Understanding Israeli Checkpoints
GS Don Morris, Ph.D.
January 23, 2005
This is not an easy life for the soldier or the Palestinian waiting in line. Let us be clear about a few things before passing any judgments. If you are an Israeli you know that checkpoints are necessary in order to save lives-anyone saying this can't be true doesn't know what is really going on here. Yet, these same checkpoints are inconvenient for Palestinians and less than tolerable especially on this cold day. It is an unfortunate moment in the world's history that has human beings having to endure this type of action. However, it is the intention of other humans who want nothing more than terror, destruction and the disruption in two different cultures to continue. If this was not so, we would not even have this daily occurrence.
So much has been written about these checkpoints-an internet search alone yields over 176,000 hits. With very few exceptions there is always something missing in these pieces-context and perspective! Most of the reports provide only a snapshot of the phenomena called checkpoint behavior and intentionally do so to support a political position. This kind of reporting clearly misrepresents ongoing daily activity and it also misses reporting the rationale for the existence of the checkpoints.
One's reality is the result of his/her perception of events even if not supported by the facts or by truth. Unfortunately this is precisely what has occurred in this part of the world. Perception can be managed, even altered by intentionally framing any circumstance, situation or event in a manner that supports an individual or a group's position. Then, all involved act/behave in accordance with this perception, even if facts do not support the actions. Delivery of only event snapshots without providing context and perspective will perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian problem for future generations-in other words, this kind of reporting adds to the problem and does nothing to help solve it. I, for one, call into question the motives of those choosing such action.
Let us examine the context within which Israel has created the checkpoints. Israel did not create checkpoints to humiliate Palestinians but in reaction to an increase in terror attacks. Beginning September 29, 2000, Israel has been under constant state of terrorist attacks. During this time frame, there have been over 20,100 attacks on Israeli targets, killing over 920 and wounding over 6,000, many horribly. Over four hundred and thirty of those killed died in homicide bombings. Terrorists have used ambulances to smuggle themselves and weapons into Israel, they have hidden explosive belts inside computers, musical instrument cases, and clothes chests. They have exploited women and children by using them to also execute terror attacks. Faced with the threats posed by these and other activities, the IDF had no choice but to build and operate checkpoints designed to prevent terrorists from penetrating into Israel's home front. Most Westerners would be surprised to know that prior to this latest Intifada, Palestinians moved freely inside the territories as well as inside Israel Proper. These checkpoints did not exist!
To understand the existence of checkpoints one must know some historical facts. Did you know?
From 1517 until 1917, the West Bank and Gaza, along with the land that is now Israel and Jordan, were ruled by the Ottoman Empire, whose leaders were Muslims but not Arabs. After World War I, Britain was given a Mandate to rule the land. In 1947, the United Nations Partition Plan divided the land of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Jews accepted their half of the land, and the Arabs rejected theirs. The Arabs attacked the new state of Israel, attempting to gain 100% of the land. Egypt gained control of Gaza and Jordan gained control of the West Bank. So Egypt and Jordan (not Israel) were in control of the land meant for a Palestinian State.
In 1964 the Arab League, a loose confederation of fourteen Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, met in Cairo and established a political body to deal directly with the problem of the Palestinian Arabs. They called it the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It assumed leadership for the ̉Palestinian people. The PLO soon began carrying out terrorist attacks in Israel and against Israeli targets worldwide. Keep in mind that the PLO was formed before Israel had gained control of the West Bank and Gaza. They were not protesting Israel's so-called occupation of the West Bank, but Israel's very existence. It was not until May 4, 1994, when Israel and the Palestinians signed the Gaza-Jericho Agreement that the Palestinian Authority was established. It was at this time true nation building for the Palestinians began.
In 1967, the Arabs once again attacked Israel, attempting to gain control of 100% of the land. As a result, Egypt lost control of Gaza, Jordan lost control of the West Bank, and Syria lost control of the Golan Heights. Israel offered to give back the territory in exchange for true peace. The Arab League responded with the ̉3 No's: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.
From 1967 until the present time, Israel has been empowered by the United Nations and thus the world community to administer these same two territories as outlined in UN resolutions 242 and 338. These same resolutions did not envisage the creation of a Palestinian state. To the contrary: since the Palestinians were still not viewed as a distinct nation, it was assumed that any territories evacuated by Israel, would be returned to their pre-1967 Arab occupiers-Gaza to Egypt, and the West Bank to Jordan.
The years from 1967 through 1991 were a difficult and dangerous period reaching from the end of the Six Day War through the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process in 1991. Arab countries waged war on Israel (1973 Yom Kippur War) and the Palestinian Arabs fought using terrorism, surprise attacks and political maneuvers.
