Checkpoints: Suffocating Palestinian Society
The Occupied Territories is a small place. It does not take long to get from city to city. The trip from Jerusalem to Ramallah takes just 20 minutes by car. That is, it used to. Today, more than 160 Israeli military checkpoints chop up the roads between Palestinian cities, and it no longer takes 20 minutes to get from Jerusalem to Ramallah: Now it is an hour trip, or sometimes two or three. To get from Hebron to Ramallah – normally a less than two hour drive – takes a Palestinian six to ten hours.
Stopping at checkpoints has become a part of the daily routine for Palestinians going to work, visiting family, and even running errands or seeing a doctor. It has become commonplace, but it is not normal. Restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement violate a basic human right, and moreover they contravene the rules governing collective punishment, namely, as stated in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, that "No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed" and that "collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited."
The first checkpoint sprung up in the West Bank after the beginning of the first Intifada. Before that time, there were no restrictions on movement within the Occupied Territories or between them and Israel. By summer 2002, 120 checkpoints divided up the West Bank into 300 separate areas and the Gaza Strip into 3 areas, and today there are even more. In addition, mobile checkpoints often sprout up unannounced, imposing extra delays on Palestinian travelers.
Checkpoints are one of the on-the-ground facts of the Israeli military occupation that constantly reminds Palestinians what control means. It means restriction of movement of families, of workers, and of goods. It means all movement by Palestinians is not just interrupted but also monitored by the Israeli military. And it means, due to the vastness of the checkpoint infrastructure, that Israel maintains a heavy degree of control over all of the West Bank and Gaza.
In addition, Israeli military checkpoints are notorious for being the site of severe harassment, threats, and violence. Inhumane treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints begins with the herding of large amounts of people into tiny spaces, where they must wait, at times, for hours on end before passage, if they are lucky. It progresses to extreme harassment such as an instance two winters ago, when the Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah was closed. People of all ages were backed up, waiting to get through. Suddenly, a soldier announced that he would open the checkpoint for five minutes to let people run through. After five minutes exactly, he would shoot whoever was left. And the inhumane treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints ends tragically in death – the result for some 65 Palestinians, who have been shot or whose passage has been blocked despite their need for medical attention between September 2000 and the end of 2002.
Effects of Checkpoints
Violence at Checkpoints
Not uncommon at Israeli military checkpoints, harassment of Palestinian citizens includes detention, shackling, blindfolding, and stripping. Moreover, numerous examples of outright Israeli violence can be recounted. Many of these occur at the infamous Qalandia checkpoint. Well-known for its long lines and the harassment delivered on those waiting in them, Qalandia checkpoint has been the site of brute violence, including murder, by Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint. Not even children remain free from harm. On Friday, March 28, 2003, a group of children were throwing stones at a fence near the checkpoint, when a slew of Israeli soldiers approached them and started shooting. Regulated by the Open-Fire Regulations, Israeli forces are restricted in their use of rubber bullets and are completely prohibited from targeting children with them. But on this day, they shot rubber bullets at the children, one of which entered the skull of Omar Musa Matar, killing him on the spot.
In cases of serious illness, 90 percent of patients held up at checkpoints have died, according to a Red Crescent Society doctor. At least 43 people have died as a result of barred access to medical treatment since September 2000. At least 21 were children and 14 were babies less than one year old. In addition, between September 28, 2000 and November 21, 2002, 557 Red Crescent Society ambulances were barred from passing through Israeli military checkpoints. Moreover, as many as 255 ambulances were attacked between September 2000 and June 2003, 113 of which were damaged; 3 people were killed and 192 injured during these attacks.
The examples of death caused by delay are too numerous to recount, but descriptions of a few such incidents will exemplify the standard treatment of sick Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces. On October 14, 2002, a four-day-old baby girl named Rawan Harizat’s skin turned yellow and she started vomiting. The family doctor told them to rush her to the hospital, just 10 minutes away. Taking a significantly longer route to sidestep Israeli roadblocks and parking at a distance from the hospital to avoid a roving military checkpoint, the family did not reach the hospital until an hour later. By that time Rawan was dead. On June 18, 2002, when ‘Odeh Yaqub ‘Odeh Shahadeh, 57, felt chest pains and collapsed, he was rushed to Ramallah. But the vehicle was delayed at Surda checkpoint for 45 minutes. By the time he reached the hospital, he was pronounced dead. And On December 29, 2002 a Palestinian man named Hussein a-Tamimi, suffered a heart attack. He was immediately rushed to the hospital in Ramallah. But on arrival at the checkpoint, Israeli soldiers refused him entry from his village of a-Nabi Salah. In frustration, they left the checkpoint to try an alternate route. Approaching the Dolev settlement, they were threatened by settlers and soldiers. Hussein a-Tamimi died before he could reach help.
