‘Checkpoints’, ‘barriers’, ‘closure’, ‘breathing closure’, ‘restriction of movement’, ‘fenced pens’, ‘the right to livelihood’, as well as – police brutality exerted against civilians…false arrests, water cannons to disperse demonstrators… 2020, year of Covid-19/Corona virus and the nationwide demonstrations turned these ‘new’ terms into household words inside Israel, whereas they have been the daily ‘bread’ of millions of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank for decades of occupation. But this is still a far cry from what is going on in the Occupied Territories. There, in order to block and disperse protest demonstrations, even non-violent ones, the Israeli occupation forces use teargas grenades, at times live fire, stench cannons and rubber-coated metal bullets. In both cases, personal liberty is denied with the excuses of guarding lives: in the Occupied Territories the grounds are always ‘security’, whereas inside the ‘green line’ (Israel proper) the grounds are of stopping the pandemic.
In our MachsoWatch activity over the year, we saw how the denial of basic human rights, and first and foremost the right to freedom of movement, on which many other rights are based – transforms in the Occupied Territories, mostly with no real security justification and eventually infiltrates Israeli society and our own lives…
People coming from Nablus must cross the metal detector recently installed there, one by one. Close to 1,000 persons stand horribly crowded inside a narrow compound, waiting for 4-6 hours. One cannot accelerate passage. Humanitarian cases remain at the end of the line, unable to cross inside the crowded human mass, or even ask to be let through first. A woman in labor, a disabled amputee, a blind person, elderly women and mothers with babies – all stand for hours, swallowed by the crowd and unable to advance. The soldiers cannot even identify people needing help. And truth be told, one cannot even inspect them. One woman and a family remained there still as dark feel and we left.
What we witnessed at the checkpoints, day in day out, were masses of people, young and old, women, children, babies, standing helpless in lines that hardly move. Sights outrageous, inconceivable: babies crying incessantly in the arms of their mothers, students on the morning of their last exam (if they’re late, they lose their year’s studies), patients on their way to medical care, exhausted workers returning from their workday that began at 3 a.m. – all stuck in paralyzed lines, waving their documents in an attempt to get some air. Once in a while the line resounds with grunts, pushes, and the soldier repeats the only words he knows in Arabic while raising his hands: Irja lawara, Stand back! And the entire human mass is pushed back. We watch these shameful sights, shocked and helpless, facing cries meant for us: “Hey, aren’t we humans too?” “If you cannot help, go home and drink your coffee”, “This is how you want to make peace?”
“Little” things that disrupt life, completely: Taxi cabs are not allowed to cross the checkpoint, so that whoever is bound for some further destination must change several taxis, within a ride of less than an hour, originally…. Thus, every morning and afternoon, on the way to work, to study, and for various errands, rides were becoming long and expensive, and fill people with frustration and insoluble anger. We met a student who had to get to university every day, morning and evening, and it took her four hours from home and back
(the distance of a half-hour ride), through all the checkpoints, barriers and bypasses and changing cabs – and at times only to discover at the last checkpoint, that Nablus was suddenly under closure, without previous warning!
Trampling people’s dignity: fenced pens wound up in Israel in 2020 to imprison protesters and cram them into a confined area without allowing them to return home. At the Nablus checkpoints they were permanent. beside the checkpoint was a small pen, called jora by the soldiers (Arabic for hole in the ground), a kind of punishing compound that could contain 10-12 persons who had dared complain aloud of their suffering, like a respected university lecturer who crossed over to a track that was not his, and when they noticed him he begged, in vain, to have all his documents taken from him but not let his students see him locked in the jora.. The checkpoint commander (sergeant or officer) had the authority to detain anyone in the jora as he sees fit, up to three hours without the case being further checked for security information.
Soldiers in the surreal reality of the checkpoints: armed and equipped from head to toe with heavy, suffocating protective means and standing for long hours facing a hostile crowd – gradually the soldiers lose patience and some of them simply behave violently to let off steam.
Did the Nablus Checkpoints prevent terrorism?
The more insights and knowledge we acquired, all the larger grew the gap between us and most of the Israeli public that feeds only on indifferent media and government officials. The mantras repeated that “checkpoints prevent terrorism”, but we knew that somewhere away from the checkpoint there are tracks quite well-known to whoever is interested or needs to work in Israel, or arrive in Tel Aviv with an explosive belt or suitcase. We realized that checkpoints do not prevent terrorism, they create it, as the Palestinians said themselves. At times, at the end of our vigil and on our way home we saw numerous Palestinians walking on their way to work as illegal aliens inside Israel.
