How Israelís West Bank checkpoints restrict movement of Palestinians

Published: 8 December 2009
Briefing Number 248



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Background and Key Messages: For many years Israel has maintained military  checkpoints in the West Bank.  It claims that they are needed to defend Israel’s citizens from terrorism. This includes Israeli men, women and children who live in the West Bank, and those who live in ‘pre-1967 Israel’.  But critics argue that the checkpoints are excessive. They view them as a tool for ‘maintaining the Israeli occupation’, and suppressing Palestinian society and its economy.

Since April 2008, according to official Israeli figures, Israel has removed 247 checkpoints in the West Bank. In September 2009 alone, it removed 100 checkpoints. These steps reflect the steadily improving (but still fragile) security situation in the West Bank. They also mark an effort by successive Israeli governments to encourage forces of moderation among the Palestinians.

This Beyond Images Briefing describes the day-to-day Palestinian experience of living within the system of checkpoints.  It is written by Arab journalist Jihan Abdalle from the viewpoint of Palestinian women getting around the West Bank, and it conveys the frustration and inconvenience caused by checkpoints.  The article appeared in the Jerusalem Report magazine on 31 August 2009.   

Key messages:

- The checkpoints reflect the absence of negotiated coexistence. Israel is forced to maintain them and indeed they do cause frustration and resentment.  Many Israelis are aware of this fact.  Meaningful peace would change the situation.   

- When will an article appear in mainstream Palestinian media describing the experience of Israeli citizens facing missiles, suicide bombs and rockets?  

A grassroots Palestinian view of Israel’s checkpoints, by Jihan Abdalla

On 31 August 2009 the mainstream Israeli newsmagazine the Jerusalem Report (see www.jrep.com), which appears in English, published an article by Arab writer Jihan Abdalla describing day-to-day life for Palestinians trying to move around the West Bank among Israeli checkpoints.

As we say in the Background and Key Messages section above, it is important for Israelis to be aware of the resentment and frustration which the checkpoints cause.   We are publishing this Beyond Images Briefing in order to convey that day-to-day experience. 

At the same time it is important for people to understand the context and background for Israel’s checkpoints.  The Briefings listed at the end of this Briefing provide that context.  The real solution for the checkpoints is meaningful, sustainable peace, security and national coexistence.            

Jihan Abdalle in the Jerusalem Report wrote as follows

Alia Shkeirat, 44, mother of five, leaves home at 5:30am every morning to get to her workplace by 8.00am.  Her family home in the West Bank village of Sawahre is located just 8 kilometres (five miles) east of Jerusalem and six kilometres (four miles) from the hotel where she works.  But Israeli security measures force her to run a long course of dilapidated vehicles, circuitous routes and military checkpoints to get there.

Built on desert hills, Sawahre overlooks Beit Jala and Bethlehem, on one side, and Jericho, on the other.  Once the village seamstress, Shkeirat has been working in Jerusalem as a chambermaid ever since her husband, Abed, a gardener, was refused a permit to work in Israel nine years ago. 

Trying to get to work – 2.5 hours to 8 hours

Her journey begins when she walks from her home to the main street and waits for one of the vans, driven by local young men, often with no driving licence or car insurance, which are the only means of transportation.  The vehicle takes her to Abu Dis, the nearest town on the Eastern outskirts of Jerusalem.  From there she takes another van that will drive her to the Al-Zaim checkpoint, near the Mount of Olives, where IDF soldiers inspect vehicles entering Jerusalem from the West Bank.

“When I arrive at the checkpoint, there are 500-800 men, most of them construction workers, already in line”, she says.  “Holding their work permits in one hand, and their lunch and change of clothes in the other, most of the men have been standing in line since 4.00am”, she says.

After spending up to an hour going through an inspection, emptying her bag into a plastic container, passing it through a conveyor belt, and going through the metal detector herself, she walks to the other side of the checkpoint and waits for a bus heading towards the Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem’s Old City.  From there she walks 15 minutes to the hotel where she spends her entire day.

