Israeli army checkpoints are present on all roads around Jerusalem leading to or through the Palestinian Authority. They are the official and regulated holes in the wall separating between “us” and “them.”

Checkpoint near Jerusalem, Nov. 2015

Can it keep out danger? Checkpoint near Jerusalem, Nov. 2015

I have crossed checkpoints hundreds of times; mostly, in order to meet friends at the Palestinian side of the wall. Let me tell you a bit more of what you may not want to know about these checkpoints.

Checkpoints are staffed by armed Israeli soldiers, backed by security guards. These youngsters, like your daughter, your brother or your neighbor, stand there for many hours in a row, during day and night, in heat and in cold, checking car after car and person after person. They have the impossible task to keep out those who could be a danger to Israel’s security.

I will leave for another discussion what we consider security, if we include also the security of non-Jewish citizens, if our greatest enemies are truly expected to come through these gates and whether their immense hindrance of the Palestinian population is justified.

In the direction of areas under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, cars are hardly ever stopped, but in the direction toward Jerusalem things are different, with great disparities between checkpoints. At some checkpoints, private cars are stopped every so often. At others, each car is halted, all passengers are requested to show identity cards, and often the luggage compartment of the car is investigated. When suspicion arises, which happens virtually only when it concerns Palestinians (or foreigners), passengers are delayed and interrogated and also the inside of the car could be searched. Whereas Israeli buses usually drive through without interference, Palestinian buses are stopped and passengers have to get off in order to be checked.

The time to pass a checkpoint varies substantially. Checkpoints, like the one at Qalandia, have often long queues. Thus, the time it takes by car from Ramallah to Jerusalem, cities that are only 14 km (9 miles) apart, can take up to an hour and a half. The time it takes to pass depends on the part of the day, or whether there was a security alert.

At larger checkpoints, Palestinian pedestrians are often demanded to line up like cattle in a cage. They are searched and sometimes requested to undress. Smaller checkpoints are merely gates in the wall and open only for short periods of time. However, one cannot be certain of the exact hours of opening. Thus, one may find oneself stuck in front of such a gate, which for whatever reason remained closed at the time it was supposed to be open.

Closed checkpoint, near Jerusalem, Nov. 2015

Waiting for a closed gate, near Jerusalem, Nov. 2015

Apart from these ‘permanent’ checkpoints, temporary checkpoints may be established by the Israeli military any moment, and remain for hours, days or weeks in a row.

Passing through is easy

In my plans, I calculate the extra time it may take to drive through a checkpoint, but for me, passing through is simple. I open the window of my car, smile at the soldier in charge and say “Shalom!” Having neither the physical profile of a suspected terrorist, nor an Arab accent in my Hebrew, most soldiers let me move on with a wave of their hand. Sometimes, there is not even a need to slow down.

Little story: Not being aware of the fact that some checkpoints are either for cars or for pedestrians, I once tried to walk through the checkpoint on Road 60 (the ‘tunnel road’), which is for cars only. After attending the wedding of a friend, someone had dropped me off at the checkpoint, since he couldn’t pass with his car with a Palestinian license plate. On the spot, a soldier pointed a gun at me and demanded that I keep distance, until I succeeded to explain – with my arms in the air – that I’m an ‘innocent Jew’ on my way home. On the other side of the checkpoint, I asked for a ride with a passing car. The surprised driver was one of my ultra-orthodox Social Work students, who just came back from his apprenticeship in an Israeli settlement…

Occasionally, a soldier asks where I came from and what I was doing there, referring to the village I just visited. When I respond that I went to see a friend, had my hair cut, or did some shopping in the local supermarket, I’m looked at in disbelief. Some check my sense of reality, verifying if I realized the – by them perceived – danger, I put myself in. Or, they may simply ask: “You have friends there???”. To which I respond affirmative, and add, when I’m in the mood:

Where I just came from, there are people as well;
regular people, like you and me.

Moreover, Palestinian villages, like Al-Zaim, Hizma and the Shuafat refugee camp, albeit with different official standing, are located – at least partly – within the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality. Therefore, the ‘other’ side of these checkpoints — where I came from — is actually also Jerusalem.

We like to look at these checkpoints as enhancing ‘our’ security and obviously, they do make it more difficult for those without permit to enter Israel and/or to smuggle tools that could be used for attacks on Jews. But, let us not fool ourselves. Part of this sense of security is psychological, driven by fear and our longing to feel safe. In general, passing cars are not checked thoroughly and even most trucks are not inspected with care. Thus, for those with Israeli citizenship or an entry permit it is rather easy to smuggle into Israel a knife or other small weapon.

But not for all

For those without an entry permit to Israel, entrance is more complicated. Still, they may be able to borrow the Israeli ID of someone else, get a ride from an Israeli friend or taxi driver, or pass the wall in other manners than through a checkpoint. Thus, not a few Palestinian Arabs take the risk to be caught and imprisoned by Israeli security forces.

It is not so difficult to pass a checkpoint armed and with bad intentions. However, most Palestinians have more mundane things on their minds than killing Jews. They may be on their way to work, for example at an Israeli restaurant or construction company. Possibly, they wanted to visit relatives who live only a few hundred meters away, but on the Israeli side of the wall. Perhaps, they urgently tried to reach the Al-Makassed hospital, on the Mount of Olives, since hospitals in the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority are much further away. Or, they simply wanted to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque.