The twenty-minute drive from Ramallah to Jerusalem took me four-and-a-half hours this week. While I waited hundred of Palestinians walked by in the freezing rain, some parents clutching their children, others carrying their belongings, some paying young Palestinians from the nearby Qalandia refugee camp to carry their belongings on three wheel carts. It was six thirty pm when a boy not older than seven asked me to loan him five shekels after selling me a cup of coffee served from a thermostat for a shekel. He needed to reach 20 shekels for the day ($5) before he could go home.As I waited in my car I noticed that this huge crowd was held up by a couple armed soldiers who didn’t looked much older than 18 years old. These Israeli conscripts manned the check posts deciding at his whim to permit cars to go and when just to let them sit and wait.
This checkpoint like hundreds like it in the occupied Palestinian territories is the instrument of harassment and control that the Israeli army is using to subjugate a proud people whose crime is that they want freedom and liberty. No the checkpoint had nothing to do with security. When my turn finally came up, the Israeli soldier didn’t even ask for my documents, he kept his hands in his pockets as he waved me through with a turn of his head.
For years in the 70s and 80s Israel complained that there was no Palestinian to talk to. Last week I watched on Palestinian television as Yasser Arafat called on our people to refrain from attacks against Israelis even if they attack them. The Palestinian president also spoke to Israelis asking their leaders to go back to the negotiating table and work out the details needed for peace.
To most Palestinians Israel’s Sharon government doesn’t seem to be interested in genuine peace. In addition to these military posts, Israel has erected in Palestinian territories, many other checkpoints have been erected by Israel obstructing the road to peace.
* Political checkpoints: In a clear reversal of previous positions, Israel is refusing to recognize or deal with the Palestinian’s legitimate representative organization the PLO. Last week Israeli police arrested leading peace activists, Professor Sari Nusseibeh because he wanted to hold a reception in East Jerusalem for foreign diplomats on the occasion of the Moslem holiday Eid Al Fitr. Israel said it banned the reception because the announcement for the meeting was made in the name of the PLO.
* Economic checkpoints: For 15 months Israel has been devastating the Palestinian economy by its refusal to turn over to the Palestinian Authority millions of dollars worth of taxes and fees it collects from Palestinians. The European Union, the US and other countries have pressed Israel to respect its internationally binding agreements by turning over the monies taken from Palestinians. Israel’s decision to hold back the money coupled with its sieges on the Palestinian areas has brought the Palestinian economy to near bankruptcy and raised poverty and unemployment levels.
* Human checkpoints: the Israeli army is practicing a cruel and inhuman policy against a civilian population in contradiction to the fourth Geneva Convention. Not only are three million Palestinians held in an unbearable external siege, but travel ban is also enforced between Gaza and the West bank, between the west Bank and Jerusalem and between cities and villages. It is not an exaggeration when Palestinians say they live in a big prison.
* Apartheid Checkpoints: Permission to travel in the West Bank and Gaza is divided between Palestinians and non Palestinians. The latter have the freedom to travel on well paved and well lit Palestinian roads that are built for the exclusive use of the minority Jewish settlers. Palestinians who dare challenge the Israeli blockades not only endanger their lives but are forced to use dirt roads and back roads with plenty of pot holes. This apartheid practice is not restricted to roads but it applies to water and electricity use, government subsidized housing and major discrepancies in punishments for those convicted of stoning or shooting at the other.
* Internal law checkpoints: the intensive Israeli bombings of Palestinian police stations and the blowing up of the Voice of Palestine has affected the ability of the Palestinian Authority from governing. Internal law and order is in jeopardy and the ability of the government to communicate to its own people has been substantially weakened by the Israeli actions.
These Israeli checkpoints are a natural result of the policies of occupation. Democracy and human rights are incompatible with a country using military force to rule a people against their will while providing for an imposed settler population a different set of laws and practices.
The international committee investigating the events in Palestine recommended that Israel end its policy of besieging the Palestinian population and begin immediate negotiations to settle the conflict. Palestinian president has called for and enforced a unilateral cease fire. Palestinian police, many literally sleeping in the streets ( for fear that they will be shelled in their offices) are rounding up Islamic militants in an effort to end their activities. Islamic Hamas has publicly announced a cessation of its anti Israeli activities.
It is high time that Israel remove military and other forms of check points . Collective punishment against Palestinian must end and, allowing the beginning of serious negotiations aimed at what President Bush and Secretary Powel called for: “the need to end occupation” and the creation of two states. A free and independent Palestine, alongside a safe and secure Israel.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.