For Palestinians, Everyday Hardship at the Checkpoints

A key security measure by Israel is resented in the West Bank.

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Palestinians wait to have their IDs checked by Israeli soldiers at the Hawara checkpoint.

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Corrected on 1/2/08: An earlier version of this story misspelled Naomi Lalo's name.

Nablus, West Bank—Iyad Awad, a Palestinian visiting the village he left for Canada six years ago, is appalled at the Israeli Army's power over people in the West Bank. Bunched in line on a hot, dusty afternoon with hundreds of other Palestinians, Awad, 25, has waited two hours for Israeli soldiers to check his bags and id and let him pass through Hawara checkpoint, just north of the city of Nablus, so he can get back to his family. "Even animals in a pen aren't treated this way," he says loudly behind the turnstile.

The other Palestinians remain silent, anxious to be waved through. The soldiers look blank with boredom, except one young woman who defends the system. "Do you know we caught a boy trying to come through here with a bomb?" she tells Awad, but he holds his ground. "There's no reason to punish everyone like this," he says before finally being allowed to go on his way.

Awad and the soldier were each partly right: West Bank checkpoints do intercept armed terrorists, but they also hobble the daily lives of 2 million Palestinians, over 99.9 percent of whom are found to be unarmed. These way stations are a key sticking point in peace talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—talks that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to encourage during her Mideast visit this week in preparation for a promised November peace summit.

The White House hopes the summit will hasten an end to Israeli occupation and Palestinian terrorism. But underneath the diplomacy, on the actual ground that Israelis and Palestinians have fought over so long, President Bush's "vision" of a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel is nowhere to be seen. What can't be missed, though, are the slow-moving lines of hapless Palestinians facing fatigued Israeli soldiers searching for a metaphorical needle in a haystack.

Caught. Last week, they found one. At another checkpoint outside Nablus, a Palestinian teen was caught trying to smuggle pipe bombs to an accomplice allegedly planning a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. In the first half of the year, soldiers at checkpoints reported seizing 199 lethal weapons, including 87 bombs.

But these discoveries were made during millions of checkpoint crossings. And that's the dilemma. Retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz, a top official in the West Bank during the uprising known as the intifada, says checkpoints stop terrorists but also create new ones by stifling Palestinians' chance for a normal, decent life. "By restricting people's basic mobility," he says, "the checkpoints have a decisive effect on preventing the Palestinian economy from raising its head."

Another way checkpoints create terrorists is by the humiliating, at times brutal behavior of some soldiers on duty. Members of Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, an organization of female Israeli monitors, say beatings and shootings of innocent Palestinians are rare, but ridiculing them and detaining them for "answering back" are not. Monitor Naomi Lalo tells of one soldier "who would urinate on the shoes of Palestinian women. It took us many months of complaining to the Army before he was taken off checkpoint duty."

Outside the city of Tulkarm, facing a line of Palestinian drivers idling in the heat, a jaunty young soldier says Palestinians often try to jump the queue, or yell, or fight with other drivers. "We send them to the back of the line, we pull them out of line, and make them stand off on the side. There are ways to handle them. It's not a problem," the soldier says. Then he pointed out the bullet holes in a concrete block shielding the checkpoint, saying they'd been put there a few weeks before by a driver firing off-target at the soldiers, who shot him dead. Machsom Watch women say Palestinian witnesses told them the same story.

Obviously, the peacemakers' goal is a West Bank security system that stymies terrorists but not civilians. Abbas reportedly asked Olmert to remove 16 checkpoints—Machsom Watch counts 47 total, the Army isn't giving a number—and Israel may be obliged to make a gesture to Abbas. There are alternatives to checkpoints, says Paz, the ultimate one being the "gradual, careful" handover of West Bank security responsibility to Palestinian police. U.S. military advisers have been training them for just that purpose.