Security or control? The truth behind Israel’s checkpoints

By EA Theresa, Southern West Bank

At Beit Yatir in the very south of the West Bank there is a checkpoint that is not on the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line between Israel and occupied Palestine). Instead, the checkpoint sits a couple of kilometres on the West Bank side and, in fact, helps protect a prime piece of real estate on a high hill overlooking the South Hebron Hills and Yatta, where the illegal Israeli settlements of Mezadot Yahuda and Nof Nesher are. The settlements are protected both the checkpoint and the illegal Separation Barrier to the north and west.

The Beit Yatir Checkpoint taken from the village of A Seefer [Photo: EAPPI/T.Mansbridge]

The Beit Yatir checkpoint taken from the village of A Seefer [Photo: EAPPI/T.Mansbridge]

However, within this area – known as the ‘seam zone’ (an area caught between the Green Line and the barrier) – is also the village of A Seefer, whose land this is. The village and its three families are totally isolated from everyone and all facilities. Even the UN Human Rights Commission cannot enter the area. This means that everything has to come in through the checkpoint or take a very long detour out of the seam zone on old tracks to get through the uncompleted part of the Separation Barrier to the south and east.

The children here, who number about 20, go through the checkpoint every day for school. The older boys go through and are collected by taxi to go to school in Yatta or At Tuwani. The rest go through the checkpoint and walk about 1km along the road to Imneizil School. The road is alongside the Separation Barrier with its rows of razor wire, fence, security track and second fence.

The road to Imneizil school from Beit Yatir Checkpoint on the right. You can see part of the Separation Barrier following the edge of the road on the left [Photo: EAPPI/T.Mansbridge]

The road to the Imneizil School from Beit Yatir Checkpoint on the right. You can see part of the Separation Barrier following the edge of the road on the left [Photo: EAPPI/T.Mansbridge]

We have observed that the children are often subjected to unnecessary checks and handled roughly by the guards. And the older girls are often held up for some time – on the auspices of having their IDs checked (once you are 16 years old in occupied Palestine, the Israeli authorities require you to have your own ID). But these children are seen daily and are known by the guards – so asking to see their ID every day, twice a day, is ridiculous. Sometimes the girls are sent off to the security room to go through the x-ray machine and metal detector. They are usually sent alone and often without a female guard in attendance.

On talking to the headmaster of the school we heard that the children from A Seefer are often late for school, are often less attentive in class and that their grades are lower than other pupils of the same age.

It appears that the trauma of living such an isolated existence and travelling through the checkpoints daily is affecting these children’s education and therefore their future opportunities.

Everyone who has visited the West Bank will have experienced a checkpoint or two. Many tourists however may not realise the seriousness of these impediments to travel as vehicles for internationals are often just waved through. At a quick glance, the checkpoints used by tourists and Israelis look much like toll booths on a main road.

But these checkpoints cannot be used by Palestinians. The ones that are for their use are much larger constructions and have a big effect on the free movement of the Palestinian population.

The Israeli authorities argue that checkpoints are put in place to prevent ‘terrorists’ entering Israel. However, many of the checkpoints are internal to the West Bank and not on the Green Line between Israel and occupied Palestine, as with the one at Beit Yatir. Many human rights organisations say that they are more about control of the civilian population than security.

There are many types of checkpoints here in the Hebron Governorate. Here is a quick list of the type and number of each:

  • Checkpoints at the separation barrier but not on the Green Line and within the West Bank: 13
  • Checkpoints on the Green Line: 2
  • Partial checkpoints that are on main roads within the West Bank: 6
  • Earthmounds that are on main roads in the West Bank and can be quickly used to block roads: 73
  • Roadblocks that are also on main roads which can be quickly used to block roads: 24
  • Road gates that are permanently closed: 8
  • Road gates that are usually open: 23

These do not include the 84 additional types of closure within the city of Hebron itself.

As well as monitoring the checkpoint at Beit Yatir, the EAPPI team here also monitors the checkpoint at Meitar.

Meitar is a checkpoint on the Green Line through which Palestinians with the right permits can enter into Israel for work or other reasons. Many enter Israel for work as the employment opportunities in the West Bank are low. The West Bank population is on the whole well-educated but with few opportunities for well paid work it is common to find accountants, lawyers and teachers working in Israel as labourers. A teacher in the West Bank currently only receives 60% of his or her salary due to the Israelis withholding taxes from the Palestinian Authority. So if you can earn more labouring in Israel it is worth the gamble to provide for your family.

So how do you get a permit?

First, you have to have a job. So many Palestinians rely on others telling them of work or enter Israel illegally to search for work.

Once you find a job the employer applies for a permit for you. The employer owns the permit not the worker – this means that workers are at the mercy of the employer. If the employer does not want to pay you he can just tell the Israeli authorities that he does not need you and the next time you go to the checkpoint to go to work you find your permit rejected – and you are out of pocket. Employers are known to use this to save on salaries, get rid of workers who want to unionise and to intimidate workers.

Assuming you have a permit and need to get to work for 8.30am – the start of the normal working day in Israel – you get up at 3am to travel to Meitar from your home in the South Hebron Hills and join the queue into the checkpoint.

I went through the checkpoint on a quiet day with not many people and no queue to speak of. The whole process took over half an hour and was nerve racking and intimidating.

Normally though this whole process can take over an hour for a worker. By 4am when the checkpoint opens for business there are already 600-1000 men crammed into the shed queuing to go through. There are no seats except one bench just before the main turnstile out of the West Bank, where many wait if they think they are too early for their buses. The noise in the shed surges between shuffling feet and quiet conversation into shouting and cursing, pushing and shoving as people climb over the barriers to try to jump the queue, particularly if the line is moving slowly and people think they will be late for work.

During our duty on a Sunday (the beginning of the Israeli working week) we regularly count 6000-7000 people going through in the three hours between 4am and 7am.

And if you are a woman, elderly or trying to go for treatment, your only alternative to joining this throng is to wait until 6am when the humanitarian gate opens. This allows women, sometimes the elderly and those with medical permits through a side gate to miss out the queuing – but they still need to go through the checkpoint with all its checks.

And what happens if your permit is not accepted? You get sent right back. This can happen for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Your permit has expired (as described earlier, employers can end your permit without your knowledge)
  • Your permit is damaged and is no longer legible
  • Your ID is not registering in the electronic equipment (this is quite common)

Workers in these situations will have to go to the Israeli District Commander’s Office to get a new ID or permit before they can try to go through the checkpoint again.

And does all this stop terrorist attacks as stated by the Israeli government?

Well, whilst at Meitar we regularly saw tens – and in some cases hundreds – of people walking over the hills near Meitar into Israel. We were told these were illegal workers who risk going through, or over, the Separation Barrier, which in this area is a just a small fence, not the large concrete wall you see elsewhere. Many get through – so a determined terrorist could also get through just as easily. And in the south of the country between Beit Yatir and the Dead Sea there are large sections of the Green Line without any barrier at all and where people regularly drive through to Israel by car.

It is therefore hard to see how the checkpoints and Separation Barrier work as a security measure.