What is the first picture the term "occupation" raises in our mind? Probably some kind of extreme violence among civilians: lethal fire in the middle of town, terrified kids in pajamas watching heavily armed soldiers searching a house, a helicopter firing a missile in the midst of Gaza. All these violent scenes do happen, but they do not give an adequate picture of what the occupation really looks like.
Very few people realize that Israel has turned life in the occupied territories (Israeli settlers excluded) into complete misery without any need to fire a single bullet. A unique, invaluable glance into the mechanisms that constitute this "quiet" occupation, usually hidden behind the literal smokescreen of violence, is given by the first annual report of the Israeli human rights group Machsom Watch, presented in a press conference in Tel Aviv last week.
West Bank Checkpoints: The Basics
Machsom – "roadblock" in Hebrew – stands for a whole arsenal of obstacles spread throughout the occupied territories: temporary or permanent roadblocks, manned checkpoints or roads closed off by heavy cement blocks, gates in the Wall, earth mounds, trenches, observation towers. The least known but most significant fact about these various physical obstacles is that almost all of them are NOT "border checkpoints" located between Israel and the occupied territories; almost all of them are placed WITHIN the occupied territories, hampering the movement from one Palestinian town or village to another.
Within the last four years – signs were clear enough in early 2002 – Israel made every movement of every Palestinian dependent on Israeli permit. Incredible, but true: a Palestinian wishing to get out of (or reenter) his or her immediate surrounding – a town, a village, a neighborhood, or just an arbitrarily cut-off part of a village – has to get a permit from Israel in advance and show it at every Israeli-manned checkpoint. You cannot just go to work, to do some shopping or business, to school, to visit family or friends, to a hospital – you have to go through one or several Israeli checkpoints first.
The numbers are horrifying. The UN's Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) counted in November 2004 not less than 719 (!) physical obstacles throughout the West Bank. Machsom Watch reports that less than 70 of them were removed in the recent "calm" period, some only to be replaced by the rapidly progressing Wall. An army general reported that the 25 central checkpoints under his command required 1,000 soldiers, and up to 5,000 soldiers are employed on special alerts (Ha'aretz, July 22, 2003); no wonder the checkpoints are consistently undermanned, resulting in endless queues.
None of the more than 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank thus live more than a couple of miles away from a roadblock or checkpoint. A short route through the West Bank would inevitably take you through several Israeli checkpoints, some of them five minutes' ride from each other. Lucky to have gone through one checkpoint? The next one is just a few minutes ahead, where you'll have to start all over again.
Checkpoints are closed on Israeli, Jewish, Muslim, and other holidays and public occasions, paralyzing Palestinian economic and social life. Machsom Watch reports that
"From March to May , a closure was imposed that included full encirclement in many areas of the West Bank. The closure started for the Passover holiday, continued uninterrupted until Israeli Independence Day (several weeks later) and from then to the Likud party's referendum, and it was finally lifter after the Final Four playoff games."
A Personal Aside
When I was 18, I had my basic training with an Israeli infantry unit notorious for its ferocity. The most difficult aspect of the 100 days I spent there, in early 1983, was not the physical hardship: it was bad enough, but a piece of cake compared to the permanent stress caused by the intentional, systematic policy of keeping the new recruits under complete uncertainty. We had no idea what might happen a few minutes later – would we be taken to a lecture, a physical exercise, a meal, or moved to a remote base? We were sent to bed late at night only to be awakened half an hour later; a weekend off at home would be announced and withdrawn several times till Friday afternoon; and individual soldiers would be punished for no clear reason. As my officer later told us, the idea was to "break us down as civilians in order to rebuild us as soldiers." At least the first part was accomplished successfully: The unbearable stress caused many of us severe mental damage, like shock, identification with the aggressor, or post-traumatic syndromes. Apparently, the abusive staff was not spared either: several years later, the officer I just quoted emigrated to the U.S., was "adopted" there by a rich elderly Jewish-American couple enchanted by the sturdy Israeli fighter, and he is now serving a life sentence in prison for shooting both of them to death, hoping to inherit their wealth.
Through the Checkpoint
Machsom Watch activists say they have seen the idea behind the checkpoints policy actually written in a military document: Keeping the Palestinian population under permanent uncertainty. Precisely the same principle, then, used to "break down" recruits during basic training, is applied to an entire population, children and adults, women and men, sick and elderly. The checkpoints are at the heart of this policy.
The moment you start a journey through the West Bank, you are no longer master of your time. You do not know whether you'll be able to make it at all, nor even roughly how long it will take. Due to "surprise checkpoints" and checkpoints manned only during certain hours, you cannot even tell how many checkpoints you'll have to go through. Any checkpoint can be closed at any time, without prior notice nor any indication whether and when it will reopen. You can pass three checkpoints on your way, only to be stopped at the fourth. Crossing a checkpoint can take minutes or hours, due to unpredictable queues. The army may also suddenly impose the notorious "Stop All Life Procedure" – a total freeze on movement that lasts for hours at a time.
Even when a checkpoint is open, individuals are exposed to extreme arbitrariness and uncertainty. Having a permit is a necessary condition to pass through the checkpoint, but not a sufficient one. With a hardly noticeable gesture of his or her finger, a 19-year-old soldier may decide your document needs "inspection" and detain you. Such a detention can take 20 minutes; but it can also take several hours, during which you have to wait in the unroofed Jora ("hole" in Arabic, "sewage hole" in Hebrew), where you may be ordered to remain standing, or to sit on the ground facing the wall. If you are a bus driver, all your passengers will have to wait with you. Your document may be sent for inspection immediately; but it may have to wait until 20 or 30 other documents are accumulated and sent together. When it returns with an OK, you may proceed; but some documents often get lost in the process.
Who is detained? Here are some answers Machsom Watch activists got from checkpoint soldiers: "Anyone who looks stressed" (under these circumstances, who wouldn't?); "Every ninth man"; "Everyone called Mohammed"; "Everyone who wants to go through my checkpoint." Arbitrariness incarnate. Many soldiers refer to detention at checkpoints as a kind of punishment or "educational measure," and even order those in charge: "Detain this guy for a long time."
Behind this system are myriads of human beings with sometimes heartbreaking stories – the arrested kidney patient, the beaten student. Some of these stories clearly fall under abuse. Israel's efficiency in turning Palestinian life into hell disappears when complaints are to be processed: out of 100 complaints sent by Machsom Watch in 2004 to several state and army offices, 87 percent were ignored or insufficiently answered. Two years ago, the army admitted that out of 1,200 "inquiries" into checkpoint complaints, only 18 had led to military police investigations; the rest – 98.5 percent – had been shelved (Ha'aretz, July 22, 2003).
But it is important not to let the cases of abuse distract from the "normal" routine: Palestinian daily life is unbearable even on what Machsom Watch activists call "an English weather," i.e., a usual day without any exceptional event. If the roots of Palestinian frustration, despair, and violence – "terrorism," if you like – are to be sought, the checkpoint system is an excellent place to start.