There can be no doubt that the checkpoints (mahsomim
, sing. mahsom
in Hebrew) are one of the ugliest faces of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and, until recently, the Gaza Strip as well. Tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians are delayed in their legitimate travels at the checkpoints, and often emerge humiliated, harassed, and worse. The soldiers charged with manning the checkpoints are usually 18-20 year olds, poorly equipped to deal with the endless challenges presented to them by a hostile population in the course of shifts that can last 12 hours and more. The outcome is that the checkpoints, and the closures and occupation they represent, create a lot of angry Palestinians, a few of whom become terrorists.
A number of efforts have been made over the years by the Israel Defense Forces to add a more human face to the checkpoints: soldiers have undergone sensitivity training; older reservists, many of them Arabic speakers, have volunteered to help out; and the women of MachsomWatch have been welcomed by senior commanders. But at the human level, the situation remains abysmal.
The flip side of the checkpoints is that they really do work to uncover suicide bombers and other terrorists bent on attacking Israeli civilians. Some of the most notorious checkpoints, like Huwwara near Nablus, uncover and arrest the most terrorists. The more shocking cases are often shown on Israeli television: naive young boys and teenagers and mentally challenged individuals recruited by cynical terrorist organizations to carry bombs and wear explosive vests. It is not difficult to understand how IDF soldiers exposed to this reality become increasingly angry and hostile at the checkpoints, thereby helping perpetuate an endless cycle of conflict.
Judging by the status of checkpoints in other occupation situations in the region and the world--the latest example is the American and British occupation in Iraq--Israeli checkpoints are probably no worse, and indeed may be more efficient at their task, than the occupation "norm". In the given situation of conflict, occupation and settlement in the West Bank, Israel cannot do without them. While efforts to improve their efficiency and reduce the hardship they inflict on the civilian population are necessary and welcome, the checkpoints are essentially a symptom and an outcome of the real problem, rather than a cause.
In Gaza there are no longer any settlements, and there is an efficient security fence. Hence there are no longer Israeli checkpoints inside the Gaza Strip, and Gazans are free to move around freely. They complain, understandably, that they remain inside a "big prison". But at least, from their standpoint, the delays and humiliations of the checkpoints are gone. Israel can be protected from terrorist intruders using Gaza as a base without a physical IDF presence inside the Strip.
Checkpoints can be removed from all or most of the West Bank, as well, if the most intrusive settlements are removed and the security fence is completed. This can only be done by dint of a new Palestinian-Israeli political agreement or, more likely in the foreseeable future, through an additional phase of unilateral redeployment and dismantling of settlements. Though this would not constitute a solution to the conflict, it would bespeak additional security, geographic and demographic benefits for both sides.
This is the real way to get rid of the checkpoints. It is where we should concentrate our efforts in the coming months.- Published 23/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and was a senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Elections despite restrictions
by Ghassan Khatib
In spite of many, many difficulties it appears that Palestinian elections will take place on time. This is quite an achievement. These elections are held under the severest of conditions imposed by the Israeli military occupation.
Restrictions on movement in particular are as draconian as ever. Of all the factors that will make these elections necessarily imperfect, the inability of people, candidates and election workers to move freely from place to place, town to town and village to village has to count as the biggest.
In fact, Israeli practices and discontented Palestinian groups together nearly succeeded in cancelling these elections. Using Israeli closures and restrictions as an excuse, groups worried that they would find themselves disenfranchised after elections maintained that voting could not go ahead. Using the chaos that was created by some armed elements associated with these groups, Israel only tightened its restrictions.
Indeed, the closure on Jerusalem almost served the purpose of those in Palestine who, only a few weeks ago, seemed determined to prevent elections. Certainly, the performance of President Mahmoud Abbas must be commended in this regard. Facing a Fateh leadership that swung between hesitancy and determination to postpone elections, Abbas made it clear that elections were a sine qua non for future progress and would take place regardless.
He has shown unprecedented steadfastness and should be considered the champion of this election. Israel certainly hasn't been supportive. Israel has no interest in allowing the Palestinians to be seen as the most prominent Arab democracy, and a real competitor with Israel in this particular image contest.
Thus, and especially in the last few weeks, Israel has tightened restrictions on Palestinian life, including on movement that is essential for free and democratic elections. Recent reports by relevant UN agencies and the periodical monitoring reports released by Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn and his team show a dramatic increase in Israeli restrictions.
