A symptom more than a cause

There can be no doubt that the checkpoints (mahsomim, sing. mahsom in Hebrew) are one of the ugliest faces of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and, until recently, the Gaza Strip as well. Tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians are delayed in their legitimate travels at the checkpoints, and often emerge humiliated, harassed, and worse. The soldiers charged with manning the checkpoints are usually 18-20 year olds, poorly equipped to deal with the endless challenges presented to them by a hostile population in the course of shifts that can last 12 hours and more. The outcome is that the checkpoints, and the closures and occupation they represent, create a lot of angry Palestinians, a few of whom become terrorists.

A number of efforts have been made over the years by the Israel Defense Forces to add a more human face to the checkpoints: soldiers have undergone sensitivity training; older reservists, many of them Arabic speakers, have volunteered to help out; and the women of MachsomWatch have been welcomed by senior commanders. But at the human level, the situation remains abysmal.

The flip side of the checkpoints is that they really do work to uncover suicide bombers and other terrorists bent on attacking Israeli civilians. Some of the most notorious checkpoints, like Huwwara near Nablus, uncover and arrest the most terrorists. The more shocking cases are often shown on Israeli television: naive young boys and teenagers and mentally challenged individuals recruited by cynical terrorist organizations to carry bombs and wear explosive vests. It is not difficult to understand how IDF soldiers exposed to this reality become increasingly angry and hostile at the checkpoints, thereby helping perpetuate an endless cycle of conflict.

Judging by the status of checkpoints in other occupation situations in the region and the world–the latest example is the American and British occupation in Iraq– Israeli checkpoints are probably no worse, and indeed may be more efficient at their task, than the occupation "norm". In the given situation of conflict, occupation and settlement in the West Bank, Israel cannot do without them. While efforts to improve their efficiency and reduce the hardship they inflict on the civilian population are necessary and welcome, the checkpoints are essentially a symptom and an outcome of the real problem, rather than a cause.

In Gaza there are no longer any settlements, and there is an efficient security fence. Hence there are no longer Israeli checkpoints inside the Gaza Strip, and Gazans are free to move around freely. They complain, understandably, that they remain inside a "big prison". But at least, from their standpoint, the delays and humiliations of the checkpoints are gone. Israel can be protected from terrorist intruders using Gaza as a base without a physical IDF presence inside the Strip.

Checkpoints can be removed from all or most of the West Bank, as well, if the most intrusive settlements are removed and the security fence is completed. This can only be done by dint of a new Palestinian-Israeli political agreement or, more likely in the foreseeable future, through an additional phase of unilateral redeployment and dismantling of settlements. Though this would not constitute a solution to the conflict, it would bespeak additional security, geographic and demographic benefits for both sides.

This is the real way to get rid of the checkpoints. It is where we should concentrate our efforts in the coming months.