Israel’s easing of restrictions on Palestinian movement inside the West Bank has had no effect on people like Shkeirat, whose options and daily routines remain tightly constrained.
 
Restricted roads – Palestinian Arabs no, Israelis yes

Even when they travel from one place to another inside the West Bank, Palestinians are subject to Israeli travel restrictions.  For instance, Palestinians are prohibited from using the state-of-the-art, well-lit highways from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and Jericho that serve Israelis, mostly the army and settlers.  To get from Bethlehem to Jericho, they must use a decrepit road known as Wadi al-Nar, Arabic for “the valley of fire”, by-passing Jerusalem, which they can enter only with permits.  While only wide enough for one vehicle at a time, it is by necessity a hazardous two-way road.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which monitors movement and access in the West Bank, said Palestinians are forbidden to use, or are restricted in their use of, more than 300 kilometres of roads. Israelis are free to use these roads with no restriction whatsoever.  Movement between different parts of the West Bank can be hard, slow and complicated.

Traffic chaos and checkpoint queues

Restrictions on Palestinians wanting to pass through checkpoints vary from checkpoint to checkpoint, and from time to time.  At almost all of them, Palestinians have to show an identity card or crossing permit.  Often soldiers inspect vehicles and passengers’ belongings.

Sherene Tarazi, 26, a Palestinian, lives in Jerusalem, but works in an NGO in the West Bank city of Ramallah.   She owns her own car, an aged but trusty navy blue Volkswagen Golf.  Because she is a resident of Jerusalem, her car has Israeli yellow licence plates and she can drive it through the West Bank.

“I wake up every morning at 5.30am” she says.  She drives through North Jerusalem, alongside the Israel-built counter-terror security barrier than cuts through the city and separates it from the West Bank, and stands in line at one of the busiest checkpoints, Qalandiyah.   “There are around 200 cars ahead of me, driven by very impatient drivers.”

Listening to the radio, having her breakfast, or applying her make-up, Tarazi waits in line for 40 minutes to an hour. Cars coming from Jerusalem can drive straight through without being checked, she explains: “but cars can only enter slowly, one by one: that’s why there is such a long line”.

Once beyond the checkpoint “it’s chaos” she says, throwing both her arms in the air.  “Cars are driving in all directions, and the roads are extremely broken. I cannot count the number of times that I slammed the bottom of my car through a bump or a hole because of an impatient driver behind me, who was never going to slow down if I braked”.

The way back, Tarazi says, entails driving on the same, broken, bumpy road, full of traffic.  But once she reaches the checkpoint, she has a choice: either stand in line at the Qalandiyeh checkpoint, or take the fast road back, which costs her an additional 16 km (10 miles), but goes through a faster-moving checkpoint and gets home faster. 

“If I’m in a good mood, and I don’t mind the wait, I’ll ‘chill’ in the car while waiting for my turn at the checkpoint” she says.

In July, OCHA reported that there were 613 closure obstacles within the West Bank territory, including 68 permanently staffed checkpoints.  Physical obstructions include dirt mounds, concrete blocks, boulders, fences, trenches and iron gates.  In addition to blocking vehicle access, they also bar access to many pedestrians who cannot climb over or go around them – the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and small children.

Losing any sense of distance….

“We don’t think in terms of distances, in kilometres or miles” says 22 year old graduate Miral Tamimi, a recent university graduate.  “We think of local movement in terms of checkpoints, processes of changing buses, and waiting times.   Our entire concept of distance is tainted.”

She always thought Jerusalem, only ten kilometres (six miles) south of Ramallah, was far away, separated by an impossible permit, a long line, a checkpoint, soldiers and a wall – until one day, due to the death of a family member who lived in Jerusalem, she finally got a permit.

“I was shocked that Ramallah was so close to Jerusalem!”

- End of Article -

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