The View from an Israeli Security Checkpoint

This is an extraordinary (and gut-wrenching) first-person account of what it's like to staff an Israeli security checkpoint. It shows how power corrupts: how it's impossible to make humane decisions in such a circumstance.

Posted on August 20, 2012 at 6:36 AM • 62 Comments

Comments

ShawnAugust 20, 2012 7:15 AM

I've been to Palestine three times over the last few years. I've been through these checkpoints many times. As an American, I have much less to fear than my Palestinian friends but it is still a dehumanizing experience, even when the soldiers attempt to be nice and friendly.

Excellent article.

Bob DucklesAugust 20, 2012 7:19 AM

Thanks for this. It is a very revealing story of how the dehumanizing others dehumanizes yourself.

TomAugust 20, 2012 7:29 AM

I'd be very interested to read a comparative analysis between this need to create fear and the security theatre of western societies. How much is security theatre a need to make people feel safe and how much is it a need to make terrorists believe that they are under observation?

UriAugust 20, 2012 7:30 AM

Sorry to say this, but it is more complicated than this. The checkpoints are there to also stop suicide bombers (yes sometimes they are 10 years old kids, that's how these cowards operate). While some checkpoints are placed to "show presence", a lot of them are placed near well known terrorist locations. You can't take anything for granted and yes, this mean distrusting also the 90 year old grandpa that is walking slowly towards you.
That's the reality of living in Israel. You have suicide bombers trying to kill as many civilians (yes, women and children) as they can.
Most American have no idea what it is. But ask veterans from Iraq that manned the checkpoints there.

@Shawn: there is no such thing as Palestine. And the dehumanization serves a purpose: to save the lives of the soldiers and the civilians inside Israel. If you don't like it, don't go there.

HarryAugust 20, 2012 7:39 AM

@Uri - injustice and violence do not cease just because someone stops going to a place of injustice and violence.

JesseAugust 20, 2012 8:17 AM

@Harry - the injustice and violence you're talking about is terrorists killing innocent civilians in Israel - right? Because you completely understand that even if they took these checkpoints away forever, the terrorists wouldn't just stop blowing civilians up, right? Terrorists caused this situation. If you want to protest something go protest the decades of murdering innocent civilians, not a soverign country doing whatever it can to keep its people safe.

Oliver JonesAugust 20, 2012 8:18 AM

An excellent and eye-opening piece of moral reasoning! Thanks for writing it, Dr. Na'aman. Thanks for sharing it, Dr. Schneier.

Paradoxically, the existence of this article is a great argument in favor of universal conscription.

Bruce SchneierAugust 20, 2012 8:29 AM

"Sorry to say this, but it is more complicated than this."

I'm sorry you said it, too.

Of course the geopolitics of this are complicated. However, this is a security blog and not a political blog. I would prefer this thread not to be taken over by arguments about Arab-Israeli politics.

Please limit your comments to those related to security. Comments about politics, including who stated it, who has the moral high ground, who is more wrong, and so on, should be taken elsewhere.

Please.

DavidAugust 20, 2012 8:49 AM

Excellent, thought provoking article. It covers the responsibility the soldiers have to apply the rules (as many of us in the security world have), the authority they are granted to interpret those rules to prevent patterns which could be exploited (which some of us have), but it does not go into any detail about the accountability for their actions once they have made their 'pick'. I'd be interested in seeing how 20:20 hindsight pans out post event. We're often told that we are fully empowered, until we make the wrong decision. Thankfully very few of us have other people's lives in our hands at that time.

FreekAugust 20, 2012 8:49 AM

Regardless of the effectiveness of the mean (checkpoints) to mitigate a treat (suicide bombers) and if the effect is worth the collateral damage (ranging from inconvenience to falsely accusations, less access to medical care, work and family): the article really seems about the dehumanization of both soldiers and civilians. As such it can be applied to the behaviour of military personnel anywhere, not just in this particular case.

What solutions are out there to stop this dehumanization? Power corrupts, and that's why we have elections to stop corrupt politicians, and judges to stop the police from judging suspects. Would we need additional means to prevent military personnel to abuse their power? In most cases a complaints or appeal procedure helps a lot, but in conflict areas there may not be enough information for an impartial judgment.

Nacnud NosmohtAugust 20, 2012 8:51 AM

Long past time for the U.S. to stop supporting Israel. If they can't make peace, then they will have war, but let that be their problem, not ours. Maybe then there would be some real incentive to make peace.

ShawnAugust 20, 2012 8:53 AM

@Uri: I guess there always has to be one apologist for anything Israel does. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all. Except my tax money keeps going there so I'll continue to go there, too, thank you very much.

Nacnud NosmohtAugust 20, 2012 8:56 AM

Bruce: The piece you posted is not really about security. It's about oppression and injustice, and the moral toll that takes on those individuals forces to be involved, on both sides. It's simply not reasonable to post something like this and then ask people to refrain from expressing their views about the morals of the situation. It's your blog, you can delete my post if you like, but you can't expect people to remain silent. I suggest if you don't want to hear the ensuing discussion, you delete the whole thing.

KerenAugust 20, 2012 9:19 AM

Oded Na'aman served in the IDF between 2000 and 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada. The examples he uses appear to date to a similar period. While this is a good analysis of a soldiers point of view during that period, I doubt it reflects the reality on the ground today. This isn't explicitly made clear in the article, which strikes me as a little dishonest in an otherwise valuable piece.

The Intifada was a period of active conflict where there were terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians several times a month, sometimes every few days. That is not the case today. During the Intifada, the IDF's objective was to suppress the population as described in the article. Today, the IDF's stated objective is to ease conditions on civilians in the West Bank and encourage development, in order to provide a contrast to conditions in Gaza (which is a different issue). In keeping with this policy, the number of checkpoints in the West Bank has been reduced drastically since the Intifada.

According to Btselem, an Israeli watchdog NGO, as of February 2012 there are 57 permanent internal checkpoints in the West Bank (i.e., checkpoints not at crossings between the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel), of which 33 are regularly manned.

