The Checkpoint

For Israeli soldiers checkpoint life is dull, alienating, and stress-inducing. For the Palestinians it is frustrating, humiliating, and anger-provoking. Yet it’s the human face of the occupation—and as close as some Israelis and Palestinians will ever come

We in the modern world are used to waiting, and the first time one passes through a checkpoint in the West Bank, one thinks, Oh, this looks kind of familiar. This won’t be so bad. I will just need to stand in line a bit.

But then one sees that rather than a simple queue, this is more like a funnel—wide enough where it begins for thirty people to stand side by side, at the end of an open-air shed with a corrugated tin roof, but narrowing a few yards farther on, where everyone is pushing toward two tall turnstiles. One afternoon in the fall of 2004 (but it could as well have been today) it took forty minutes to reach the front at Qalandia, the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It was an exercise in gradual compression: I went from having some choice of movement (I’ll head for the left turnstile) to having none at all, as my footsteps were foreshortened by the people in front, my arms were pinioned by the people beside me, and my shoulders were bumped by the people behind.

Sometimes a checkpoint queue creates a sense of instant community: we are all occupying one another’s space, all suffering together, and conversation can provide relief. The man at my right, it turned out, was a doctor. He was returning home to East Jerusalem from work at a clinic in Ramallah, as he does every day. “Sharon’s strategy is to make it so bad we will leave,” he said. “He forgets we have nowhere else to go.”

Because this was my first time through, I expressed some concern about the squeeze to which we were increasingly subjected. He warned me not to drop anything—an ID, for example—because it would be impossible now to stoop down and pick it up. He looked tired as he told me that it had been even worse before the Israelis put up the metal roof and created some shade.

To be encased, as I was, in a crowd of 200 or 300 people is a sort of temporary imprisonment. If the crowd panicked, we would all be in trouble. I was thinking these thoughts because just a month earlier, bombers en route from Jenin to Haifa had gotten spooked and exploded a device at this very checkpoint, killing two Palestinians and wounding six Israeli policemen. And only the day before a Palestinian woman had blown herself up in the Jerusalem neighborhood of French Hill, just a few miles from Qalandia, killing two Israeli policemen. And yet I had the feeling that if I were to freak out—say, from claustrophobia—the people around me would try hard to let me out. A situation like this increases one’s sensitivity to the stress level of one’s neighbors.

The doctor and I were separated a few minutes later, just as we neared what seemed to be the most fraught part of the ordeal: trying to decide when to step into an open space in the turnstile. The pressure from behind had grown so great that the decision was now almost entirely beyond my control; I had to lean backward to keep from walking into the ends of the turning bars. I also had to be careful not to stomp on the foot of a child or an elderly person. To my relief, a muscular man approaching the turnstile at the same time said, “Hello, my friend,” and used his bulk, like a dike against the ocean, to create a small discretionary pocket of space for me. A minute later I stepped through the turnstile of my own accord and said, “Shukran”—“Thanks.”

It should have been a relief to be on the other side, approaching the end of the shed, except that this is where the guns are. About ten Israeli soldiers were visible that day, all of them young and laden with combat gear, including M4 assault rifles. Things moved faster now. A young female soldier examined the contents of my shoulder bag. Ten steps beyond her another soldier protected by a wall of concrete blocks, a thick plastic window, and goggles motioned me forward. I handed him my passport and journalist’s ID. He studied them for a fairly long time, pausing (as Israeli officials tend to) at a visa I had gotten years before for a tourist trip to an Arab country. Then he handed them back wordlessly and turned to the person behind me. That meant I was through. Walking out into the open air beyond, into the bustling taxi lot and impromptu bazaar that every checkpoint occasions, I felt as though I’d been paroled.

W ith the Gaza withdrawal complete and the death of Yasir Arafat fading into memory, the world’s attention is turning once again to the land that remains among the world’s most contentious: the West Bank. The violence that ebbed in the months following the death of Arafat is on the rise again; suicide bombings have returned to Israel as settlements continue to encroach on Palestinian land. The intifada never really went away, and neither did the Israeli soldiers, who continue working hard to keep a lid on things.

Israel manages its occupation of the West Bank—which is home to 1.3 million Palestinians and 400,000 Israeli settlers and is roughly the size of Delaware—to a large degree by restricting the travel of Palestinians. The most famous symbol of this restriction is the new “security fence” still taking shape alongside and east of the Green Line that marks the de facto border of pre-1967 Israel. Although the fence has become controversial for impinging on Palestinian territory and cutting off Palestinian farmers from their land, it has succeeded in greatly reducing the number of suicide bombings inside Israel proper. But more meaningful than the security fence to daily life in the West Bank is Israel’s dominion over Palestinian roads. The Oslo Accords, in 1993, and Oslo 2, in 1995, granted Palestinians the right to govern their own cities, but gave Israel control over the main roads in the territories. Thus checkpoints, which once were few and temporary, became numerous and often permanent. Although their number varies according to the security situation, about seventy checkpoints dotted the West Bank at the time of my visit. There are nearly as many today.

Each checkpoint has a different character. Most permit both vehicles and pedestrians to pass, but some allow only pedestrians. Some close at dusk and open at dawn, permitting no passage at night; others are closed to vehicles at night but allow pedestrians through. Some allow anything to pass once the soldiers have left for the night. And some change the rules from day to day.

In addition to permanent checkpoints like Qalandia—which typically feature traffic dividers and concrete blocks behind which the soldiers stand, and sometimes roofs for shade and tanks of drinking water—there are “flying checkpoints,” which exist for only hours at a time and may be run by as few as two or three soldiers or border policemen, often acting on intelligence tips.

What are the checkpoints for? Israeli officials say that like almost everything else in the West Bank, checkpoints are for security—they enable the Israeli army to interdict weapons and bombers. The army hopes to find some of these through random searches; others may be captured through the powerful Israeli intelligence agency, Shin Bet, which provides daily updates on whom and what to look for. But soldiers at checkpoints spend most of their time examining the identity documents issued by Israel and by the Palestinian Authority to every Palestinian aged sixteen and up. If a man’s residence is in Nablus but he’s headed for Bethlehem, the soldiers may turn him back. Or they may not. The arbitrariness of checkpoint-rule enforcement makes life miserable for Palestinians. For them checkpoints have become not just bureaucratic irritants but emblems of Israeli arrogance.

Whether at crossings of the security fence or at strategic points inside the territories, checkpoints provide the human face of the occupation—his is as close as some Israelis and Palestinians will ever come. The face is seldom friendly: taciturn soldiers meet put-upon civilians, investigate their documents, and decide (often according to mood, Palestinians say) whether they may cross over to the other side. Sometimes the soldiers make Palestinians wait for hours in holding areas. For the soldiers checkpoint life is often grindingly dull, stress-inducing, and alienating. For the Palestinians it is monumentally frustrating, humiliating, and anger-provoking.

Checkpoints can also be brutal. During my visit the Israeli military convicted the commander of the Hawara checkpoint, just south of Nablus, of beating numerous Palestinians and smashing the windows of ten Palestinian taxis. One of the army’s own cameramen had videotaped the commander in the act of bashing a Palestinian man in the face with his fist while the man’s toddler held on to his shirttails; the camera’s audio then picked up the sounds of the man’s being punched or kicked in the stomach inside a hut where the commander had dragged him. One of the cruelest indignities to which they are subjected, Palestinians say, is the capricious and sometimes hours-long detention of ambulances carrying Palestinian patients; according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, at least seventy-one Palestinians have died because they were delayed unnecessarily at checkpoints.

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Ted Conover is the author of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, and is a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University.

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