Removing Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank would end humiliation, increase security

Proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict focus on the "big-ticket" issues: Palestinian sovereignty, sharing Jerusalem, and the "right of return" for displaced Palestinians. Analysts and pundits pay less attention to the everyday troubles suffered by both sides. For Palestinians, this means the Israeli settlements and checkpoints that have divided families and paralyzed Palestinian economic growth. For Israelis, it is the specter of violence and the fear under which many of its citizens live.

Social science, however, offers help for addressing one of these emotive issues -- Israeli checkpoints on Palestinian territory -- in a way that benefits both sides.

A report last week by NPR's Shankar Vedantam explained how this might be possible. The segment focused on a neuralgic aspect of the Israeli occupation -- military checkpoints that dot the occupied West Bank -- and how removing these checkpoints "markedly reduce[s] anti-Israel sentiment, and actual acts of violence against Israel."

There are two types of fixed checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. Twenty-six checkpoints serve as points of control between the West Bank and the state of Israel. There is less controversy over these border stops. Still, passage through these border posts can be humiliating experiences for the approximately 30,000 Palestinian laborers with permits who line up at 2 a.m. daily to work in Israel.

The border checks are also impediments for the church's ministers serving West Bank parishes, for local pilgrims seeking to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem, and for aid workers carrying on relief and development work for those living under occupation.

More controversial, according to social scientists, are 27 permanently staffed Israeli military checkpoints inside the occupied West Bank, dividing Palestinian villages and towns from one another, sometimes splitting settlements internally and keeping town-dwelling landowners from their farm fields. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem: "At these checkpoints, which constitute the most severe restriction on movement of Palestinians, Israel'[s] security forces check every person who crosses, resulting in frequent lengthy delays."

The impetus for dismantling some Israeli checkpoints originated with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. His initiative caught the attention of Daphna Canetti of the University of Haifa, Nancy Hite of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and Matthew Longo of Yale University.

Before the Blair dismantling initiative was made public, Canetti and her colleagues conducted surveys among 599 Palestinian residents in 17 Palestinian villages. Some of the villages were located in close proximity to an area where a checkpoint was going to be removed, while the other villages were located in areas where the checkpoints were going to remain.

Once the checkpoints were actually removed, Canetti and her colleagues surveyed people in both areas again. Participants in both groups were asked identical questions relating to their political party support, beliefs about the two-state solution, and attitudes toward violence against Israel. This empirical strategy enabled the surveyors to identify a "checkpoint effect," i.e., to understand the effect that the experience of checkpoints had on Palestinian attitudes on how to resolve tensions with Israel.

The results of the research, published in full in the American Journal of Political Science, were surprising and counterintuitive for Israeli conventional wisdom. Palestinians who lived in the villages where the nearby Israeli checkpoint was removed became significantly less likely to support violence against Israel. At the same time, Palestinians in the areas more densely filled with checkpoints became increasingly radical, and their support for groups such as Hamas increased. The driving force behind these attitudes was feelings of humiliation.

In other words, the study measurably revealed that checkpoints actually perpetuated violence, exacerbating the very problem they were designed to solve. This finding is remarkable, as Israel considers the checkpoints to be a nonviolent form of repression in the West Bank, designed to regulate Palestinian movement within the West Bank while protecting Israeli settlements and permitting their growth.

The research has clear policy ramifications. Checkpoints were shown to be a detriment to Israeli security as well as impediments to Palestinian daily life. The challenge, according to Canetti, is to convince Israel to remove a form of control that made Israelis feel safer while in actuality decreasing their security.      

The Israeli army has reacted with interest to the study's findings and has reached out to Canetti because the study also uncovered the motivation for Palestinian violence. Palestinians respond with anger and violence not just because of the inconveniences of the checkpoint, but because the checkpoints produce humiliation, corroborating a larger body of scholarly work that suggests humiliation is often a big driver for anger and violence.

Humiliation at checkpoints spans the gamut, from shaming parents in front of their children by degrading them or treating them harshly to more lethal forms of humiliation, such as delaying the passage of ambulances carrying critical Palestinian patients or pregnant women, often resulting in miscarriages and even death before reaching a hospital.

Recognition that humiliation at Israeli checkpoints may actually impede Israeli security has been recognized by no less than Israeli Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz, the person who implemented the West Bank checkpoint system. Speaking to an Israeli radio station in 2008, he said: "You have to understand that there is damage in having the Palestinian people with its back to the wall, not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, unable to improve their economy, unable to move from place to place."

Canetti urges in the NPR interview with Vedantam: "Israel, you have to take the risk. Give it a chance. And in the long run, you'll have more security, and not just the sense of security but real security."

The removal of Israeli checkpoints will improve security, and the resulting positive Palestinian attitudes toward Israelis (and vice versa) can greatly enhance the spirit under which future peace negotiations are held. It will be an important step toward mutual recognition of the humanity of the other side.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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