Abbas' absolute insistence on holding elections on time comes from his strategic understanding of how to proceed. When he was elected, Abbas promised to end the chaos and lawlessness that prevailed on the Palestinian street and also end Palestinian-Israeli violence. He made it clear that the best way to do so was to be inclusive. Elections are the most crucial step in this strategy, because it is through elections that the different Palestinian political groups will take their proper place in the system. By doing so, the factions are automatically binding themselves to the rule of the majority and the rule of law.
In the context of the occupation, Abbas has consistently maintained that violence will serve no purpose and the only way forward is through peaceful, political negotiations. His efforts with the opposition factions to negotiate and maintain a ceasefire were also predicated on the holding of free and fair elections open to all parties.
Indeed, Abbas has been remarkably successful in turning violent opposition into political opposition. And this is a victory for the peace camp that very few analysts have noticed. Abbas has succeeded in having all political groups and factions compete politically to win the support of the public within the parameters of the Oslo Agreement and the laws and regulations of the Palestinian Authority that was created by Oslo and on its basis. This is a significant and positive development, compared with the previous elections in 1996, in which almost half the population and the political groups were unwilling to take part.- Published 23/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Destroying the basic fabric of life
by Sarah Kliachko and Susan Lourenco
Hundreds of West Bank road obstructions prevent Palestinian freedom of movement. Contrary to the prevailing "wisdom", only a small fraction of these actually control entry into Israel; most create suffocating rings around Palestinian communities. Some permanent "checkpoints", located on roads from the main cities, are manned by the Israel Defense Forces, others by the Border Police. The hurdles include high earthworks, deep ditches or concrete boulders, the closure of roads and dirt tracks, thereby preventing vehicular traffic in and out of villages, and "rolling" checkpoints that suddenly appear on the routes used by Palestinians.
In recent years, many first class roads have been paved for settlers only--the apartheid roads. The Palestinians move on separate, often unpaved and badly maintained roads. Trips from a village to its nearby market town, which used to take minutes, now follow circuitous routes that add many kilometers and many hours. Though these roads are traveled solely by Palestinians, the army nevertheless springs its rolling checkpoints even here, without prior notice.
Palestinians leaving home for work, school or university, for medical care, shopping or other living essentials, never know whether they will actually reach their destination. They no longer bother how long the journey will take: that is immaterial. Even if they pass one checkpoint uneventfully, a second or a third one along the way can still send them back. The reason is not always apparent. Perhaps an event during the night, often at the IDF's initiative, maybe a warning about terrorists, can prevent the movement of an entire population, including sick people on their way to hospital and schoolchildren--with no conceivable link to the event.
As if this arbitrary restriction of movement were not enough, beginning last December and so far extending into mid-January, a new decree has imposed "quarantine" on the northern West Bank: 800,000 Palestinians living in Jenin and Nablus districts are not permitted to travel south to Ramallah and Jerusalem. A similar quarantine has long been in effect in the southern West Bank. Some feel that the new ordinance was a logical follow through from the Gaza disengagement, with its hint of a tighter grip on the West Bank. Whatever the case, the IDF has carved the West Bank into enclaves, preventing transit from area to area, turning each into a large prison where only the skies are open. So absolute has been the decree that families were often barred from spending the recent Muslim holiday with relatives.
The IDF's behavior in the West Bank and the collective punishment that it imposes are largely unknown to the Israeli public. It has become easy to hide behind the contention that the IDF provides security to the people of Israel. But some think differently. Israeli women peace activists, members of MachsomWatch, decided to keep a closer eye on what was going on. Opposed to the continuation of the occupation and its concomitant oppression of the Palestinians, these women have gone deep into the West Bank for almost five years, in two shifts a day in all weather, to document what happens at more than 30 checkpoints and on the roads leading to them. In recent weeks, the women who go to locations around Nablus have uncovered an embargo on entry into Nablus by inhabitants of the Tulkarm district. MachsomWatch shifts have asserted for some weeks now that Nablus residents are not allowed to travel southward, through the Zaatra junction that controls the road to Ramallah. The women have documented constant, sudden "stoppages of life" at Huwwara south of Nablus, where hundreds of men, women and children are crowded together in bitter cold, in a long line waiting to pass, maybe after an hour, maybe more, through the checkpoint. Alongside them, a similarly long line of vehicles waits its turn. The claim, as always, is security: warning of a terrorist supposedly trying to sneak by on his or her way to strike at Israel.