In 2008 the Nablus checkpoints underwent technologies upgrading at huge monetary investments. It seemed that their status was being fixed as permanent checkpoints. And then all of a sudden… one bright morning they simply disappeared. Beit Iba Checkpoint vanished completely. Huwwara Checkpoint became unmanned and was only supposed to be operated at times, under special circumstances. This, in spite of the settlers’ cries that their lives were at risk… and wonder of wonders – according to the Israeli army’s reports, the number of terrorist attacks was reduced.
12 years later, in 2020? The Nablus checkpoints are inactive, but the occupation is alive and kicking, transforming, becoming ever more sophisticated like clockwork, and injustices abound.
Landgrab and settler-colonist violence
Entering and exiting the big Palestinian cities have indeed become easier, but the lives of Palestinian villagers have remained harsh and bitter. Only a few journalists and human rights organizations who follow them closely know the scope of the settlement project’s effect – a project that has flourished in the second decade of the 2000s – upon life in the neighbouring villages. The settlers have begun to take growing, healthy bites from Palestinian-owned lands near them, block the movement of Palestinians along roads close to the settlements, and on side access tracks to villages and their olive tree groves. Most of the villages, forced into becoming neighbours of Israeli settlers, have suffered and are suffering from increasing violence from these neighbours from hell, often backed up by Israeli soldiers.
Three examples out of many:
- About 2,000 dunams from Bourin village’s land have been confiscated for the settler-colony of Har Beracha. The village has been suffering for years from violence exerted by the ‘hills youth’.
- from Yitzhar in the south as well as Har Beracha in the north. Creeping de-facto annexation is taking place under such violence.
- The town of Aqraba used to own 142,000 dunams of land, mostly privately-owned, down to the Palestinian Jordan Valley. About half of this area has now been sequestered for the settlers the Palestinian Jordan Valley. Acts of violence, the burning of a mosque and even killing have been the fate of this quiet town for years.
- 4,000 dunams have been confiscated from the village of Qaddoum, and the main and shorter road to the nearby city of Nablus has been blocked and the Palestinians have to wend their way now about 14 kilometres of potholed tracks in favour of the settler-colony of Kedumim. Since 2011 villagers have been demonstrating in demand to open the road, and the Israeli army violently quenches these protests. Many have been wounded, among them several children who were critically hurt.
The Separation Barrier (fence and wall) has been built, and new checkpoints have popped up along with it. Any state has the right to put up a barrier that would protect its borders. However, the fence/wall was erected east of the ‘green line’ and caged Palestinian communities west of it, as well as thousands of dunams of privately-owned farmland. The route was not set for security reasons – on the contrary, if the fence were erected west of Palestinian lands, safeguarding security would have been much simpler. It was built in order to incrementally annex de-facto settler-colonies, and lands planned for their expansion. The area between the ‘green line’ and the Separation Fence was delicately named “the seam zone’. It connotes delicate stitches connecting peoples. The reality of the matter is that the inhabitants of this ‘seam zone’ were issued a special permit to continue living in their homes, and other Palestinians are forbidden to come visit. Israel opened several ‘agricultural gates’ in the fence, through which farmers would travel to work their lands.
The agricultural gates are nothing but checkpoints. First – in order for the farming landowner to reach his fields beyond the separation fence, he needs a permit that is hard to come by and must be re-issued seasonally. This has created a complex bureaucracy of restrictions and prohibitions. Second – most of these gates are closed and locked and those that open enable crossing (lasting 15 minutes on the dot) a few times a week, twice to three times a day, or with advance coordination. Third – many fields are only about 500 meters from their owners’ homes, but the farmer gets a permit to cross only a gate that is 8 km distant from his fields. Consequently, the farmers are prevented from work their lands properly, to the point that the ground is neglected and is then annexed to Israel and the nearby settler-colonies.
The basic human rights to which every person is entitled are the following: freedom of movement, the right to livelihood, the right to own one’s property, freedom of expression. In the Occupied Territories we witness an apparatus that violates these rights, constantly transforming but consistent and deepening. Intended denial of such rights is not derived from safeguarding security and life, but rather from controlling the freedom of humans. Now it has already begun to infiltrate Israeli society as well, and our fear is being realized – oppressing millions of people necessarily affects the democratic fiber of our state.