In 1993 the Oslo Accords were signed and they provided an opportunity for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On September 28, 1995 Israelis and Palestinians signed yet another deal known as the "Interim Agreement" or "Oslo 2." This agreement allowed for a second stage of autonomy for the Palestinians, giving them self-rule in the cities of Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Tulkarm, parts of Hebron and 450 villages, while allowing Israeli-guarded Jewish settlements to remain.
The Oslo 2 agreement divided the West Bank and Gaza into three areas, each with distinctive borders and rules for administration and security controls: Areas A (the Palestinian Authority now has full responsibility for internal security and public order, as well as full responsibility for civil affairs), B (Israel maintains overriding security authority in order to safeguard its citizens and to combat terrorism), C (Israel retains full responsibility for security). This agreement, signed by the Palestinian leadership, gives Israel overriding security authority in order to safeguard its citizens and to combat terrorism.
To this day, the agreed upon stages of the Accords (Interim Plan) have yet to be realized. A second Intifada is currently being waged against Israel.
What has this brief history lesson to do with checkpoints? It provides the context enabling one to better understand why Israel has legally developed border- crossing sites along its current border with the territories. Using legal international resolutions agreed to by both Israel and the representative Palestinian Authority, one finds that contrary to public belief only one sovereign country (Israel) exists empowered to administer the territories. Curiously most Palestinians and I might add most Westerners do not know these facts. For many years there has been an intentional misrepresentation of these events by the Palestinian leadership. Almost two complete generations growing up inside the territories have been taught revisionist history about the sovereignty of the disputed land. Thus, their perception or understanding of truth is based upon misleading information and they do believe these misrepresentations as fact and act accordingly. Consequently, the justification for terror is based upon false premises. Keep the truth from a population and you own their thinking and their behavior-since the mid 1960's several generations have been so indoctrinated. This has fulfilled the leadership's political and social agenda.
So, what is really an accurate presentation of Israel's notorious checkpoints-the truth may surprise you. There are two types of checkpoints operated by Israel. Israel operates 7 permanent border-crossing sites between the West Bank and Israel Proper (I acknowledge that the final borders are still yet to be determined. As stated in UN Resolution 242, final borders will be determined through negotiations.) These are similar in nature to other country's border crossing points such as exist between the USA and Mexico and the USA and Canada. As a sovereign nation, Israel has the international legal right as well as mandate of its citizens to regulate the human flow of traffic into the country; therefore, it has border crossings along its border with the West Bank territory. Additionally, Israel operates 12 checkpoints around selected West Bank cities such as Nablus. Finally, from one day to the next, Israel operates a varying number of temporary checkpoints and seam zone checkpoints inside the West Bank territory. All of these checkpoints are legal and are part of the jointly agreed Oslo Accord (I&II) agreement. The temporary checkpoints respond to the terror threat status inside the West Bank territory and are dismantled as soon as the threat subsides. As previously stated, Israel has, by mutual agreement with the Palestinian leadership, security authority in all of the identified parts of the West Bank. Inside this territory there are also physical barriers that prevent total freedom of movement by Palestinians upon existing roadways. Without question these barriers are a source of upset and daily conversations. They do indeed cause travel difficulties for the local population.
To summarize the preceding discussion, a clarification is offered to provide a perspective that reflects facts on the ground. For me it is a misnomer to call the permanent border crossings into Israel Proper checkpoints. As a sovereign nation, Israel is entitled to have border control crossing sites identical to all other international countries border controls. There are however, two properly named checkpoint types inside the West Bank territory: those currently in place around 12 cities/villages and those temporary sites placed in operation when a terror alert presents itself. Contrary to popular opinion that these checkpoints are meant to harass the Palestinian population as expressed in the media, these checkpoints are necessary because the Palestinian territorial leadership has not taken action to prevent the actual terror activity. Thus a cause and effect situation exists. Terror activity leads to temporary checkpoints-stop terror and there are no temporary checkpoints. The data supports this statement; however, it is not presented in the media. Read on as suggestions are made explaining the reason this information is with held from the Palestinian people.
