The extensive documentation compiled by both local and international human rights and humanitarian organizations over the six years of the al-Aqsa intifada depicts a general picture of the restrictive impact of checkpoints on Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Checkpoints impede the travel of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to East Jerusalem, from Gaza to the West Bank and vice versa, and from the West Bank and Gaza to the outside world. They make it extremely difficult for Palestinians even to move from one city to another and from one village to another within the same area or region. Around 50 permanent and manned checkpoints, more than 600 unmanned barriers and two international crossing points - one to Egypt and the other to Jordan - have transformed each and every Palestinian city, village and refugee camp into an island separate unto itself, or, as some would say, into a large prison.
These reports also reveal the material and nonmaterial losses caused by or associated with the checkpoints, as well as the intimidation, the humiliation, the general harassment to which Palestinians are subjected, and other inhuman and illegal practices perpetrated by the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints. They document the numbers of killings and injuries, as well as deaths and childbirths that have occurred at checkpoints, or due to the checkpoints. They tell of the agonizing journeys of dialysis patients to specialized hospitals and clinics, and of the denial of family members' or lawyers' visits to prisoners and detainees. But what these reports cannot do is reflect or replicate the personal experience at the checkpoints of each of the more than 3 million Palestinians and the human rights violations of which they have been victims over the decades of occupation.
As a measure of collective punishment explicitly banned by international humanitarian law, checkpoints affect each and every Palestinian in the OPT. Although never identical, their personal experiences exhibit what are called "family resemblances": the arduous journeys to the checkpoint(s), the long hours of waiting, the extra financial costs of travel, the time and energy wasted, the sweat and dust in the summer or the mud and rain in the winter, the arguments and altercations with the soldiers, the attempts to bypass the checkpoints by taking risky dirt roads - often by donkey - and the thoughts and feelings that accompany and color each journey from beginning to end.

What One Gives Up

Checkpoints have both manifest and latent implications. Manifest implications point to the direct and indirect material and nonmaterial losses, as well as to the personal suffering of those who manage to cross, or attempt but fail to pass through the checkpoints, for different purposes - work, education, medical treatment, worship, family visits, entertainment or travel. The latent implications, in contrast, refer to the direct and indirect losses and to the suffering of those who give up, those who do not even try to cross. Understandably, human rights and humanitarian organizations give prominence in their reports to the former category.
Because of the checkpoints and the arbitrary permit system associated with them, most Palestinians in the OPT are more inclined to give up moving from one location to another unless it is absolutely essential or urgent. Giving up becomes the primary coping mechanism. By giving up, one is spared the hazards and the costs of a difficult and humiliating journey, but this comes at a price:

* To decide to deliver at home with the help of a local midwife rather than at a hospital. UN reports refer to scores of delivery cases that have occurred at checkpoints, with a high rate of related infant mortality.
* To curtail visits to family or friends residing in different districts, and to forego attending weddings, funerals and other social occasions. And thus, Palestinians are becoming less connected.
* To give up going to the city of Jerusalem for prayer, education, entertainment or mere sightseeing.
* To give up travel abroad, unless it is vital.
* To give up a job or a position, or even to seek one, in a location outside one's area of residence.
* To give up studying or teaching in a college or university outside one's area of residence.
* To give up burying family members in their hometowns and to settle, for example, for Amman, where the person has died.
* To give up or postpone as much as possible medical treatment in a better hospital or clinic if such treatment requires an arduous journey to a city beyond the "infamous" checkpoint.
* To stop growing crops that need marketing in areas beyond the checkpoint, if there is no middleman to transport them.
* To give up the pleasure of going to the sea (in Gaza or Israel), or driving around in one's car on intercity highways to appreciate what nature has to offer in other parts of the country.
* To be denied visits by relatives and friends from the other side of the Green Line. Even Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have reduced their travel to the West Bank to absolutely essential trips.

The list of things people give up or are ready to give up is endless. It necessarily involves suffering and results in material and nonmaterial losses. For this reason, very few people can afford never to cross a checkpoint.

