Life behind Bars: Collective Punishment In the Name of Security


A general and comprehensive closure has been imposed on the Palestinian territories-the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip-since the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993. Palestinians wanting to enter Israel or to travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip need to obtain an exit permit, despite the establishment of a so-called safe passage route between the two areas in 1999. Permits are also required to travel abroad, and Israel uses this dependency to pressure Palestinians into collaboration. In addition, Israel’s internal closure has divided Palestinian cities and towns from each other. Since the eruption of the second intifada, the comprehensive closure has been almost continual, and all permits canceled. The movement of goods-even food and medical supplies-has also been restricted. This closure has had disastrous economic, social, and psychological effects. 

The Israeli army justifies its closure of the territories based on “security needs,” or what is known in international humanitarian law as the “doctrine of military necessity.” A wave of suicide attacks inside the Green Line, however, has shown that even the tightest closure cannot stop violence from spreading to Israel. In effect, such a policy amounts to collective punishment, which punishes every Palestinian for the acts of a few.


Makhsom is the Hebrew word for checkpoint, but it has found its way into the local Arabic dialect, replacing the Arabic word haijez. It is as if for the Palestinians, checkpoints are a singularly Israeli invention. Israel’s internal and external closure has placed towns, villages, and areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under siege, preventing entry and exit. This strategy has reached such extremes that ever-larger segments of Israeli society are raising their voices against it.

First encircled by checkpoints complete with soldiers, the villages have gradually found themselves isolated by concrete blocks, booby-trapped roadblocks, piles of dirt, and trenches. Some of the roadblocks were erected by Jewish settlers. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, internal closures divide the West Bank into 64 clusters and Gaza into 3 clusters.

The closure is quite inconsistent: Palestinians often drive on back roads in full sight of Israeli soldiers who do not attempt to stop them. The closure is also indiscriminate. North of Jericho in the Jordan Valley the Jiftlik area has not seen any clashes or incidents since the beginning of the intifada. Its villagers do not have permits to work in Israel and rely instead on the selling of their agricultural produce in the markets of Tulkarem and Nablus. Regardless, the road to Tulkarem has been closed since early December 2000; farmers can hardly make a living under these conditions. In a further escalation, the Israeli army has made some 25 incursions into Palestinian-controlled territories in recent weeks, including into Tulkarem.

Phone and electricity lines are cut during the digging of trenches, leaving Palestinians further separated from friends, relatives, and emergency services outside their villages. They cannot count on the occasional compassion of an Israeli soldier to get them to a hospital in case of emergency. People die. Women give birth at the soldiers’ feet. Students and teachers cannot attend school. Men cannot reach their workplaces. Agricultural produce cannot be sold in neighboring towns, so it rots on the spot. Some villages are lucky enough to remain accessible through an olive field or dirt road-when it does not rain. Others are completely isolated for weeks.

In the worst cases, Palestinians are not allowed to leave their houses, almost a constant condition for the past eight months for more than 30,000 Palestinians living in the Old City of Hebron. There the curfew is an attempt to ensure a quiet life for the 400 Jewish settlers who live in the heart of the city. The villages of Huwwarah (Nablus district) and Silet al-Daher (Jenin district) have also been placed repeatedly under curfew for the misfortune of being located along a route used by settlers. In short, the role of the army is to make the settlers feel as if they live in Tel Aviv.

Economic and Psychological Costs: The siege imposed on the Palestinian territories is a form of collective punishment forbidden under international humanitarian law and in contradiction of the most basic principles of humanity. It has resulted in an unbearable strain on the fragile Palestinian economy. The daily costs of closure are estimated at more than $12 million. Israel has also razed large swaths of Palestinian orchards and fields, uprooted thousands of olive and fruit trees, demolished hundreds of homes both with bulldozers and tank shells, and in other ways created destruction that will have long-lasting economic effects.

Closure is a racist policy whose psychological consequences-coupled with the reality of more than 470 Palestinians killed, 87 under the age of 16, and 15,000 wounded-are hardly measurable at this stage. Still, psychotherapists from Médecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) are confronted with children who are more violent at school, increasingly religious at home, and wet their beds at night. A whole generation that had been spared Israel’s crackdown on the first intifada is now suffering from the repression of the second one.

These psychological effects are not difficult to understand if one visits the Occupied Territories. Gaza, for example, is a tiny piece of sand cuddled along the Mediterranean Sea, barely 45 kilometers long and 5 to 12 kilometers wide. More than a million Palestinians live cramped together in 60 percent of this area, while about 6,000 Jewish settlers occupy the remaining 40 percent. For the past several months, crossing the 45 kilometers from Netzarim Junction in the north to the south of the Gaza Strip has been a time-consuming and hazardous adventure. There is one main road linking the north and the south-a crucial thoroughfare for the movement of people and goods-but for months at a time, Israel has closed this junction, then reopened it for restricted time periods, only to re-close it again.

Imagine a situation-quite common-in which more than a thousand cars wait at Netzarim to go south; the same number wait by Kfar Darom settlement to go north. There are also donkey carts, trucks with food, vegetables, livestock, gas, and equipment, United Nations and Red Cross vehicles, ambulances, buses, and taxis. Vehicles start lining up three to four hours before “opening hours.” Israeli tanks and armored cars are stationed at the roadblocks. If vehicles come too close to the barriers or if the soldiers at the checkpoints want vehicles to move, they simply start shooting at the ground or in the air. Masses of people waiting behind the first series of cars and trucks do not know where the shooting is directed, so they start running away in chaos; donkeys panic and children scream. This can happen several times before the soldiers open the road.

Palestinians have two hours to complete this arduous trip. If they do not make it, they are stuck between checkpoints and will not be allowed to turn back. If this happens during the afternoon, they are forced to spend the night. Only one side of the road is open from Kfar Darom, because the Jewish settlers are using the other side (which has been separated by concrete barriers for “security reasons”). Since only one side of the road is open, Palestinians must frequently stop for oncoming traffic, losing time. If a Jewish vehicle wants to cross, all Palestinian cars are stopped, costing more precious time. They face the constant worry of whether or not they will make it to the other side; they constantly worry about gunshots from Israeli soldiers.

Not surprisingly given this scenario, the closure is one of the reasons for Palestinian anger and frustration, a permanent reminder during the last seven years of the grip that Israel retains over the Palestinian territories even after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. One hopes that common sense and the humanity of Israelis and the international community may ease this iron grip and allow the Palestinians to breathe. Like their Israeli neighbors, Palestinians want to live in peace.

Bassem Eid is Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

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