Some facts to keep in mind, no matter what your political opinions on the subject are.

kingsnakeAugust 20, 2012 9:38 AM

Uri: A suicide bomber is orders of magnitude braver than a bureaucrat sitting in a hardened bunker ordering some other REMF to drone strike a goat herder 12,000 miles away. Does not make what either is doing moral, but it is doubtless vastly braver. Definitely not "cowardly".

Ian WoollardAugust 20, 2012 9:44 AM

These checkpoints are a counterinsurgency operation, which are rarely very successful.

If some group of people say 'we are X', and they're not being recognised by the state, particularly if their land is taken (or perceived to be taken) from the people calling themselves that, then there's going to massive bloodshed and all this nonsense.

CLBAugust 20, 2012 11:03 AM

I do not see much difference between these checkpoints and my experiences with post 9-11 airport security security around the world. The result of both is fear, anger, and a sense of being treated as less than human. Most definitely NOT a way to win friends and influence people. The enlightening thing about this article is that the fear, anger, and sense of being treated as less than human is felt on both sides.

Bruce SchneierAugust 20, 2012 11:05 AM

"The piece you posted is not really about security. It's about oppression and injustice, and the moral toll that takes on those individuals forces to be involved, on both sides. It's simply not reasonable to post something like this and then ask people to refrain from expressing their views about the morals of the situation."

Maybe, but my hope is that we can restrict the moral discussion to the security system in question. I think there's a lot to recommend in the article even if you pretend that the countries in question are Florin and Guilder.

zebobAugust 20, 2012 11:20 AM

The checkpoints today don't let anybody through unless you're over 55 even then the hassle is so great nobody tries anymore at least when I was there last yr with a camera crew coming back into Israel. In a cruel twist of irony if you bring an instrument through they make you play it while the other guards stand around laughing. This is exactly what happened in the warsaw ghetto in the 1930s

dbCooperAugust 20, 2012 11:36 AM

The writer makes direct and indirect references of the underlying goal, to motivate via the use of fear.

While this method arguably can reach the desired outcome, one wonders if those staffing the checkpoints are adequately schooled in the effective usage. From my point of view it seems fear is being applied arbitrarily.

scottnottheotherscottAugust 20, 2012 11:45 AM

This is absolutely about security; more specifically, the cost-benefit trade-off that is behind every security system. I think both Uri and Shawn (for example) would agree that dehumanization is being explicitly used as a means of security.

The question everyone is arguing about is, "Is it worth it?" On the basis of the article, this is a moral question, because the substantive cost is a moral, human cost - the cost of dehumanization.

There is a substantial (but impossible to measure) security cost to dehumanizing. How much harm do you cause to yourself, not just in terms of your own emotions, but also in terms of how others are willing to act against you now that human relationship and interactions are disregarded?

If soldiers are no longer people but chaotic discretionary cogs in a system, why not tear them to bits as soon as they put down their weapons?

Bruce is the first to recognize that people are complicated and you can't discuss security involving people without embracing some of that complexity. Because people are emotional, you need to consider that a security measure may be effective in the short term (stopping this week's bomb) while causing active long term harm to the security it's trying to implement.

KerenAugust 20, 2012 11:49 AM

@zebob

"The checkpoints today don't let anybody through unless you're over 55" - blatantly untrue. Checkpoints within the West Bank allow people of all ages through. Checkpoints out of the West Bank and into Israel allow Palestinians of all ages with the proper permits through.

Keep in mind that though Israel is under an obligation to enable freedom of movement for Palestinians within their own territory, barring security concerns (and whether it does this is debatable), it's under no obligation to let them into Israeli territory.

I'd advise you to read up a bit more on what actually happened at the Warsaw Ghetto before making shallow and inflammatory comparisons.

vasiliy pupkinAugust 20, 2012 11:55 AM

Do you remember Zimbardo test on role behavior? People changed due to the role randomly assigned: guards or prisoners. As I recall Zimbardo, stopped it because in particular of possibility of long term psychological effect on participants.
Soldiers are there under the constant real danger of their life. To make proper rational decisions for both sides they should stay as less emotional as possible, i.e. function dominates.
Psychological 'detox' is required to avoid 'Rembo' -type actions when back from duty.

Clive RobinsonAugust 20, 2012 12:46 PM

@ Bruce,

whilst I fully understand your view point on security over politics for the comments, the problem at the root of this issue is very very human. And the problem with human issues is like it or not politics arises.

I guess the best you can hope for is people actually study the history of the region for the last 150 years or so. Further that the actually check their sources.

To claim that a place does not exist even though it has been there and recognised as such for several centuries does kind of make the posters comments look at best ill informed and without historical context.

The study of history whilst mind numbing for many is important especialy when it comes to human activities, because without it as history shows the same mistakes are made over and over again.

retired foodyAugust 20, 2012 12:51 PM

You should expect the following going through a west bank checkpoint staffed by israeli soldiers:

-all you stuff stolen. Currency, electronics especially smart phones, camera eq unless you have a permit which nobody can get to film in the west bank, anything else of value

-your passport and visa docs either seized for a flimsy excuse or shredded right in front of you if you should get out of line or show frustration

-humiliation. They referred to my gf as a hooker numerous times as this is apparently a great insult. We were warned by our friends in the west bank they would do this as its standard op procedure

-goading you into a fight after trying to humiliate any women with you. They said I wasn't a man for being an alleged palestinian sympathizer which was more nonsense I was there to film for a food show

-all film footage stolen, we knew this and sent it thru egypt before crossing

-shot at if you point a camera at them. They claimed terrablists have done this with hidden guns (plausible...but more likely so you can't film their face or the corruption)

-denied unless you are the 1% allowed to cross for who knows what criteria

And yes, checkpoint guards were once arrested for being on film making an old man play a violin while they taunted him. They were charged with 'making light of the holocaust' and jailed. Now there's no cameras allowed but the cruel taunting still exists. This was all a surprise to me as I am in no way an 'activist' or sympathizer. I was there to shoot a food network segment and was shocked by their border security.