Too many times have pregnant women ready to deliver been prevented by Israeli soldiers from crossing the checkpoint and getting to medical facilities. This means that the women must give birth at the checkpoint. Needless to say, they face terrible conditions, often delivering in the back of cars. Since September 2000, at least 39 children have been born at checkpoints after their mothers were refused passage, and at least 5 were stillbirths. In addition, the psychological effect on pregnant women cannot be understated, because stories of traumatic experiences faced by pregnant women traversing checkpoints are well-known. It is common for pregnant women to have intense – and not unfounded – fears about harrowing checkpoint experiences.
In one week alone, two babies were born dead because of delays in reaching hospitals. On December 10, 2002, Adla Abdel Jaber As-Sayyefi, 37, went into labor. Expecting a breech birth, Adla also experienced early labor. The ambulance could not reach her village because of checkpoints and trenches, so they planned to meet at another checkpoint, to which she could walk. At the checkpoint, the ambulance waited on the other side, but they would never reach it because a tank blocked their path. The soldiers remained unsympathetic to the pleas for help from Adla’s family. Adla’s gave birth five minutes later, but the baby died. Had she reached the hospital, the baby would have undeniably lived.
Earlier in that week, on December 6, Munira Ahmed Kabaha, 30, from Tour Al-Gharbia near Jenin went into labor. Again, the ambulance could not reach her village because of the checkpoints. They arranged another meeting place, but when the family arrived, Israeli soldiers would not let the ambulance pass. By this time Munira started giving birth. Only then did the soldiers examine her and then finally let her through. It was too late, and the baby died when it reached the hospital.
Checkpoints have caused restrictions on travel for all Palestinians, but one particularly affected group is Palestinian youth, who face restrictions traveling to and from school or university. According to a recent report, almost three-quarters of schools reported that checkpoints were the number one problem facing students trying to reach school. In one instance, 80 students withdrew because of the problems caused by checkpoints. Among the difficulties faced by students passing checkpoints – beyond the inconvenience of the checkpoint itself – are: being shot at by rubber bullets; being beaten up; being detained until dark; being hit by sound bombs; and checkpoint closures, which prevent students from attending class for days at a time.
In 2002, conditions were so bad by the second month of the school year – because of checkpoints as well as school closures and curfews – that 226,000 children and 9,300 teachers could not reach their schools, according to UNICEF.
University students are also affected by the checkpoints – for example, students at Birzeit University, located outside of Ramallah, must pass through one of the worst checkpoints in the West Bank, Surda. Notorious for requiring a 2 kilometer uphill walk by all passers-by old and young, Surda checkpoint is responsible for long wait times and unannounced closures – all which regularly disrupt the academic life of Birzeit students.
The effect of the checkpoints on the economy is clear. Checkpoints restrict access by Palestinians to Israel for jobs which they formerly accessed easily. Moreover, internal checkpoints (that is, those between Palestinian towns) also restrict Palestinian employment within the Occupied Territories. For example, Palestinians with West Bank ID cards cannot travel through checkpoints to reach east Jerusalem without a permit, a document not easily attained. Therefore, they can only access jobs there at the risk of being detained. Numerous cases of shooting at Palestinians attempting to cross checkpoints for work have been identified. In 2002 alone, 13 workers were killed at checkpoints or on route to work in Israel, and 220 were injured at checkpoints by beatings or bullet wounds.
In addition, checkpoints restrict movement of goods, which in the case of products such as fresh produce has been known to result in spoilage. In sum, the checkpoints and Israeli sieges have been largely responsible for the current 53 percent rate of unemployment and overall poor economic conditions in the Palestinian Territories.
One of the most visible and harmful restrictions on Palestinian life today is the existence of the checkpoints. Restricting movement of all types for Palestinian civilians, the checkpoints do irreparable harm to Palestinian daily life and economy. Moreover, they stand as a stark reminder of the Israeli military machine’s control over Palestinian life and livelihood. Until all of the checkpoints are dismantled, the chances for a viable Palestinian state, not to mention a thriving economy and resumption of normal daily life, will remain severely debilitated.