occupied population’.
Effects on Palestinian economic and social infrastructure
The checkpoints have also had an adverse effect on the economy, education, family relations and the general health of people surrounded by checkpoints.
According to OCHA, between March 2009 and June 2010 Israeli military removed 80 roadblocks that impeded vehicular access for limited numbers of farmers to agricultural land in Area C. ‘However no improvement was observed regarding access to much larger agricultural areas in the Jordan Valley.’
The Palestine Monitor reported that soldiers at checkpoints consistently stop ambulances and patients. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society has reported 112 deaths and 35 stillbirths as a result of preventing medical personnel and patients from crossing checkpoints. The World Health Organization deplores “the incidents involving lack of respect and protection for Palestinian ambulances and medical personnel (…) as well as the restrictions on movement imposed on them by Israel, the occupying power, in violation of international humanitarian law”.
Due to “high level security warnings” from Israeli intelligence sources, certain checkpoints are immediately closed. B’Tselem reported that in 2006, there was 78 days in which checkpoints were closed. Some 150,000 workers within the Occupied Territories were unable to go to work as a result of these closures. Also because of closures and intensified security checks, trucks importing and exporting goods to and from the Occupied Territories are limited and thoroughly checked. Permits for all private, public and commercial vehicles need separate permits, whether or not the driver is also granted a permit. In addition, frequent reports by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics reinforce the evidence of the lapse and deterioration of the Palestinian economy. The report focuses on owners and managers within the Occupied Territories and analyzes as well as evaluates employee productivity, the acquisition of resources and problems with transportation of goods. All areas of the report show increasingly downward trends.
The checkpoints do not only add time taken for children to get to school but they also deter children from going to school indefinitely. Palestine Monitor reports that children are victim to insults, beatings and cursing by the Israeli soldiers. As a result of this intimidation more and more children are dropping out of school or postponing their education.
These physical impediments also act as rather effective tools for prohibiting family members from seeing each other. There is no travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If an individual has a West Bank ID, that individual will not be allowed into Jerusalem and consequently, Israel. Israeli soldiers also reserve the right to refuse entry to individuals who they believe do not have the proper documentation to pass into certain cities in the West Bank. At some checkpoints in the West Bank, one must be over a certain age to pass through.
Checkpoints serve to make sure this elaborate system of entry and reentry is implemented with the utmost reliability and efficiency.
Palestine Monitor reports that since the emergence of checkpoints and their well know difficulty in passing to attain medical care, Palestinians now on average receive fewer check ups, vaccinations and pre-natal classes with 14% of expectant mothers preferring home births (up from 8.2%) rather than risking harm to themselves or their baby by attempting to pass through a checkpoint which can lead to either still births or death. Now only 82.4% compared with 95.6% before attend post-natal care.
These highly elaborate and invasive mediums for controlling the travel habits of Palestinians, distributed in their hundreds throughout the West Bank, obviously have their costs. The efficiency of these imposing obstructions comes at a price, however, but as the Israelis believe the checkpoints to be integral for the security of their state, they are willing to spare no expense in making them operate even more reliably and at an even higher all-encompassing level. Israel is more preoccupied with spending time, money and resources defending their quarter of a million settlers in the West Bank and their soldiers guarding these checkpoints than they are in gradually evacuating them and working towards a viable two state solution. Despite rhetorical promises in the press, they are consolidating their position further rather than initiating movements of withdrawal.
President Bush evidently believes his statement that, ‘Israel has a right to defend itself’ because he endorses them greatly. The US currently includes Israel on their balance sheet and allocates them with around $3 billion dollars per annum in grants and loans. Israel, just more than a year ago, asked for a further $450 million (roughly double of what the US has promised the PA to help improve their infrastructure, security services and for humanitarian aid combined). This money is to ‘improve’ the effectiveness of the checkpoints by paying to install hi tech x-ray scanners and special explosion detection devices. The Israeli based Peace Now organization has pleaded for American money only to be used to install high tech systems at stations on the Green Line as supplying these systems across the separation barrier would violate US policy that ‘opposes spending US tax dollars in support of Israeli settlement activity and the perpetuation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank’.
Controversially, earlier this year, the World Bank was contemplating helping fund the modernization of checkpoints for Israel. Although the World Bank cannot aid Israel due to the latter’s high capita income, it is deliberating getting involved to make the checkpoints more efficient so that more Palestinians get to work and thus improve the economy.
There has even been word circulating that supports an initiative to urge the Palestinians to pay for the upkeep of the checkpoints from their own funds, as it is allegedly being completed for their benefit.
International and Human Rights Law of Occupation
Article 33 of the IV Geneva Convention states that,
‘An occupying government may not use collective punishment or intimidation against the occupied population’.
Under Human rights law the occupying government must ensure freedom of movement, an adequate standard of living and as normal a life for the population as possible.
Under International law the occupation of Palestine is illegal, as is the establishment of settlements in the occupied territory.
In complete contrast to this, Human Rights Watch in 2005 stated that checkpoints displayed ‘a system of collective punishment, also in direct violation of Israel’s obligation as an occupying power, to provide welfare for the population it controls’.
Palestine Monitor views the checkpoint system as a tool to ‘judaize and entrench Israel’s illegal occupation’ as well as to humiliate the Palestinians with the checkpoints acting as a constant reminder of the occupation.
Israeli justification for the checkpoints
The Israeli army spokesperson's office informed B'Tselem that the prohibitions on Palestinian travel are based on “verbal orders” given to soldiers. This mode of operation adds a dimension of uncertainty and makes it difficult to critique the policy and test its validity in court.
The OCHA report said that currently, ‘the protection of Israeli settlements and of Israelis travelling along West Bank roads is the main justification given by the Israeli military for maintaining some of the key obstacles and restrictions impeding movement between Palestinian urban centers. One of the frequent arguments cited in this regard is that the blocked roads leading to Palestinian towns in the vicinity of settlements may serve, if opened for Palestinian use, as quick “escape routes” for perpetrators of attacks against these settlements, or against Israelis travelling along the adjacent roads.’
- World Bank paper on ‘Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank’, May 2007
- International Crisis Group
- Human Rights Watch
- Relief Watch
- Peace Now
- Palestinian Bureau of Statistics
- Palestine Monitor
- IPCRI (Israeli / Palestine Center for Research and Information)