The Israel Defense Forces' Judge Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Dr. Menachem Finkelstein, confirmed on Sunday that criticism of the behavior of soldiers at checkpoints in the territories was not completely unjustified. Such criticism is constantly leveled by the Palestinians, Israeli and foreign journalists and human rights groups, but not often does the IDF admit the veracity of the complaints.
In his statements to the Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee, which was discussing human rights issues in the territories, the JAG said that indeed there were many - too many - complaints that soldiers manning checkpoints abuse and humiliate Palestinians and that the large number of complaints "lit a red light" for him.
The proliferation of complaints, he continued, called for an examination to ascertain whether they were the result of the heavy workload of the soldiers at the checkpoints. And from now on, twice a year, a report will go to the committee about investigations and indictments of soldiers and police whose behavior at the checkpoints resulted in complaints and suspicions.
This is a good start to get rid of a bad habit. But it is not the workload at the checkpoints that causes the bad behavior. Rather, it is the very existence of the checkpoints. Freedom of movement, which is guaranteed to every citizen in a free state, does not exist in the territories. The Palestinians are stopped leaving their towns, on the roads and at the entrances to Israel. Curfew, closure, siege, checkpoint - the names change, but the reality is the same. The proliferation of suicide attacks caused a tightening of the risk margins and, therefore, a narrowing of the thoroughfares.
The Oslo process was founded on the principle of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians - both on the national and on the individual level - in the fields of economics and security, and also with regard to traffic on the roads; although for extra security, billions of shekels were invested in bypass roads, particularly in the West Bank.
The Aqaba process is based on the opposite principle - separation. There will be large-scale separation by means of the fence being erected east of the Green Line (and the one that has been around Gaza for years), and small-scale separation on the roads, primarily by means of different roads for Israelis and Palestinians as far as possible from their respective communities. And where there are no such separate roads, there will be separation of the times of use of the roads.
This principle has been in effect for more than a week in Gaza. The West Bank awaits a plan by the Central Command that will enable Palestinians to travel from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north practically without encountering an Israeli soldier (though it is still not clear what will be the shortest route between any two points). The plan now awaits the transfer, after Bethlehem, of more Palestinian towns to Palestinian Authority security responsibility, but it would be best if the plan were accelerated.
This is indeed a test period for the Abu Mazen government and his security services, headed by Mohammed Dahlan, but the atmosphere can be improved - thereby providing impetus to the political process and lengthening the cease-fire - by doing away with the checkpoints, both as elements that delay and disrupt lives (and in some cases endanger them) and as symbols of humiliation.
Soldiers and police who behave rudely toward women, the elderly, children and civilians are humiliating the state that sent them to the checkpoints no less than they are humiliating the population burdened by the checkpoints.