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Israeli checkpoints become state-of-the-art barriers

Palestinians say terminals are an ominous sign

QALQILIYA, West Bank — Checkpoint 107, its walls painted in calming cream and light blue, is the flagship of Israel's new plan for defending itself while reducing hardship for ordinary Palestinians. It has everything from air-conditioned waiting halls to a blast-proof cell for suicide bombers.

The doctrine says 11 such high-tech terminals — to be built into Israel's separation barrier — will streamline control of Palestinian access to Israel and make it possible to lift some of the life-disrupting checkpoints deeper in the West Bank.

However, Israel also intends to keep some of those checkpoints ringing Palestinian towns, investing millions to turn those makeshift barriers into formidable obstacles. Palestinians say lavish spending on holding cells, cattle pen-type enclosures and iron turnstiles are sending an ominous message that their misery is being institutionalized.

The overhaul of the army's checkpoint philosophy fits tightly into Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians.

After a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank, the separation barrier would presumably become Israel's de facto border for years to come until a peace deal draws the final lines.

The military says the changes are meant to bring order to sometimes chaotic passage points inside the West Bank, where long lines form as Palestinians try to get to jobs and schools.

At one of the internal West Bank checkpoints, near the village of Beit Iba north of the West Bank city of Nablus, some 600 Palestinians crowded into a waiting shed on a recent hot day. The crush from behind pushed those in the front up against the iron bars, jamming the turnstiles closed.

"We feel like animals standing in these long rows. It's like an animal shed," said Sylvia Azzar, 21, a pharmacy student at Nablus' An-Najah University, after spending two hours at the newly refurbished crossing.

Several women fainted in the afternoon heat. Young girls cried with relief as they finally emerged to have their documents and bags checked.

Baruch Spiegel, the former general assigned to revamp the roadblocks, said his intentions are good.

"Our goal is to eliminate double checking and move most of the checks to the Green Line," he said, referring to Israel's frontier before it captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.

During the past four years of fighting, roadblocks have created constant friction between harried young army recruits and large crowds of frustrated and angry Palestinians, who are often held up for hours.

The checkpoints themselves have become targets, and officers say they often create more problems than they solve. Captured bombers have cited the humiliation at roadblocks as a motive for launching attacks.

Army planners started thinking about new roadblock ideas after Israel's major military offensive in 2002, in which most Palestinian towns were sealed off.

"After the first few months we realized we could not carry on like that," said Lt. Col. Erez Winner, the army's West Bank operations officer, in charge of implementing the new doctrine.

In the past year, the number of manned checkpoints in the West Bank has dropped from 73 to 39, according to Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

To illustrate its new approach, the army points to the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, right on the Green Line.

The town of 45,000 is surrounded on three sides by the separation barrier. Until a few months ago, it was also cut off from the rest of the West Bank by a roadblock to the east. After a sufficient stretch of barrier was completed to the north and south of the town, the roadblock was removed, and traffic is flowing freely into the West Bank.

"In an absurd way, the fence helps the Palestinian civilians," said Col. Tamir Hayman, the commander of the Qalqiliya area. "It allows us to take calculated risks," like removing the roadblock.

The Palestinians say the barrier, built on West Bank territory, is an attempt to annex land they claim for a future state. They say they have no objection to Israel fencing itself in, as long as it is not seizing West Bank land.

Hayman said that before the completion of the barrier, more than 40 bombers infiltrated Israel from the c. Afterward, none got through.

He said the barrier amounts to far more than just walls, razor wires and trenches. In a new command post overlooking Qalqiliya, soldiers monitor screens showing high-resolution images from security cameras along a 30-mile segment of the barrier.

Touching the barrier triggers a signal at the command center, allowing the operators to zoom in, day and night, and if necessary scramble troops.

Checkpoint 107, to the north of Qalqiliya, is being built for Palestinians entering Israel to work. Walking into an air-conditioned hall, they will go through metal detectors and X-ray machines operated from bombproof cubicles, then through a turnstile to the waiting permit inspectors.

But if someone arouses suspicions, the turnstile shuts down and the suspect is guided into the blast room. "He can go ahead and blow up in there if he wants," said Hayman.

Officials have not said how they will determine, once the suspect is in the cell, whether he or she is really a bomber.

Biometric ID technologies are expected to speed inspections to more than 1,000 people an hour — much faster than now.

Spiegel said the ultimate goal is to remove the army from checkpoints on the Green Line and employ private security firms such as those at regular border crossings and airports.

But three checkpoints around Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, enforce an army siege on 135,000 people and under Spiegel's influence have grown into large installations. Major barriers also continue to slow traffic in and out of other Palestinian towns, including Jenin, Ramallah and Jericho.

The army says it has spent $2.2 million on upgrades to provide shade and other facilities. It points to trial procedures in some areas to smooth the crossings, including portable X-ray machines and laptop computers to check papers.

The Beit Iba checkpoint near Nablus has gone from a few concrete blocks and sandbags to hip-high concrete dividers under corrugated tin roofs, with turnstiles, a holding pen and a detention cell just large enough for one man to stand in.

The army says Nablus is a hotbed of militant activity, and it is too risky to lift the siege.

Palestinians say Israel is trying to crush their spirit by making a temporary system permanent. "This is not really to check us, they just want to give us problems," said Massoub Kasha, 20, a student.