Impacts: Economic, Social and Psychological

Restriction on movement under all its forms - the erection of stationary, mobile or surprise ("flying") checkpoints; curfews; closures of areas; travel bans on certain main roads or entry into Israel - can be considered the primary cause for the impoverishment of the Palestinians in the OPT during the six years of the intifada. More than 120,000 laborers have lost their jobs inside Israel and therefore their main or only source of income. Unemployment has reached close to one-third of the labor force; as a result, 50% of the population now falls below the poverty line as defined by the World Bank (US$2 per capita per day). All sectors of the Palestinian economy have been hit hard, largely due to these restrictions.
Restrictions on movement also carry adverse social consequences, undermining the very fabric of Palestinian society. After years of high-intensity conflict, Palestinian society is becoming less robust, less cohesive and less tolerant, but more religious and conservative. Furthermore, social interaction between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has become almost nonexistent; a similar situation exists between West Bankers and the Israeli Palestinians. The extended family and the clan have come to assume special significance in the life of the average Palestinian, at the expense of civil society and official public institutions. Traditional (tribal) methods of dispute settlement have become much more trustworthy than the ineffective courts of law.
Because of the checkpoints, Palestinian students, youths, teachers, workers, artists and other professionals are generally confined to their areas of residence and are denied the possibility of intermingling with their colleagues or counterparts in other areas of the OPT. Even marriages between Palestinians residing in different locations have suffered a deadly blow. Thus, social interaction and integration have been significantly damaged, and this has been further compounded by other social problems associated with unemployment and poverty.
Not unsurprisingly, checkpoints, and chiefly the six-year-old siege, have had a detrimental effect on the psychological level as well. Checkpoints haunt people's minds all the time. You cannot make a plan, a promise, an appointment or a commitment without taking them seriously into account - especially if the activity requires crossing a checkpoint. Travel abroad has become a nightmare, since it involves enduring the hardships of the costly and complicated journey to the international crossing points and beyond. Checkpoints have to be taken into account in wedding arrangements, in burials and in visits to a sick parent or relative.
On a different level, checkpoints mean that the rest of the country with its space and landscape recedes into the distance and to the recesses of the mind. It becomes off-limits and unreachable. Your desire to see it is frustrated; your right to see it is indefinitely suspended. Checkpoints lay a siege around you: sometimes you ignore it, sometimes you repress it, but it is always lurking there in the background. It has become part of the harsh reality that you resent, hate and struggle to change.

Unconvincing Justifications

With the exceptions of those leading directly to Israel or dictated by overriding military considerations, checkpoints restrict the movement of Palestinians for the benefit of Jewish settlers who reside illegally in the OPT. Palestinians are confined to designated areas, and are not allowed to travel on certain roads, or are even placed under prolonged curfews so that settlers can commute freely and safely. In other words, Palestinians get collectively and ruthlessly punished so that settlers can be adequately protected and their wellbeing enhanced.
It is not easy to convince Palestinians that checkpoints and, for that matter, the separation wall, are where they are for purely security considerations or by military necessity. That is to say, Palestinians have good reason to believe that checkpoints constitute a punitive measure and are politically charged. They are persuaded that in addition to their role in protecting Israeli civilians, Jewish settlers and settlements, checkpoints are intended to humiliate and intimidate them, to weaken their resolve and to exert unbearable physical, economic and psychological pressure on them to drive them, eventually, to withdraw their material, political and moral support for the resistance against the occupation. They see in the location of the major checkpoints, just like the snaking route of the separation wall, ample evidence of the insatiable Israeli lust for annexation and land grab. More importantly, Palestinians are convinced that the major checkpoints, just like the separation wall are intended to block the creation of a viable and contiguous independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Arab Jerusalem as its capital. And in the absence of a clear and explicit Israeli commitment to a political settlement on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, it is difficult to prove them wrong.

One among Many

If the Palestinians in the OPT suffer from the consequences of restrictions on movement - and as a form of collective punishment checkpoints make everyone suffer - different groups of people are further subjected to additional sets of Israeli practices or violations of human rights.
Such violations might take the form of the use of excessive and disproportionate force, which so far has resulted in the death of more than 4,000 (about half of them innocent civilians, including more than 700 minors); extra-judicial killings (which so far have claimed over 400 lives of targeted and non-targeted individuals); bulldozing and confiscation of land; uprooting of fruit-bearing trees; house demolitions; the destruction of infrastructure (especially during military offensives); arrests and administrative detentions; settler violence against Palestinian civilians and their homes and crops; repeated incursions into areas under full Palestinian control; denial of access to holy places and shrines; denial of access to schools and fields due to the separation wall, and denial of work inside Israel; breaking into and searching of thousands of homes in the middle of the night; deportations or forcible transfers of scores of intifada activists from the West Bank to Gaza; closures of institutions and revoking of permanent residency status in East Jerusalem.
In light of this, it is perhaps a mistake to focus on the effects of checkpoints in isolation or in abstraction from the other practices and human rights violations. It is true that restrictions on movement (enforced by the checkpoints) are to blame for the bulk of the material and nonmaterial losses and related sufferings. But the gravity and intensity of the combined effects of the other practices and human rights violations should not be underestimated or allowed to recede into the background.

Empathizing with the Soldiers?

A certain measure of psychological distancing is needed to be able to appreciate the predicament of the soldiers manning the checkpoints and to see how they cope with the host of problems and moral dilemmas they might encounter daily and the nightmares that might haunt their sleep, and how their unmediated and intensive contact with Palestinians in the OPT reflects on their attitudes and patterns of behavior toward their fellow Israeli citizens. From the perspective of the detached and impartial observer, the soldiers manning the checkpoints can be objects of sympathy, even pity. They look tired, bored, frustrated, worried, and at times even scared to death. One can also think about the worries and concerns of their families and friends. But in the direct encounters between soldiers and Palestinians lining up to cross checkpoints or under curfew, an encounter characterized by psychological "under-distance," the dominant feelings of Palestinians are fear, resentment, anger, hatred, and contempt. These soldiers are, first and foremost, the representatives of the occupation, its principal agents of repression, harassment and humiliation.
In any case, one should not lose the ability to make important relevant distinctions: Not all the soldiers at the checkpoints share the same characteristics. Some seem to enjoy - even relish - commanding, harassing, humiliating and even beating Palestinians. There are those who appear to carry out and comply with instructions to the letter, without emotions, thoughts or moral scruples. Finally, there are soldiers who happen to be helpful, apologetic and considerate. To what extent their different attitudes reflect their political persuasion, education, age, ethnic background, rank or terms of service is not always easy to tell. Yet again, it is perhaps asking too much to expect the Palestinians to relate to the thoughts, feelings and moral problems of the agents of their occupiers and oppressors.


Checkpoints and, for that matter, the monstrous separation wall, are not the sort of fences that "make good neighbors." They are a form of violence and will only breed and nurture resentment and hatred, and they incur enormous material and nonmaterial losses on the Palestinians. Israel's legal and moral right to protect its citizens and soldiers from attacks is not in question - well over 1,000 were killed during the second intifada, and a very high percentage of them were civilians, including children. What is in question, however, is Israel's legal and moral right to collectively punish, humiliate, besiege and impoverish a whole nation in order to prevent or reduce attacks against its own citizens by a small minority of militants. This is a normative question that can and should be settled by appeal to moral principles and norms of international humanitarian law. Isn't it also the case that collective punishment increases, rather than decreases, violence and the motivation for violence? Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians and their respective supporters disagree about the truth or falsity of normative judgments, as well as about the facts. As a consequence, the vicious circle of violence and counter-violence remains unbroken.
I certainly am not one to advocate, justify or even tolerate violence against civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian. However, one has to be politically naïve and conceptually blind in order to sincerely believe that there is a way out of this cycle of violence and distrust other than through political action, predicated on the firm commitment to a reasonable and sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. <