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Checkpoints take toll on palestinians israelis { November 29 2004 }

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Checkpoints Take Toll on Palestinians, Israeli Army
Civilians Describe Abuse; Troops Lament Conditions
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page A01

HAWARA, West Bank -- At a sandbagged military checkpoint on a bleak patch of asphalt in the West Bank, an Israeli soldier yanked 29-year-old Mohammad Yousef out of a Palestinian ambulance. When Yousef's medical papers were produced, the soldier waved them off and bellowed, "I wouldn't let you in even if you brought God here with you!"

In long lines nearby, hundreds of Palestinians on foot jammed against a narrow turnstile, each waiting to be allowed to proceed -- one by one -- through concrete lanes resembling cattle chutes. All males under the age of 30 were turned away. So were all students, male and female.

"Open! Open!" a chorus of angry men shouted at the armed Israeli soldiers who controlled the gates holding back the Palestinians. As a thin man with a swath of black stubble across his face squeezed through the turnstile, his 18-month-old toddler became wedged between the bars. "Open it! Open it!" he screamed, cursing at the soldiers and gripping the whimpering child by one arm.

For two neighboring societies segregated by the physical and psychological barriers of a conflict dragging into its fifth year, the most intimate contact between Israelis and Palestinians occurs over the barrel of a gun at the 61 manned military checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such encounters exact a heavy toll on both sides, as evinced by accounts from former checkpoint guards who describe working under dehumanizing conditions, and by numerous reports of abuses committed by such soldiers against Palestinian civilians.

"Most soldiers prefer to be under fire than at those roadblocks," said Staff Sgt. Ran Ridnick, 21, a marksman for the Israeli military's elite 202nd Paratroop Battalion who spent six months this year here at the Hawara checkpoint. "The mission is dreadful. . . . It tears you apart."

Michael Aman, 21, another staff sergeant who served in the same battalion, said: "Everyone, no matter how moral, if he feels a commitment to the mission, will or could fall into violence. We're all told we shouldn't behave badly to civilians -- never hit them, never yell. But after eight hours in the sun, you're not so strong."

The Israeli military says the checkpoints are necessary to protect Israel and Jewish settlements in the territories from Palestinian attackers. Government and military officials have repeatedly cited the system of checkpoints in the West Bank as one of several factors contributing to a steady reduction in the number of suicide bombings against Israeli targets in the past two years.

At the same time, Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of abuse by Israeli troops against Palestinians at roadblocks: beatings, shootings, harassment, humiliation and life-threatening delays. Last year, a female Israeli soldier assigned to a Gaza Strip checkpoint was convicted of forcing a Palestinian woman at gunpoint to drink a bottle of cleaning fluid, according to court records. This month, soldiers at the Beit Iba checkpoint, not far from the Hawara checkpoint, ordered a Palestinian to open his violin case and play for them while the lines behind him grew.

At least 83 Palestinians seeking medical care have died during delays at checkpoints, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. At the same time, 39 Israeli soldiers and police officers have been killed at checkpoints and roadblocks, according to the Israeli military. A year ago, two Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint south of Jerusalem were shot dead by a Palestinian who carried an automatic rifle rolled in a prayer rug.

A Glimpse of Brutality

The Hawara checkpoint sits on the edge of the village of the same name, just south of Nablus. It severs a pocked highway that is the main artery connecting the West Bank's northern cities to its major population centers in the south. The nearest border with Israel is 16 miles away as the crow flies, farther by road.

On days when the Hawara checkpoint is open, it is one of the busiest in the West Bank. Sometimes as many as 5,000 Palestinians a day request permission to cross. They stand in line in searing heat or icy rains, depending on the season, until they reach an open-air shed with a corrugated tin roof. Often packed together by the hundreds, they must then wait their turn to pass, one by one, through narrow metal turnstiles that the soldiers open and close electronically.

As the Palestinians inch forward, armed soldiers standing behind sandbagged concrete walls shout orders to have bags opened and their contents dumped on the ground. On one recent morning, soldiers demanded that a man squirt shaving cream from an aerosol can to verify its contents. They ordered another man to rip the red-and-silver wrapping paper off a box to reveal what was inside: a doll for his granddaughter.

"You can't look at a person and know if he's good or bad," said Israeli Sgt. Nadav Efrati, a stocky, square-faced 21-year-old who recently finished his military service after spending months at the Hawara checkpoint. He said the limited Arabic that the Israeli army teaches most of its soldiers exacerbates the friction between the two peoples. "The main words they taught us were: 'Stop. If not, I will shoot you,' " Efrati said.

Early this year, the tension and animosity between soldiers and Palestinians at the Hawara checkpoint sparked an incident so brutal that it spurred the Israeli military to confront the devastating effect the checkpoint system has had -- not only on Palestinian civilians, but also within its own ranks.

On an unusually cold January day, hundreds of Palestinians waited to pass through the Hawara checkpoint. Snow dusted the ground, and tempers and patience rubbed raw on both ends of the lines that crept toward the soldiers of the 202nd Paratroops. A camera crew from the army's Education Corps maneuvered around the soldiers and Palestinians, collecting video footage and interviews for a training tape.

"Go home! What's your problem?" shouted the checkpoint commander, a gaunt staff sergeant whose face was partially hidden beneath his helmet. The camera focused on the sergeant -- a Bedouin, rare in the Israeli military -- as he continued yelling in Arabic at an agitated Palestinian man grasping the hand of a small child. "Shut up! Shut up! Go back, go back, everyone go back. No one through -- everyone go back."