JAugust 20, 2012 1:16 PM

Attempting to apply this more generally:

We have to consider downstream effects of the decisions we make. What are the trade-offs between not allowing someone or something past a border versus permitting traffic, but installing "checkpoints?" What are the implications of simply allowing totally free flows at borders versus installing protective measures elsewhere? While few of us make such decisions that affect life itself, many may well have the fate of organizations or the privacy of many in their hands.

karemAugust 20, 2012 1:17 PM

What would the conclusion/end result be of "refuse to be terrorized"? Let's say they pull the checkpoints down, let's say the "terrorists" start suicide bombing left and right. What happens when people are so numb and desensitized they can't be terrorized any more? People go about their day to day, bomb goes off behind them, don't look back, going to market.
Or would it be a bit different, go about your day to day, but also be defensive, willing to tackle a bomber or person screaming something and pressing a button. If they took the checkpoints down, would "real" people do the watching and reacting? Would a mob or militia form and people take matters into their own hands? Would terrorist's welcome that naivete of a new mob/militia and trick(kill) them easily? Would refused to be terrorized finally break down who is on what side? Would people tackling people they suspect; show they are a good person, wanting to save lives, or would bigotry/hatred/intolerance still linger enough to cast a shadow of a doubt about that persons intentions?
I realize I shouldn't just sit and stare indifferently in my plane seat as someone hi-jacks the plane; I should, and others should, try to subdue the hi-jacker(s). But how to apply this principal to a larger theater/landscape/border where tensions are so very high and on edge. Love won't solve the issue, as it seems physical assets(land) and ideological differences of opinions would soon smite love and compassion. Logic seems mutually exclusive to ideology/theology, so something in between perhaps. Ultimately it has to come from each individual person not wanting to kill the other(s), which only makes the road to hoe even longer.

ShawnAugust 20, 2012 1:48 PM

@retired foody: Almost everything you wrote is untrue. I've been through all of the major checkpoints in the West Bank as well as many of the mobile "surprise" ones many times between 2005 and 2011. Everytime I went through each of them I was carrying thousands of dollars of camera equipment as well as thousands and thousands of photos and laptops. Not once did they steal anything from me. Is it because I was American? No. I have multiple Palestinian photographer friends who can relate the same experiences.

Even in the villages during open hostilities between Palestinian villagers and the IDF in a closed military zone (where I was clearly not allowed to be) soldiers asked what I was doing once (I had no press pass) and was allowed to continue. I could have easily been detained and deported for breaking Israeli military law.

Have there been documented cases of equipment seizure occasionally? Sure. Are some soldiers assholes? Sure. There are assholes everywhere, particularly if they're armed and the people they're dealing with aren't.

The checkpoints are degrading and dehumanizing enough. There's no need to make stuff up or claim that these types of things happen to everyone. They don't.

AndrewAugust 20, 2012 2:29 PM

The use of a handheld randomizer (or dice in a box or even a coin) takes the pressure off the guard to "pick." His post orders say "Search every 1 in 5" therefore he sets the randomizer to 20%. Of course he can also search suspicious persons, vehicles, etc but then he has to explain what in American law is called "articulable suspicion"

It is the immunity of soldiers in war zones that breeds the worst abuses. When guards with no special powers abuse their authority, they are most easily held accountable. When police or customs officials or TSA 'officers' abuse authority, their special powers make complaints pointless or even unwise. I recall being told with great formality that a complaints book is maintained at French customs, and that if one wishes, one may write one's complaint down for superiors to read later. Out of curiosity, I opened the book - and became the focus of every douanier in eyeshot. I was unsurprised to see that the last complaint was dated several days prior.

When the guards are soldiers with de facto power of life and death, and neither complaint nor appeal is possible, what the author writes about is only to be expected. Only the essential humanity and decency of the individual soldier, and the painstaking oversight of his chain of command, stands between an operation of war and atrocity. "A soldier does not need to say hello ... his weapon is his greeting to everybody." Soldiers should be withdrawn in favor of police as soon as the situation permits, and that this is not possible in the West Bank merely recognizes that the war between the parties is still ongoing.

Randomness deters the aggressor trying to evade security precautions at the same time it comforts the guards/police/soldiers that they are just doing their jobs. At the extreme, a few of the members of a firing squad may have their rifles loaded with blanks ... so that every member of the squad can tell themselves they were the ones with the blank.

James SutherlandAugust 20, 2012 2:34 PM

How different are the psychological aspects from an airport security checkpoint? They aren't worrying about suicide bombers attacking them directly, of course, but otherwise it's exactly the same job: is this guy with the beard a respected crypto expert heading for a conference, or an extremist off to kill people? So, we get an impersonal, robotic enforcement of arbitrary rules: no carrying even an empty water bottle through security, in case you refill it later - even though you can buy the same bottles the far side of the checkpoint anyway. No carrying nail clippers through - but you could buy steak and carving knives in duty free, and can still buy various sizes of glass bottle which any bar brawl will confirm work perfectly well as weapons.

In both cases, I feel sure a much less intrusive approach would work better - and in both cases many will cling even to fake security rather than rethink. It seems placebos can be surprisingly addictive!

ZivAugust 20, 2012 2:59 PM

Let's see what pure security issues we can tease out of the essay.

A primary one is how can we measure the effectiveness of the checkpoints as a security measure?. It's certainly true that terrorism threats to Israel, which grew to a horrible scope during the second Intifada, seems to have been reined in. Of course, checkpoints have been a single measure among many, including the separation wall and military operations of various scales.

An interesting observation to my eyes is that checkpoints allow the worst of the cost of security to fall on the non-citizens. In a lot of security scenarios, you're trying to balance between user convenience and security. But here we have a scenario where the only ones suffering from our trade-off are the people we (hypothetically...) are far less committing to keeping comfortable. And this is balanced against a threat that seems extremely severe. Under this (highly biased...) view, this weighs the balance very strongly to the direction of security. I'd imagine easy parallels could be found in other places where the "innocent users" are a tight concentration of people against whom discrimination is considered acceptable - say, in prison, you've got a similar situation of being able to justify heavy security burdens because you're not very obligated to the prisoners' convenience.