It is difficult to know whether the "quarantine" was decided upon after deliberation by the political echelon. Perhaps, as often before, the decree originated in the security hierarchy of the General Security Service (Shabak) or IDF Central Command.
MachsomWatch women have already learned that senior IDF echelons are often unaware of behavior in the field. The women doubt that restrictions on freedom of movement and oppression of a people actually reduce the number of attacks. But even if some strikes are prevented in the short term, the army's behavior has severe implications for the long term. Restriction of movement completely destroys the basic fabric of life. It breeds generations of hate, undermines the value system of soldiers who serve in the West Bank, and strikes a harsh blow at any chance for dialogue and peace between the nations.- Published 23/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Sarah Kliachko and Susan Lourenco coordinate the MachsomWatch women who go to the Nablus and Tulkarm checkpoints.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Elections signal change, checkpoints only ugly continuity
by Issa Samander
Wednesday's elections are something all Palestinians should be proud of. The process itself and the fact that voting will be held in spite of extremely difficult circumstances are both significant achievements.
Yet, the elections are in danger of becoming a distraction, and it almost seems that the Palestinian factions have forgotten the bigger picture.
The reality is that the campaigning and sloganeering we have been hearing in these elections is often far removed from the concerns of ordinary Palestinians. Out in the villages, while maintaining our rights in Jerusalem is certainly something all agree with and support, villagers on a daily basis must grapple with immediate issues, such as the felling of trees by Israeli settlers and soldiers, or the wall being built, either on top of people's lands or separating people from their lands.
Israel is not changing any of its policies. On the contrary: Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is talking about holding on to the whole area east of Jerusalem, including the monstrous Maaleh Adumim settlement bloc, and with it the surrounding villages and their land. Settlers continue rampaging at will. Witness what has happened recently in Itamar, near Nablus, or in Hebron.
The Israeli army continues its incursions and arrests. Not far from the polling stations and their international monitors, Israeli soldiers Sunday raided the village of Kharbata, west of Ramallah, to arrest several people. Public announcements notwithstanding, there is nothing to stop Israel from continuing this throughout elections.
Then there are the checkpoints. Of all the Israeli practices in this intifada, the policy of closures has probably been the ugliest. All the villages west of Ramallah, for example, are separated from their hinterland by the Nabi Saleh gate, a gate that can be opened or closed at the whim of a soldier. People in the northern West Bank are not allowed to travel south.
For the purposes of elections, ballot boxes are placed in all villages. And while it is unlikely that Israel, under international scrutiny, will interfere with these ballot boxes, once people have cast their votes, they still have to go and stand at a checkpoint hoping for the good graces of an Israeli soldier to be allowed to pass to tend to their lands or visit relatives.
The occupation, in other words, and all the oppressive practices that stem from it, continues. And this is the political context in which elections are held and which the factions seem in danger of losing sight of. Even Hamas, for all its talk of Islamic lands, was at one point willing to proceed with elections without the participation of Jerusalemites.
Everybody wants a bite of a cake that doesn't exist.
That, of course, is not to say that elections are not important and will not effect any change. These elections have sent a clear signal to Israel and the world, that all Palestinian factions are now prepared to accept to build a state on the territory occupied in1967. It is illustrative to contrast Palestinian election slogans with Israeli ones. All Palestinian factions are competing with themselves to say how much they want peace and security in an independent state. Across the board that has been the message.
Israeli parties, by contrast, are practically falling over themselves to show how tough they will be. Israeli politics is defined by fanaticism and belligerence toward Palestinians.
With even Hamas talking about a decades long hudna, these elections show that the equation has changed. Israel must show that it understands this. The most immediate means to do so would be to ease closures and remove checkpoints. When people from Nablus and Jenin are able to come to Ramallah unhindered, real progress can be felt.
I am not hopeful. Israeli elections are not until March, and before that it seems Israeli politicians are more intent on going down the opposite track.- Published 23/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Issa Samandar is the director of the Land Defense General Committees, a grassroots NGO that seeks to advise people whose lands are either out of bounds to them or confiscated because of settlements and outposts, how to fight back through legal means and peaceful, political, direct action methods.
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