On road to nowhere

Mideast: In Israel, even the military is coming to grips with the realization that checkpoints enrage Palestinians and do not protect citizens from terrorist attack. Israeli roadblocks ineffective, study finds

November 06, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Cars and trucks lined up bumper to bumper yesterday amid a familiar cloud of choking exhaust fumes, their drivers fighting for every inch of a rutted road that promised a direct route from the East Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina to the city's center.

At the head of the line was a makeshift Israeli checkpoint consisting of a spiked strip stretched across one lane, overseen by police with machine guns who wheeled an empty trash bin into the road for cover.

The checkpoint was part of the reaction to the attack Sunday by a Palestinian gunman who entered Jerusalem from the West Bank and opened fire at a bus, killing two Israeli teen-agers and wounding 42 others.

But there is a growing consensus, even in the Israeli army, that checkpoints do not prevent terrorist attacks.

Military auditors, in an internal study, concluded that checkpoints have failed in their most basic mission of keeping Israeli citizens safe from attack, according to excerpts of the report published in the Israeli press.

The study, completed by a team of officers who toured in September, found that Israeli soldiers at checkpoints are guided by outdated, contradictory rules that are often enforced arbitrarily.

Palestinians and human rights groups have long complained that checkpoints inflict collective punishment that humiliates and imprisons innocent civilians. Critics point to a long list of dialysis patients unable to reach hospitals, pregnant women giving birth in ambulances and convoys of food left to rot on roadsides - all because of slow-moving checkpoints.

"Whenever something happens in land occupied by Israel, they tighten the checkpoints and we have to suffer," said Said Syam, 36, who was trying to reach his job yesterday in Jerusalem, where he hangs political posters.

"The Israelis have to protect their people, but this does nothing," Syam said, as he pressed the gas of his small, white truck and moved up a few feet during his 90-minute wait. "For the Palestinians living on the West Bank, all they have left is revenge."

The checkpoint at Beit Hanina does not separate Israel from the West Bank; it cuts off East Jerusalem from a main road leading into the city center, from which drivers can crisscross Israel. West Bank residents trying to get into Israel are stopped long before they reach Beit Hanina.

Police erected the new blockade hours after the bus attack Sunday afternoon. They dismantled it Sunday night, then raised it again yesterday morning. A permanent checkpoint a few hundred yards to the north, with a watchtower and gun nests protected by sandbags, was not occupied.

Most of those forced to wait at Beit Hanina were Palestinians with Jerusalem identification cards; theoretically, the cards guarantee them the same unrestricted access to Israel as Jewish residents have. But the reality is far different.

Cars occupied by one or two young Palestinian men were the ones most likely to be searched, and searched the longest. Cars bearing women and children or the elderly were sometimes waved through with barely a pause. People who chose to cross by foot were not stopped at all.

The Palestinian who shot at the bus on Sunday lived in Hebron, but police believe he entered Jerusalem from the West Bank city of Ramallah, to the north. If he came by car, he could have come through Beit Hanina or gone around through the Jordan Valley, where there are usually fewer checkpoints and shorter lines. He also could have walked through the hills.

"This checkpoint is not going to accomplish anything," said Ashraf Mshasha, a 25-year-old taxi driver stuck in yesterday's line. "This road is only used by people who want to get to work."

Israeli officials acknowledged yesterday that few, if any, Beit Hanina residents are potential terrorists. But the checkpoint offers the last in a long series of blockades staffed by army soldiers and police where infiltrators from Ramallah could be stopped.

Gunmen intent on inflicting mass causalities can still slip through or find a way around. Part of the problem, according to the army report, is inconsistency, a complaint long made by Palestinians who can't understand why they are let through on one day, but not on others.

Cars are often stopped, but pedestrians are forced to show identification only during heightened security alerts. In August, a suicide bomber walked through one of the tightest blockades without being questioned, past a jammed line of cars that stretched for more than two miles. Sixteen people died in the bomber's attack in Jerusalem.

"There are roadblocks that are not secured, or only partially secured, along with well-secured checkpoints," the audit report concluded. "Most of the permanent checkpoints are not organized to stop hostile elements, and the checking of cars is done randomly."

Portions of the internal report were first published last week in a weekly newspaper. Government officials confirmed the existence of the report and did not dispute articles describing its contents.

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