Lastly, this article suggests that checkpoints are an unsustainable security measure, because the people responsible for implementing the measure are harmed and worn down by it. This is not an unusual security claim, IMHO, because this is merely a case of putting authority/security figures in the system, who are immediately affected by their surroundings and incentives. Of course, their precise reactions and choices may be interesting, but I'm not sure in this situation we're getting anything more unique than the combination between potential abuse of authority, and lack of commitment to their cause - you might find similar situations for many figures of authority who are underpaid or otherwise unsatisfied.

ArdentGlazierAugust 20, 2012 3:42 PM

It's not clear to me that it's possible to run a 'successful' checkpoint in such an environment, without incurring great psychological cost; the whole point is to establish an abnormal, rigidly controlled situation, both to defend and deter. If anything, the success criteria would be challenging to establish, though I suspect that in Israel there's sufficient information (HUMINT, historicals) to pose and gather some metrics, unlike the TSA who must bandy about innocuous LEO statistics (deadbeat dads caught, jelly doughnuts confiscated) to justify the ever-increasing level of intrusion and spiraling cost.

bobAugust 20, 2012 3:50 PM

I would be willing to bet that you could change the culture/location/time to Turkish soldier occupying Cyprus, German occupying France, British occupying America, American occupying Germany, British occupying Ireland (any of several different times) or even Roman occupying Britain and the differences in behavior would be limited to uniforms/weapons, what passed for an accurate clock of the day and food preference.

ShockedAugust 20, 2012 3:54 PM

Where is the sense of outrage at the violation of human rights? How can we sit here calmly considering the pros and cons of terrorizing a civilian population as a "security" measure?

I think the article is arguing that this system (checkpoints, designed to create fear and humiliation) is ultimately ineffective in achieving security. That may be worth discussing, perhaps, but only if we accept right up front that such measures are just plain WRONG.

Shall we next have a discussion about whether systematic rape of women is an effective tool of war? How about abducting children and forcing them to be soldiers? Shall we have a discussion about whether that's an effective way to build an army?

I find the attitude of acceptance of the situation, frankly, somewhat disgusting.

And, just to preempt the question - no, that doesn't mean I would, in any way, accept justification of atrocities committed by the "other side".

sadAugust 20, 2012 4:27 PM

@James:

The IDF checkpoints sound a lot more hostile than airport security at any airport I've ever been at. Also the volume of travellers at the IDF checkpoint is a lot lower than any major airport, and there are (effectively) no repercussions if they arbitrarily delay everybody at the checkpoint for a few hours, or detain or harass some randomly-chosen people. They use terror as a tool, whether they intended to or not. I don't think airport security in most western countries can yet get away with this: they'll get sued, videos will end up on Youtube, etc.

Also, I think the dehumanization being described (to both sides) at the IDF checkpoints vastly exceeds what happens to airline passengers. At most, an airline passenger is afraid of being detained and harassed. At the IDF checkpoints, most of the people passing through are literally fearing for their lives, and the soldiers deliberately terrorize the people passing through in some effort to keep the Palestinian people in general cowed. In the long term, it seems to me that this is only going to have profoundly negative effects on the relationships between the members of these two groups. The effects are cumulative, and against the backdrop of the last several decades, this might just be a drop in the bucket, but its a tragedy nonetheless.

Unfortunately, terrorism is always going to continue to be used in conflicts like this, because it can be effective and its difficult to completely stop or prevent. So any option that might deter or punish terrorists, is going to be considered. But there's collateral damage in the response strategies too. Even during a high-threat period like the second Infitada mentioned here, the benefits of any particular security strategy need to be dispassionately weighed against the costs. Its possible the IDF did that, and decided that the dehumanizing effects of arbitrary exercise of power at the checkpoints would be an acceptable cost if it helped significantly curb civilians getting blown up as they shopped for groceries. But even if that was true from 2000-2003, the long-term effects (resentment and animosity) are still something Israel is going to have to deal with.

John David GaltAugust 20, 2012 5:38 PM

The lesson I take from this article is that in a situation like this, the morality (or if you prefer, the ROE chosen by the side operating checkpoints) and the security situation are inseparable.

I have no sympathy at all for the Palestinian cause. Nevertheless, what we see here is a perfect example of what John Locke described as a government which is in a state of war against the people it rules.

What I'm trying to say is that no innocent person should have to live under a state that is at war with him -- not just for moral reasons but for practical ones. There can never be a sustainable peace with a group that is ruled that way.

If Israel is not going to leave the West Bank, then they ought to make it possible for the people living there to move somewhere else. (Yes, I know, the Israelis aren't the ones preventing Palestinians from leaving now -- the neighboring countries prevent it for political reasons of their own -- but that fact makes no practical difference.)

Tzafrir CohenAugust 20, 2012 5:53 PM

Sorry, Bruce, but this article really was not about security in the checkpoints.

So I figure I'll present a simple security issue of my own regarding those checkpoints. Disclaimer: I'm not well familiar with such checkpoints and practically almost all I know is from stories I hear.

I avoid the word "terrorists" as it is part of the "security theater" vocabulary which does not contribute to a useful discussion.

At a checkpoint you have a handful of soldiers versus a potentially large number of civilians. In the worst case those civilians (all or some) may be hostile.

If you allow a large group of them to get close, you risk them running over one of the soldiers (killing, and maybe even kidnapping using a car). In order for the guns to be effective vs. the large group of civilians, you must not allow a large group of them to get near any of the soldier.

Any of the civilians being checked may have a knife and try to stab the soldier in front of them. Yes, this has happened many times.

So the problem here is that worst-case scenarios force the protocols described in the article (well, some of them. I don't want to get into the psychological aspects).

(And for those saying that the checkpoints should be removed: some of them were. At the moment they're there, Considering whether to remove them or not requires discussing a few other subjects and would not bother getting into that)

Another KevinAugust 20, 2012 6:17 PM

@uri: "there is no such thing as Palestine."

In what way would the discussion change if the original poster had written "Judaea and Samaria" or "the occupied territories," rather than referring to "Palestine" or the "West Bank?" (Aside from complaints that the correct term was not used, I mean.)

Each of those four terms carries its own political baggage; there is no neutral term. (Moreover, they would mean different things if I were to say essentially the identical phrases in Hebrew or Arabic.) And if there were a neutral term, either one party would co-opt it, or else all parties would reject it.

