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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.

A Palestinian woman tries to squeeze through the turnstile at the Hawara checkpoint with her son. Sometimes as many as 5,000 Palestinians a day request permission to cross at Hawara, just south of the West Bank city of Nablus. (Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)

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"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.

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