The occupation testimonies, part III: inside the checkpoint

The occupation testimonies, part III: inside the checkpoint
IDF Hawara Checkpoint, June 2006 (photo: Magne Hagesæter / flickr)

Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran IDF soldiers working to expose the everyday reality of the occupation, is releasing a new book of soldiers’ testimonies from the years 2001-2010.

The collection of 101 testimonies shows the degree of control Israel has over the lives of Palestinians. Unlike previous publications by BTS, this one is not (only) about war crimes. More than anything, the testimonies reveal the banalities of the Occupation: the roadblocks, the nightly raids, the mass arrests and the daily humiliations which take place everywhere in the West Bank.

The third collection of testimonies from BTS’s new book we publish deal with the checkpoints. The checkpoints are one of the aspects of the occupation that affects the entire West Bank population, not just some unlucky individuals. Some Palestinians can spend hours each day in the long lines leading to the army posts; others are stuck, refused or turned back for lack of appropriate papers, or just our of the ill will of an 18-19 years old kid who commands the post. For many Palestinians, the checkpoints represent the enormous degree of control Israelis soldiers have on their life.

This is how these checkpoints look from the soldiers’ side.

Testimony 28: Everything is up to individual interpretation

We spoke about who would want to cross into Ramallah.

Supposed that someone comes with his child, with his grandmother, with whomever, shows me documents, he needs to get to the hospital in Ramallah because he has a doctor’s appointment. The protocol, as I understand it, is that cases like this should be allowed to cross. I let the guy cross, and after a few minutes, they get on the radio from the next checkpoint and say to me: “Why the hell did you let him cross?” There are directives indicating he can cross. They don’t want him to cross, I don’t know why.

They would say to you, “I don’t want to,” or “Did you not understand the briefing?”

No. It’s all very much up to individual interpretation. The briefing wasn’t clearly saying: “OK, if there are humanitarian cases, they can cross.” What exactly constitute humanitarian cases? It’s very much up to the interpretation of the person commanding the checkpoint at a given moment. The guys at the next checkpoint started calling me the “UN guy” all the time, because I would always let people cross who they then decided cannot cross. It was totally subject to the mood of the person commanding the checkpoint, how long he has been on the base– really according to what the guy’s personal issues were at the moment. There is no person who coordinates or oversees, not even in the operations room. There is no procedure for getting on the radio to other operations rooms. It’s more like, “OK, there is a guy in this situation…can he cross? Not cross?” Sometimes you do it, Sometimes, whoever is in the field decides. It was all a very, very big mess.”


The occupation testimonies, part III: inside the checkpoint
Hundreds of Palestinians waiting before dawn at the Bethlehem checkpoint, July 2008 (photo: the Advocacy Project)

Testimony 3: spilling out crates as “an example”

After the fact. If you look at your company, were things run correctly? Is there a gap between what they taught you and expected from you and how the checkpoint looked at the end of the day?

People from my company did things in a very strict way, mostly in Reihan. In Qalqillya it was less strict from the standpoint of what they did at the checkpoint. They were strict in Reihan, but at the same time there weren’t too many deviations.

How are they strict? How does it manifest itself?

The DCL (District Coordination Liaison] set up certain Palestinians that were coordinating the transportation of goods. A guy who had a Mercedes mini truck was transferring agricultural goods in crates, all kinds of vegetables. In general, we had to pass a megnometer [metal detector] over the crates, above it and below it. You put the crate on the side and continue to the next one. You can also tell him to spill out the contents of the crate. It’s not a large crate; it’s a crate of old plastic. Of course, you don’t help the guy empty the contents of the crate. You tell him to spill it out, and afterward he collects it. From the standpoint of our procedures, it was legitimate. They told us to spill out a few crates as an example. The same guy, I remember, had ton of goods, we spent an hour after the closing of the checkpoint to keep checking him. With regard to him I remember there were a few times they told me to empty out his crates.

Why him specifically?

There was a [soldier] girl who came to hum at the [erased] facility at the pedestrian crossing and he said to her that he would give her father 40 sheep if she would marry him, but I hear from her that he was annoying her. But that’s nonsense, you aren’t strict because of that, rather they are [supposed to be] strict professionally. Sometimes there were people who took it personally, that because he annoyed you, you dump his crates. But we were supposed to do it as an example. You don’t dump out everyone’s.

How many crates did he have?

In the small truck there aren’t crates, it’s a bath. There are Mercedes trucks. For example, there is the Isuzu, which are small and they have crates, but this was a bigger truck, like a medium size and you have maybe 200 crates.

And in that case he dumped out 200 crates?

In her case? Yes.

Is that a common “punishment”?

It’s a kind of punishment, but it happened more rarely, it happened because he annoyed her.