(I have no position on which side of the conflict has suffered the greater wrong. If Isaac and Ishmael couldn't sort it out, what hope do we have of patching it up when their descendants continue the family squabble four thousand years later?)

John SaulAugust 20, 2012 6:20 PM

Having been stuck in dozens of checkpoints in 2010 I never could figure out what the point of these were. There were once over 500 roadblocks and checkpoints in the tiny West Bank area, now whittled down to around 30something manned checkpoints and 20 or so unmanned one's. Seriously, 500 checkpoints? Northern Iraq didn't have that many when I was there, neither did Urumqi after the riots, Tibet or Kashgar.

Note: these aren't border crossings, they are road blocks set up all over the West Bank for unknown reasons. Supposedly they are to restrict movement for "security" but it doesn't at all seem like security is being enforced when you are in a checkpoint lineup. The apartheid wall seems to have been successfull in preventing attacks, same with their very strict border. So what do these checkpoints do??

Half the time these were unmanned, just a bunch of debris in the road preventing any trucks with food or commerce to get across, typically isolating a village for a few days to a week then moved to harass some other village.

The only vehicles I saw getting through any of these checkpoints were with Israeli plates. Nobody else was ever let through. You stood in a massive lineup in the blazing sun watching them do nothing but argue with some old man about something and pump cars full of a mystery chemical the IDF refuses to divulge to look for explosives. If they pass the test they were then waived away but not through the checkpoint.

Whenever I was in a line (foolishly hoping to cross) we would be approached by supposed trusted people who's job it was to ferry in valuables past the checkpoint for a small fee. The guards seemingly did not care there were people in line waiting to be searched handing off stuff from their cars and pockets to these kids and teens who would then later just walk around the checkpoint through the brush into the city or village.

Since they never let anybody through when I was waiting, I can only come to the conclusion the point of these checkpoints and roadblocks is to just harass the people of the West Bank in some sort of collective punishment. How else do you explain a random rotating checkpoint that will cut off a village from any fruit or grocery trucks for a week while anybody on foot can get around them easily.

Our driver also was part of some sort of warning network where they would call each other to report new checkpoints so they could be avoided. They usually had a way around them almost everytime but some villages and settlements would be totally cut off.

I also attempted the Gilo checkpoint, where you are herded through cattle turnstiles and typically wait up to 5 hours to cross, for again, totally unknown reasons. When you finally get to the front of the line (because either the people in front of you gave up, or were waived away) and can peer in to see the soldiers in the booths they aren't doing anything except texting on their phones and listening to ipods, and there is no reason why this should take forever. Everybody crossing has their W. Bank ID cards out and the new electromagnetic ID cards that are supposedly "fast access", but they just let you stand there for hours not giving a flying f. The only explanation is it's supposed to take forever, as collective punishment, not for security.

DanielAugust 20, 2012 6:29 PM

Ah...Bruce....you won the thread with a reference to the Princess Bride.

As for the article, my reaction to it was "Oh dear. The poor soul. He so desperately want it all to make sense." The only proper response to an arbitrary stimulus is arbitrary response.

I thought the more interesting comparison was between the West Bank and the USA. To what degree do we have a "soft" occupation in America. Sure it's an occupation done mostly by cameras, by PIN codes, by GPS on the phone, by a cookie in your web browser. But isn't the point the exact same thing: to keep the citizen scared; to establish "presence". I suppose the one difference is that in Israel at the checkpoint the presence is more intimate whereas in America it's more the anonymous "big brother" type of presence.

It's a fun exercise to read that article and every time he writes "Palestinian" substitute "American" and every time he writes "gun" substitute "camera".

TomAugust 20, 2012 7:12 PM

You can't really talk intelligently about what is going on at these checkpoints without understanding the larger context though, even if you pretend these are two fictional countries and peoples with no history.

Because, to start with, it appears that the whole thing may not actually be about security any more than TSA checkpoints are. They are propaganda tools, ass covering tools, they allow the people in power to fund what they wanted to fund anyway, make it easier to do what they wanted to do anyway. Get people believing what they have always wanted them to believe more.

Both Israelis and Palestinians. The actual security challenge of preventing the tiny minority that is actively trying to attack you (I refrain from saying want to attack you as that can hardly be expected to be a minority of people at the checkpoints by this point) from doing so is not even part of the equation.

If they succeed, you use that as an excuse to grab even more control and power, to get away with more destruction and killing and "collateral damage" In The Name Of. If they don't you enjoy your steak and wine this evening some other way.

DanAugust 20, 2012 8:56 PM

>"Soldiers should always obey orders and regulations" the colonel says

Because then you can claim afterwards that you were only following orders.

NickAugust 21, 2012 2:04 AM

It seems to me that the key lesson to be drawn from the article is that the IDF's aim as stated is backwards. Rather than "We make them feel like we’re watching their every move and anticipating their every action. This is the occupier’s solution to the problem of preventing everything everywhere: the army has to make Palestinians believe that nothing escapes Israel’s fist." the aim must be to make them feel like they're not being watched, to feel they are free, and then to anticipate and intervene to prevent or retaliate to only the harmful actions.

It is not possible to anticipate their every action, as the article points out. Aiming to use overt pressure to make the Palestinians believe that nothing escapes them can and will only succeed in breeding resentment and creating enemies.

The only way to "win" in this situation is to reduce your visible presence to an absolute minimum and to use measures which are not usually observed or associated with you to attempt to reduce attacks on your people. If your people are not in their territory, then their opportunities to attack your people are dramatically reduced.

If you are seen to act predictably and only to cause harm to them in direct association with their remaining attacks on you (and proportionately), then perhaps support for the attackers will eventually diminish. In any case, there is no other way for you to prevail.

Tzafrir CohenAugust 21, 2012 2:29 AM

Another Kevin,

Surely, calling that area "Palestine" would make it even more ambiguous. Regardless of your political point of view, different people mean quite a few different things when they refer to "Palestine". "The West Bank" and to a slightly lesser extent "Judea and Samaria" is quite clear. "The occupied Territories" may or may not refer to Gaza as well. And the article clearly does not refer to the Gaza strip.