The video did not capture the next exchange, but other soldiers at the checkpoint said in interviews that the Palestinian man began screaming at the 23-year-old sergeant. The sergeant handcuffed the man with disposable plastic cuffs and ordered him to sit on the ground.

Suddenly, the camera jerked toward the sergeant. He bashed the Palestinian man in the face with his fist. The man's hysterical wife and two weeping children tried to squeeze between him and the sergeant. The soldier shoved the Palestinian into a hut as the army cameraman followed close behind.

The man's toddler son clung to his father's shirttail until soldiers brushed him away like a fly. The soldier flipped a blanket over the window of the hut, and the camera's audio picked up the Palestinian's muffled cries as the soldier punched him in the stomach.

"For them, you see, they don't have a problem getting beaten up," the sergeant explained before the video camera a short time later. "It's the humiliation in front of all the people, the wife and children. I try to do it so they don't see me, so it's not in front of the people."

A soldier from the Education Corps asked the sergeant why he had attacked a defenseless, handcuffed Palestinian.

"Because he was beaten, then everybody learns and no one fools around with us," the sergeant said. As he spoke, the camera shifted to the Palestinian's wife and children sitting in the dirt. The youngsters wore colorful party hats their mother had offered to distract them.

With the army video as evidence, Israeli military officials prosecuted the soldier -- one of only a handful of checkpoint abuse cases ever brought to court, according to lawyers and military officials.

After a five-day military trial, the sergeant pleaded guilty in late September to assault charges stemming from the beating. He also admitted beating at least eight other Palestinians at the checkpoint and smashing the windshields of 10 Palestinian taxicabs as commander of the post from mid-January through the end of February.

The court prohibited the publication of the soldier's name and home town for fear of retribution against him or his family.

The military indictment accused the sergeant of habitually using violence against Palestinians who refused his orders to wait in line or who shouted at him. In as many as five incidents, he "kicked them forcefully in their buttocks and pushed them backwards or assaulted them with punches and kicks," the indictment said. Other times he took recalcitrant men into "the women's checking tent that was empty and . . . beat them either by punching them or kicking them in their stomach."

A three-member military judicial panel sentenced him to six months in jail, half of which he had already served, and demoted him to the rank of private.

Checkpoint duty "is in the hands of a very small number of young soldiers who do not have the proper training and proficiency in security checks," the judges wrote. "It is difficult and wearing, threatening and frustrating. . . . In imposing the punishment, it is difficult to escape the fact that the accused had to face a situation which was above his powers."

'These Duties Corrupt'

The case exposed far more than a single soldier's violent misdeeds. During the trial, soldiers who had served at the Hawara checkpoint over the past year gave testimony describing what they said were common, accepted practices among combat soldiers who detested checkpoint duty and often received little or no training for what they considered a policeman's job. In testimony and in interviews, they also argued that the army and Israeli society should accept some of the blame for abuses that they said were the result of an impossible mission.

"When we do all these things, we are not doing it only to the Palestinians, but to ourselves, too," said Aman, who was a friend of the convicted sergeant and recently finished his military service. "The most important discussion should be in our own society. If you blame the soldiers, you miss the point. . . . These duties corrupt."

For the convicted sergeant, the pressures were magnified because he was a Bedouin, an Israeli Arab in an overwhelmingly Jewish army engaged in combat against Arabs. Service in the Israeli armed forces -- which is mandatory for Israelis -- is voluntary for members of the Bedouin tribes. "People in the village did not like it that I contributed to the army," the soldier said in court.

Unlike his Hebrew-speaking comrades, he understood every word the Palestinians uttered in Arabic. "I heard them behind my back," he testified. "Traitor. Dog."

After two weeks in command of the checkpoint, he said, he asked his senior officer, Lt. Col. Guy Hazut, to take him off the assignment. Hazut, a 15-year military veteran, said in court that he refused: "It didn't seem right for a commander to leave his soldiers three weeks before the end of their term."

The soldier's trial and the publicity surrounding it contributed to efforts by the military to provide more instruction to soldiers assigned to checkpoints, to improve facilities and to begin training a new military police corps, according to military officials. The soldiers who have served at the roadblocks said those initiatives were a start, but that they did not address the main problem.

The constant struggle to balance the security of their men and their country with the pleas of elderly women who remind the soldiers of their own stubborn grandmothers is emotionally debilitating, Staff Sgt. Sergey Zamensky, an emigrant from Siberia, said in an interview in the central Israeli industrial town of Rishon Letzion where he resides.

Zamensky, 21, also spent months at the Hawara checkpoint before he finished his tour of duty this summer. He and his fellow commanders described turning away a tearful young bride in a white gown on her wedding day and forcing students to miss final exams because the checkpoint was closed.

"Every day, the regulations were different," Zamensky said. "One day, you can let everyone pass; on another, no one is able to come in. It's very difficult to explain. They don't care if someone in Nablus wants to explode himself in Israel. They just want to live their life. Regardless of how strong you are, dealing with these problems is too much."

Zamensky, who attended many of the court sessions in support of his Bedouin friend and comrade, added: "They say if you're a good person, there's no way you should be doing anything like this and be violent. They don't understand the situation. They're living in a movie."

Researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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