The occupation testimonies, part III: inside the checkpoint
Tel Rumeida Checkpoint, Feb 2010 (photo: amillionwaystobe)

Testimony 24: A kind of complete arbitrariness

Each time they would block and open the road with a front loader. And every time they opened it we would have to guard the crossing. It’s hundreds or thousands of cars, even pedestrians. You stand there, three-four soldiers with an APC. There isn’t even anything to do, other than guard the APC. It’s also a gigantic area because it’s like a checkpoint on both sides of the road, and on each side there is a lone of cars spanning about 4-5 kilometers. And then basically, what matters from an operations standpoint, is to prevent a traffic jam on the road.

On the Jewish road?

Yes, yes. And then you let them drive, they start driving, and there is no room for two cars at the same time, in both directions. So immediately there is a traffic jam, and you start directing traffic because you have to somehow release it.

And what happens at the checkpoint? You inspect everyone?

No. There is a surge of people, Thousands of people.

What is it a checkpoint for?

It’s a checkpoint to limit their flow of traffic at night, or at the house when they begin curfew. Sometimes you inspect suspicious things. There are cars that are allowed to enter that arrive from route 60, trucks with yellow license plates. Other plates, of course, don’t travel there. Each time, the order changes about who can cross and who cannot. So a line builds up again, because truck drivers don’t know they aren’t allowed to cross because either two hours ago, or yesterday, or two days ago, they were allowed. So a traffic jam is once again created. Orders can change several times in a single day. It’s kind of complete arbitrariness.  One incident I certainly remember, when there was some restriction on trucks with yellow plates, that they couldn’t enter anymore, and traffic jams started to build up. I said I’m not letting them enter. Until now they could enter. I don’t care, I’m not endangering the road or my soldiers because of it.


The occupation testimonies, part III: inside the checkpoint
A West Bank checkpoint, November 2007 (photo: Chris Yunker / flickr)

Testimony 29: The IDF’s great wisdom

Company A was at a checkpoint called Noam, which is on the way to Jericho. I think that it separates the Jordan valley road and Jericho. It was winter, the beginning of 2001, and it was a pretty difficult winter as far as I remember, rainy and cold. There are “the bases,” which are basically a few buildings where the unit that operates the checkpoint is located. Outside there is an open-sided shelter, which is basically the checkpoint. A very improvised checkpoint, not like the checkpoints today, which look like an airport terminal.

That’s only very specific checkpoints.

Yes. But no, I think it was erected just before we arrived there. I sat there with an officer, the platoon commander for Company A, who was really of rare quality relative to battalion 443. And we sat there and covered the shelter with plastic sheets because it rained a lot. And it was nighttime and aside from us no one was awake. It was the middle of the night, and when I think about it now, it was really scary to sit in the middle of nowhere with the wind gusting around you, and the plastic sheet blowing made it difficult to hear and see what is going on around you. And basically, you wait for a car to come, and you know because you see the headlights. And we sit there, two of us, and the order that day – again, yes the great wisdom of the IDF – was to prohibit cars that only have men inside them to cross. They needed to have either a child or a woman in order to be able to cross. Yes, of course it’s a very specific target.

Did you ask…?

Did we ask why? Even if I asked, he was an officer, that’s his duty. When I asked why, the answer was: “Those are the orders, there is nothing to do about it.” You aren’t supposed to ask why in the army, and when you ask…

But these are pretty strange orders.

That’s right. There are orders that are strange are your duty as a soldier is to carry them out without asking why.

Would you look for the logic?

There is no logic. If you were to search for logic in the army you would go crazy. They would institutionalize you.

So what would happen? You would stop cars?

No. There were almost no cars. It was the middle of the night. It was raining. But there was one car, I remember, it was a Subaru, with two Palestinian men in their forties I guess. They were very nice. They stopped. They asked to cross. And that same officer, who was a sensible guy, did not say to them what every other person in the army would have said, which is, “no you cannot,” rather he said to them [in Arabic] “either a woman or a child.” So they argued a bit, and he said to them, “those are the orders, what can I do. Either a woman or a child.” They turned around and went into Jericho. Ten minutes later they came back with a boy in the backseat and the officer said to them, “please, go ahead,” smiling at them, and they smiled back. Everyone understood how idiotic and ridiculous the situation was. Yes, you know it just adds further proof that the IDF’s job is to embitter the Palestinians’ lives. Because if you think about it, there is really no operational need for it. What’s the difference if the same men in the same car bring a child? They grab some kid, pay him a shekel and a half to come with them for an hour or two. Yes, so there. So it seemed ridiculous to me. It didn’t seem shocking. Today it seems shocking.

Related stories:

Breaking the Silence testimonies: part I, part II.

Gurvitz: The brutalization of the IDF