“Three Days in Palestine” and the Purpose of Checkpoints

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Three Days in Palestine” has brought an incredibly important issue to the forefront of students’ minds at Swarthmore: namely, the difficulty of balancing a state’s legitimate security concerns with the vital work of ensuring universal human dignity and rights, and perhaps more importantly, the ways in which the system of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, as well as its security barrier, may often fail to strike the proper balance.

Notably, the security barrier often deviates from the 1949 Armistice Lines, commonly known as the Green Line, which separated the State of Israel from the Palestinian territories until 1967. The deleterious effects of these deviations include appropriating Palestinian farmland and invaluable water resources, as well as severing Palestine’s territorial contiguity. That the route of the barrier was determined unilaterally by the Israelis only further exacerbates the situation. The events on campus this week do an admirable job of drawing much-needed attention to this tragedy and of highlighting the cause of Palestine, which is so often ignored in the context of American politics. We laud the organizing students for their attempt to communicate the dehumanizing experience of passing through a checkpoint, an experience that reaches the very heart of Palestinian identity and the Palestinian narrative.

We hope to contribute to the important conversation that this program has started by adding some nuance that may complicate our understanding of both the security barrier and the large system of checkpoints. According to journalist and Middle East expert David Makovsky, writing during the implementation of the barrier, from the reconstruction of the security barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip in 2001 until March of 2004, not a single Gazan-based suicide bomber succeeded in carrying out an attack inside Israel, compared to 58 such attacks successfully coming from the West Bank. While it cannot be conclusively determined whether the barrier was the primary cause of this phenomenon, those data were an important component of the Israeli government’s strategic calculus in beginning the construction of a similar barrier in the West Bank in 2004. Since the beginning of the project, suicide bombings and other attacks from the West Bank have similarly decreased dramatically and the Israeli public, whether rightly or wrongly, has ascribed much of this increased security to the barrier, justifying its construction in the minds of Israeli policymakers.

Checkpoints are in many ways more difficult to explain, as the intrusive inspections, ever-shifting identification and permit requirements, and the unfortunate existence of Israeli-only by-roads in the West Bank contribute to a situation in which the people of Palestine feel isolated, helpless, and abused, even as the checkpoints may contribute to the physical security of Israeli citizens. Indeed, Israeli society—and the pro-Israel community at Swarthmore—is hardly monolithic in its perspective on this issue, with Israeli human-rights NGOs such as Machsom Watch, B’tselem, and Peace Now undertaking expansive efforts to highlight the oppression of the Palestinians and seeking to ameliorate its impact. Even the soldiers who staff these checkpoints, mostly 18 and 19-year-olds, are often deeply conflicted about the use to which they are put by their own government.

It may be an obvious truism, but it is worth noting that the exercise of state power is often problematic or even harsh, but that a state has an obligation to try to protect the lives of its citizens. Such an obligation does not excuse possible broad human-rights violations or the violation of international standards of conduct, but it should never be forgotten when discussing the contentious issue of Israel and Palestine. The pain of Israelis who have also lost loved ones and been made to feel insecure and helpless by this seemingly intractable conflict likewise should never be minimized.

It was gratifying to see that the events on campus were conducted with such sensitivity and thoughtfulness, and we are enthusiastic that the program will generate much-needed dialogue – hopefully coupled with action to promote the peace in the region that all parties in the conflict so rightfully deserve. Our goal with this letter was merely to point out that the checkpoints and security barrier, onerous and in some ways monstrous as they can be, do not have as their most essential purpose the oppression of the Palestinian people, but rather the protection of the Israeli people and the prevention of violent clashes between the extremists of all sides.

Joshua Sokol ’11, Treasurer, Swarthmore Organization for Israel
Aaron Brecher ’10, President, Swarthmore Organization for Israel
Danny Cramer ’12
Joanna Lang ’11
Sam Green ’11

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