Clive RobinsonAugust 21, 2012 4:45 AM

@ Tzafrir, Kevin,

If you can both be bothered to take a little look at more recent history in the first half of the 20th century "Palestine" had a very well recognised meaning not just in terms of "people and culture" but geographicaly as well.

If you look at the formation of the original state of Israel from the maps etc current at the time you will clearly see from what territories it was taken.

These are historical facts that are not realy open to interpretation as they were agreed by the then super powers and other international organisations and recognised as that.

So I just wish people would drop the "Palestine does/did not exist" or "Palestine is a people/culture only" arguments they are false, without leggal basis or international recognition.

It existed it was treated as "spoils of war" it was divided up for political reasons, and there have been significant "people/culture" tensions in the region during and since the second world war due to the easy availability of weapons. If you can be bothered to think about it logicaly if Palestine does/did not exist neither would Israel, plain and simple.

Since the country of Israel was formed various counntries have and still do recognise Palestine as does the UN and one of the legal requirments for a country to exist is for other countries to acknowledge it's existance so it still legaly exists. The fact that it also has a democraticaly elected government that represents it's people also means it is recognised as a sovereign nation as well.

The fact it is "under occupation" by another (possibly illegaly created but now)recognised sovereign nation does not in any way effect it's legal position as a sovereign nation just what it can practicaly do for it's people and their implicit right to self determination and if you like the right to live the equivalent of "The American Dream".

Trying to argue otherwise is like hoping for "wish fulfilment" of a king trying to make the tides go out simply because you beleive the king has "god like" abilities.

Uri August 21, 2012 6:22 AM

Guys - let's try to approach it for a second in an analytic approach, rather than talk about "who did who when and what" because frankly that does not get us anywhere.

Israel is under a threat - terrorists, especially suicide bombers if travel freely can attack and kill innocent civilians.

The risk can be expressed in multiple layers - economical, political, personal risk to citizens etc.

On top of that Israel wish to prevent the movement of radical forces in the west bank...

that's sort of what the whole story is about from a security standpoint.

The direct impact is of course the disturbance of free travel. However, due to the fact that power is always a destructive force when being used by humans due to its impact on the neurological connections in the brain, the side effects of using this measure as a control measure are alteration of the human perspective from the side of the Israelis.

So what can anyone do? Let's put aside all the political discussion and try to concentrate on the situation.

As we already shown, the impact of these measures is hurting the Israelis more than they can actually see. The reason for it is due to the fact ALL OF US are blind to ourselves. It is true on a personal level, and it is true at organizational level, country level etc. being part of a system prevents you from being able to see yourself as your self-measurement tools are biased (check Danny Kahneman work and many others).
So we are talking here about two populations (Palestinians and Israelis) - both are pretty much blind to the other, and any interaction between the two that is based on control is pretty much going to lead to even bigger inner isolation.

The solution to the security check points than should come in approaching the element in a totally different approach, let me give you some ideas:

1) Israel should approach the checkpoint as a customer service point. The Palestinians are the customers, and the people who operate the place will be trained to treat them as such.
2) The Palestinians who are required to go via the checkpoint are not going to become Israel lovers and before you're going to bombard me with "they are being oppressed" - I know. But for as long as they consider each and every Israeli as a hostile creature it's not going to change.
What can be done, however, is to make sure that any interaction with Palestinians will be done by professionals. The people who will be assigned to the checkpoints must be trained in human behaviour, must be qualified to do so, and the position must be viewed as a highly important one.
3) Openness - in order to prevent any unsolicited behaviour, I suggest to stream checkpoint activities 24/7, to ask for non-military elements to make sure the activities done by the soldiers are appropriate.
4) To add to it, soldiers will be given wearable video cameras to document the events they face. If for example a provocation will be done outside the area of the checkpoint, it should be documented and streamed as well.

I don't believe people who believe they know who is right and who is wrong in the Israeli/Arab conflict will care at all about facts. I've seen both Israel supporters and Palestinian supporters close their eyes and cover their ears when the facts being presented to them didn't match the worldview they hold.

So I don't fool myself that any approach, even one that is backed up by behaviour science will going to make a fast impact on the perception of people. I just feel that the only way forward out of any human conflict is to slowly remove the elements of pain and replace them with love.

Namaste
Uri

Bob DucklesAugust 21, 2012 7:38 AM

We have checkpoints in this country, at every international airport. Incoming passengers must go through Immigration and then Customs.

The treatment is not as dehumanizing as that described in the article, but if you are not an American citizen, it can be pretty uncomfortable. The worst of it is done out of sight of the masses.

Don't dare try to take a picture or otherwise use a cell phone. I have seen cell phones confiscated. I don't know if they were later returned.

In recent years the courtesy with which everyone is treated has improved. We are not talking about catching suicide bombers, but the process is still dehumanizing. The check point has the power. It is sometimes used to gratuitously ridicule. Stand up to it, and you are in trouble.

Jon CoxAugust 21, 2012 10:05 AM

In game theory, the way in which hawk & dove labels are assigned to different players can depend upon:


  • Whose interests we're concerned with optimizing. "Doveness" may be predetermined by affiliation.

  • What aspect(s) of the parties concerned we identify with -- if any. "Doveness" may be assessed relative to what are clearly recognized as one's own values, beliefs, and categories ("terrorist", "victim", etc.) and/or to assertions of supposedly universal axioms & truths.

  • Whether the conflict is perceived as essential (eg: a zero sum game fought between distinct groups over a critical resource) or non-essential (eg: a mutually harmful dispute among members of indistinct groups over assets that could be shared).

Who, if anybody, gets the dove/protagonist label can be a philosophical issue, a politically partisan one, or neither. I think what Bruce is saying here is that it's worth adopting Nietzsche's "neither" stance, much in the way Stanley Milgram did when evaluating his obedience experiments. The more caught up we become in judging actions, the less able we are to understand interactions.

Glyndwr MichaelAugust 21, 2012 10:38 AM

Might be a good idea to rotate these guys out periodically so they don't get burned out by doing the same thing constantly Not only would that improve how they treat people, it would improve security because fresh soldiers would be able to do their job better.

Same goes for the TSA.