Finally it is important to mention that Israel's checkpoints are highly visible political and social flashpoints. The ongoing world opinion making strategy, since the late 1960's, is to portray the Palestinian people and their cause as victims. The history of this strategy is indeed an article unto itself; suffice it to say that victimization has yielded high returns on their energy and time investment selling this concept to its people and the rest of the world community. You can see it, hear it and read it daily across all forms of the media. Note online the specific victim stories that appear regarding the treatment of Palestinians at the checkpoints. No context is ever provided, no perspective offered, rather a snapshot in time, often played to the cameras and reporters by the Palestinians themselves. I have spent a great deal of time at many of these same checkpoints and I offer anecdotal data indicating that the usual activity at the checkpoints is contrary to what is reported. Did you know that at the Kalandia checkpoint the average passage time is down to five minutes? Many people likely experience longer lines at USA airport security check lines (aka checkpoints)? At these American checkpoints have you been inconvenienced by having to take off your shoes, other garments and waiting patiently to cross through the metal detector? Have you ever been asked to step aside and embarrassed in front of strangers, friends and even family when you are selected for a more thorough random screening? You know, when they open your suitcase, rummage through its entire contents, when they ask you personal questions as to the nature of your trip, have you had this experience? Did you have to show identification proving who you are? Have you ever been physically examined for carrying concealed weapons? Ever missed a flight because of this action or otherwise had your daily plans inconveniently altered? In today's world, not only at Israeli checkpoints, we all have to pay a price for the sake of security. Most of us don't perceive these inconveniences as humiliation or ourselves as victims. Unfortunately, the Palestinians feel otherwise. They have been taught and therefore learned to be victims. Victim behavior and belief leads to a sense of powerlessness. This in turn leads to irresponsible behavior that is justified by oneself and by others with an agenda to promote.
I have watched kindnesses shared between soldiers and Palestinians at these same checkpoints. You think the following story ever makes it to the media? A man approaches the gate, offering apologies and with a look on his face that begs for understanding, the man tells the soldier he has forgotten his ID. You see, he is a known doctor, in his hurry to get to a local Israeli hospital to serve one of his quite ill patients; he forgot his id card-a simple human error. The soldier must make a quick decision, and after conferring with another soldier who recognizes the doctor, the soldier immediately ushers the doctor toward the hospital, without his ID card being present.
With no context, misrepresentation of the truth sells to the media. A classic example of this occurred recently. A Palestinian was said to have been humiliated at a checkpoint because he was made to play his violin. Here is what actually occurred. The man approached the soldiers, carrying a violin case. Mind you, soldiers have found bombs inside similar cases. He was naturally asked to take out the violin so they can make certain that the case did not contain explosives, but they did not ask him to play. He just decided to do that himself. He certainly embellished his story, once he was informed that he was a cause celebre. It seems that there was an activist with a camera who was so far away that she couldn't even hear the conversation between the Arab and the soldier, and since it was in Arabic, she wouldn't have even been able to understand it anyway. Later, the investigation clearly indicated that the Palestinian who played his violin apparently did it of his volition; he was not asked to do so by soldiers. The PR damage was done, even though proven incorrect, no correction was ever forthcoming from the media outlet-this misinterpretation played around the world. What is the normal USA working citizen to believe when all that is shown is this kind of untruth?
I have also witnessed the abrupt change in behavior of Palestinians in line when a camera crew or a Peace Now type of group arrives. Calm, decent and even cordial behavior transforms in a matter of moments. Everything returns to this state of calm after the cameras leave and the reporters drive away.
I have a caution for everyone reading or viewing reports on the Israeli checkpoints. Become aware of loaded words and phrases: segregated, through concrete lanes resembling cattle chutes, humiliation, and dehumanizing- these and so many others are used by groups meaning to reinforce the victimization of Palestinians at border crossings and checkpoints. Words are important, as are photographs and video. They attempt to describe behavior and provide meaning for our world. Used intentionally incorrectly, without context or perspective, the truth can be misrepresented thus only sharing a revisionist version of the truth to the world. If standing in a line for a long time, if made to wait inside the territory, if having to open your belongings is interpreted only as an act of intentional harassment or humiliation is to misrepresent truth. It has been my experience over several years that these same actions are the result of terror warnings. They are in response to direct terrorist behavior. Need anyone be reminded that there is a consequence for one's actions?
I will not leave you with the notion that mistakes are not made, that misbehavior has not occurred or will not in the future. However, I will share that the IDF and Border Police do their best, day after day, to respect and honor the dignity of all Palestinians and they do so knowing that there are individuals taking advantage of this behavior as they mean to kill the soldiers, the police and innocent civilians. The IDF has been developing educational and ethical instruction programs for checkpoint personnel? New technological advancements have been studied and implemented, e.g., carousels for ease of transitioning to the other side. The IDF instructs all of its personnel in performing their duties ethically. Special courses are given to IDF personnel that give them tools for dealing with moral issues and other predicaments that may arise when manning a checkpoint. How many of you were aware that the IDF also conducts inquiries and holds dialogue sessions on all levels to continue to improve the effectiveness of checkpoints? A special program of humanitarian soldiers has been present at selected checkpoints for a couple of years. These are seasoned, older reservists who volunteer to assist hands on to model behavior for younger soldiers.
Watch and listen carefully to the next story you read or see on television about the Israeli checkpoints. Did the reporter provide all of the details for the snapshot you are watching, was the event placed into proper context for you to then make your own judgment? If these are absent, be leery of the message. Perhaps it is time to notice how victimization has hijacked an entire people-change is in order. Let us resolve the issues so Palestinians and Israelis can all sit comfortably at their respective cafes enjoying the company of friends without fear!