Clive RobinsonAugust 21, 2012 10:47 AM

@ Uri,

Guys - let's try to approach it for a second in an analytic approach, rather than talk about "who did who when and what" because frankly that does not get us anywhere

You either have a lamentable understanding of history or you are for some reason trying to "white wash" the lessons from the past.

Either way I seriously sugest you become aquainted with history because it is quite important not just with respect to Israels existance and what subsiquently happened but many other "hot spots" world wide.

Just so you understand as with Iraq and the Allied invasion where as observed by Robin Cook MP,

There were no terrorists there before we invaded

The important "cause and effect" point is,

There were no terrorists in Palestine untill certain jewish people arrived.

This is clear from recorded historical facts. Further one of these persons who later became responsible for Israeli political direction espoused the idea of a greater Jewish homeland and that for jews to be safe all Palestinians would have to be removed...

In this day and age we call this sort of thinking "Ethnic Cleansing" it is both thoroughly immoral and a recognised crime against humanity just like genocide. We also these days recognise that people subject to ethnic cleansing have the right to defend themselves in what ever way they can as was seen with certain Eastern European and quite a few African nations.

If there is a significant asymmetry between the sides militarily then usually the only option open to the considerably weaker occupied side is "hit and run" tactics against whatever targets they have a reasonable chance of defeating often called "soft targets".

As Bruce has so often pointed out almost anything can be seen as a target for attack and defending them all cannot be done. Therefore the Occuping State as run by the (supposadly) majority representing elected politicians with the assistance of the military and various LEO's decide the priority and "hardness" of any target that is defended (or not as the case maybe).

Another thing to consider is the "cornered rat" issue, rats although being capable preditors in their own right generally chose to stay away from trouble as they are not very capable against stronger opponents. However when not given the opportunity to "flee" they will "fight" usually to death or untill "flee" becomes possible. This behaviour is also seen in most creatures (including humans) that are capable of becoming preditors or of standing their ground for the benifit of the herd. The net result of this is if you reduce people to the point of only being capable of fighting to survive then that is pretty much what they will do. This is even more likely if individuals have the feeling of "nothing to lose".

Since 9/11 it is now abundantly clear that on a personal basis the only way to survive a direct attack from an oppressor is to fight them with evrything you've got not by passive appeasment (which is what started on the last flight with the AQ sponsored attackers on board). However history also told us this with such notable events as the build up to the second world war.

We have seen this play out many times in many places aand the results are almost always the same, continued and worsoning violence in any way possible at any available target. Back during the second world war citizens of occupied countries across Europe and Russia fought back against the invading and occupying forces despite all thhat the occuping forces tried to suppress it.

The solution to the problem is generaly difficult but not insurmountable. The first is stop occupying other peoples lands, the second thing to consider is if people do not feel under threat then they generaly have no reason to fight to survive (though revenge is quite common for two or more generations).

That is in the general case those who feel secure and in possession of their own lands, future and fortune and have done for their entire lives do not tend to feel opressed and thus have little reason to fight others except for greed (or whatever name they chose to hide behind).

The one thing that history has taught us over and over again, is that there are only three basic fates awaiting "occuping forces",

1, They commit genocide / ethnic cleansing.
2, They become integrated into the occupied countries culture and break away from their original country and culture.
3, They get replused or withdraw.

The order being least likely to most likely fate.

Blugrass Picker of AfulaAugust 21, 2012 11:27 AM

From a point of view of rationality, I see no evidence that the checkpoints, or even the entire Occupation regime - is unsustainable. The facts-on-the-ground SEEM to indicate that it just keeps getting stronger and stronger. Israel Army personal branch is talking about REDUCING the time-duration of conscript service. Annexation seems more likely than "Liberation". All that needs to happen is for one family to flee one Palace in Amman, for the Palestinians to have their desired State.

Those who imagine that Occupation must end in failure, have obviously not studied the history of the world. Ask the Mayans or the Apaches or the Celts or the Saami or the Maori or the Ainu, if they think that all occupations must end.

HowardAugust 21, 2012 11:39 AM

Thank you, @Keren, for injecting the historical perspective and how this differs from the activity today. I agree the article should give some indication of time-frame.

Doron - x-soldierAugust 21, 2012 12:15 PM

@"retired foody"
Any and all that you've said is a load of bull.

I've been there. At the checkpoints. With a rifle and a never-ending headache.

I honestly have no idea what in the name of god you are talking about.
Being there as a soldier (and a commander in my case) is a shitty enough experience, without conducting all those immoral (and illegal!) activities.
I've been in the checkpoints for way over a year about a decade ago.
I know that wherever I looked, we tried to be as moral as one can be (and even more).
Yes, many times we bended (to say the least) the rules just so another person can perhaps have an easier time.
99% of soldiers don't find it even a bit enjoyable to let a woman stand in line for more than is needed. And no, not me, nor anyone I saw, ever took a single item from the people passing [and yes, I'm sure that somewhere, someone did take something - but he at least hid it, because it's universally denounced by IDF soldiers, and will positively send you to jail (as well as get you out of the army].

Please,
Have anything to say about the Arabs/Israelis right to be here or there - but in god's name, stop spreading lies like this - the truth is painful enough!

Jon CoxAugust 21, 2012 4:57 PM

A fairly mainstream definition of terrorism is: "violence or threats of violence directed at non-combatants to achieve a political objective". Plainly, all the parties concerned here have committed such acts.

Calling someone a "terrorist" amounts to taking sides; instead we should just talk about "acts of terrorism". Terror is a tactic, and both sides use it.

As for history lessons, I think they are only useful as far as they help to predict future actions, responses, and outcomes. Once they lapse into the justification of actions, I think we've strayed off-topic.

From a security perspective, what's interesting is the range of tactics used by the various parties, what the reactions have been, and what the intended & unintended consequences are. Not who has greater rights or who has committed greater wrongs. Not who is a victim and who is the aggressor. Just who did what, and what was the outcome. Unless we stick to that, we're discussing our personal affiliations & values, not security.

PS: If you don't like the definition of "terrorism" I've used, go ahead and it your way, but please be clear about it so we all know what you're talking about. Clarity is the goal here, not a semantic turf war.

Noet HierAugust 22, 2012 4:08 PM

The author of the article seems most disturbed by arbitrariness or randomness. But from a security perspective, a randomized policy is the right thing to do. Even though it is very annoying to be picked randomly for extra inconvenience or worse. And an adaptive policy is also the right thing to do, as in the example of the crying schoolkid.

Nick PAugust 22, 2012 4:44 PM

Reading the article left me disgusted by the inhumanity of the situation. The amount of psychological damage done to both sides by this process is astounding. Politics aside, continuing that kind of treatment can lead to nothing but more enemies for Israel. Reading through the first half of comments, I noticed a commenter saying that Israel essentially noticed that & changed how their checkpoints are run. That this article applied to an earlier, rougher time. I hope that's the case. (Shawn's comments are corroborating it.)

I like John David Galts way of saying it:

"What I'm trying to say is that no innocent person should have to live under a state that is at war with him -- not just for moral reasons but for practical ones. There can never be a sustainable peace with a group that is ruled that way."

Uri's four points at Aug 21 6:22am seem to be going in the right direction, although Clive points out a weakness in the foundation of it. I'll also add that much of the social change that reduced hate was done with similar principles. They didn't go off harassing the people they wanted to change or treating them inhumanely. They actually treated them better than they deserved, set positive examples, did good deeds, etc. Imho, being more humane & good than those observing & oppressing them had seen or experienced had an effect. Someone with more expertise should be looking into how to apply these principles to Israeli activities in occuppied areas.

Andrew said...

"The use of a handheld randomizer (or dice in a box or even a coin) takes the pressure off the guard to "pick." His post orders say "Search every 1 in 5" therefore he sets the randomizer to 20%. Of course he can also search suspicious persons, vehicles, etc but then he has to explain what in American law is called "articulable suspicion" "

Exactly! The process is almost random. So, having a government approved device make the decision might help out. The first way it helps is making the decision for the soldiers. It's impersonal & fair in the sense of randomness. This might reduce the psychological burden on the soldiers. They also seem to do random displays of power. This could be built into a randomized system that says "do this act at this checkpoint." Soldiers and the people they control will still fill the brunt of the system despite such possible improvements.

"Calling someone a "terrorist" amounts to taking sides; instead we should just talk about "acts of terrorism". Terror is a tactic, and both sides use it."

Indeed. I remember looking at pictures & press (non-U.S. media...) of the Lebanon invasion. The Israeli's attack patterns looked a bit random. Shelling families on beaches, bombing bomb shelters, etc. The evidence wasn't pointing to "we're taking out the bad guys." Instead, it was "some of them hurt our cilivians, so we're going to blow up more of them." Acts of terror, in other words. Problem: acts of terror breed hate & terrorists. The checkpoint in the original article appears a tool of control & terror. Hence, it's not a solution to the terrorist problem.

@ Bruce Schneier

The Princess Bride is awesome! Although, the comparison wasn't because the history & beliefs of the two nations have a ton to do with both the purpose & outcome of things like the checkpoints. Also, the internal checkpoints in article seem less about security than punishment.

TomerAugust 24, 2012 10:26 PM

This is an extraordinary (and gut-wrenching) first-person account of what it's like to staff an Israeli security checkpoint. It shows how power corrupts: how it's impossible to make humane decisions in such a circumstance.

I also have a first-person account of what it is like to be the staff in an Israeli security checkpoint from personal experience. The article shows how power corrupts and that is the only thing it shows, so it is out of context from security and political perspective.

I agree with Uri, it is very complicated and I don't even know how it is even possible to separate the political from the security context since this form of security control is driven by political forces. That being said, I appreciate your intention to keep this blog free from politics.

I agree that it is impossible to make humane decisions in such circumstances, but what other security controls can be implemented under such circumstances that will achieve security and at the same time create the circumstances under which a soldier in a security post can make a humane decision? or otherwise is it possible without considering the political forces behind it?

Tamara BensonAugust 24, 2012 10:54 PM

I've never been to Palestine or Israel.
I have been studying Arabic for a few years, and it's clear that all roads lead back to Palestine.

This article was painful and poetic, and very important. I'm not sure I've ever seen an article so gently make clear how crazy human borders are. Security as a weapon against regular people--ouch.
I could go on but then you'd think ...you'd think I had some agenda beyond just living and being, and 'let live'.
Thanks for sharing it.
peace and ma'salema,
Tamara

ElazarAugust 30, 2012 3:37 PM

Inferring things from a single man's testimony is problematic. Especially when its riddled with unsourced quotes from soliders (where do he quote them from? memory? rumors?).

It strikes strange to me, because I have friends who served in those checkpoints with radically different experience. However, by their survival bias, their stories wouldn't make it to any newspaper.

If the blog post author want, I can interview one of my friends and post the results, to get a different perspective. Do let me know and I'll try to do that, and do post relevant questions.

I'm not sure how much the facts quoted in the article (eg, suppressing empathy as a measure of increasing security), are indeed agreed upon all soldiers who served there.

RobertSeptember 15, 2012 12:27 PM

Trying to step back from the flashpoint debate about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, one of the most troublesome things to me in this article is that I see only a difference of degree between behavior at this checkpoint, and behavior at a TSA airport screening or U.S. border crossing.

The guards at the airport have the same inability to assess the impact and appropriateness of their actions.

"The idea is to demonstrate presence ..., commanders tell their soldiers. We make them feel like we’re watching their every move and anticipating their every action. This is the occupier’s solution to the problem of preventing everything everywhere: the army has to make Palestinians believe that nothing escapes Israel’s fist. The soldiers demonstrate presence in order to make Palestinians fear that they are present even when they are not."

Isn't this what we see at the TSA checkpoints? The attempt to seem omnipresent and omniscient, without the resources to do so.

Of course the threat level, in reality, is far lower, and many of the screened are citizens with some recourse. These both provide restraints that are absent in the situation discussed in the article. But it seems to me that the screenings can go bad in just the same way.

Indeed, from accounts in the media, it appears that border crossing screenings, applied to non-citizens, have more of the problems that we see here. More arbitrariness and humiliations.

As US security moves towards models like these, this is an issue for us all to consider.

Thanks for the pointer.

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