Restricting movement is one of the main tools that Israel employs to enforce its regime of occupation over the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories. Israel restricts the movement of Palestinians within the Occupied Territories, between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, into Israel, and abroad. Only Palestinians are restricted in this manner, while settlers and other civilians – Israeli and foreign – are free to travel.
Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the Occupied Territories lies completely at the mercy of the state’s whims, the instructions given to soldiers at the local (DCO), and the way in which they implement them. This state of affairs forces Palestinians to live in constant uncertainty, making it difficult to perform simple tasks and make plans. A Palestinian leaving home in the morning cannot know whether he or she is going to make it work – on time or at all – or to keep a medical appointment, visit family or catch a movie. She might make it, or she might be delayed at a checkpoint for hours, detained and humiliated by soldiers. She may have to turn around and go back the way she came. She may get arrested.
The restrictions on movement and the uncertainty they generate also bear implications for the Palestinian economy and its development potential. In several reports on the issue, the World Bank found that these restrictions are a major factor impeding economic stability and growth in the Occupied Territories. Reasons include delays in the arrival of goods, non-arrival of raw materials, the separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the inability to set schedules and meet them.
The present situation
Israel manages the Occupied Territories as three separate, unrelated areas: the Gaza Strip, which it has held under blockade for more than a decade; the West Bank, where it exercises full military control; and East Jerusalem, which it has annexed to its sovereign territory. Israel allows Palestinians to travel between these areas only if they obtain a special permit, which it rarely issues.
As part of the blockade on the Gaza Strip, Israel prohibits Palestinians from entering and leaving the area except in extremely rare cases, which include urgent, life-threatening medical conditions and a very short list of merchants. Israel limits import into Gaza and almost completely prohibits exports out of it. This policy has driven the Gazan economy to collapse, pushing unemployment there over the 40% mark.
In the West Bank, Israel controls all entry and exit points – including those leading to East Jerusalem, which it has annexed. Israel uses this control not only to block Palestinians from entering sovereign Israeli territory – even if only in transit to and from the Gaza Strip – but also to monitor all travel abroad from the West Bank, often denying passage based solely on its own considerations.
Inside Jerusalem, Israel has installed checkpoints that cut the Palestinian neighborhoods on the other side of the Separation Barrier off from the rest of the city. This forces 140,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites to cross busy, crowded checkpoints in order to enter their own city.
Israel also controls Palestinian travel inside the West Bank. Two major checkpoints split the West Bank in three: The Za’atara checkpoint between Nablus and Ramallah, which is staffed some of the time, and the Container checkpoint east of Abu Dis, which is always staffed. The traffic arteries, together with other checkpoints and roadblocks, direct all Palestinian traffic moving between the north and south of the West Bank into the roads that are controlled by these two checkpoints. The military has also installed iron gates at the entrances to the vast majority of West Bank villages, allowing it to isolate them within minutes and with minimal personnel.
As of January 2017, there are 98 checkpoints in the West Bank:
- 59 permanent checkpoints located deep within the West Bank, 18 of them in Area H2 in the city of Hebron, where Israeli settlement enclaves have been established. Some of these checkpoints are constantly staffed, some only at daytime or for part of the day, and some are hardly ever staffed. Inspections at the checkpoints vary, but are often random.
- 39 staffed checkpoints, which are considered points of entry into Israel although most are located several kilometers into the West Bank. These checkpoints are always staffed, and inspections are rigorous.
- According to 2017 figures provided by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2,941 flying checkpoints were counted along West Bank roads (an average of 327 a month) until the end of September. A total of 5,587 flying checkpoints were counted in 2016. According to OCHA, as of January 2017, there were 476 unstaffed physical obstacles along West Bank roads – including dirt mounds, concrete blocks, and fenced-off segments. Of these, 124 were gates installed at the entrances to villages – 59 of them closed and 65 open most of the time, except when the military decides to close them
To View list of checkpoints click here.
The restrictions on movement within the West Bank have institutionalized the separation between Israeli settlers and Palestinians. The main network of roads was built to serve settlers, on land expropriated from Palestinians. Israel completely prohibits Palestinians from using about 40 kilometers of these roads – including almost eight kilometers of Route 443 and almost seven kilometers within the city of Hebron, near the settlements established there. Another 20 kilometers of these roads are partially off limits to Palestinians.
In addition, Israel has created an alternate network of roads intended for Palestinians only. Referred to as “fabric-of-life roads”, they were also paved on land expropriated from Palestinians and include tunnels and bypass roads. According to OCHA, Israel has paved 49 kilometers of such roads, including 43 tunnels and underpasses. While this network does allow for vehicular travel between the Palestinian “islands” that Israel has created throughout the West Bank, Israel still prevents territorial contiguity between these communities. This road network also allows Israel to easily cut off traffic between different parts of the West Bank.
The permit system
To enforce the movement restrictions, Israel instituted a permit system that requires all Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories to obtain a permit in order to enter Israel, East Jerusalem included, for any purpose whatsoever – including work, medical care and family visits. Palestinians must obtain a permit in order to transit through Israel for travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As part of its blockade policy, Israel refuses to issue such permits to residents of Gaza, with rare exceptions.
In attempting to obtain these permits, Palestinians face an arbitrary, entirely non-transparent bureaucratic system. Applicants have no way of assessing the chances that their applications will be approved or how soon. Many applications are denied without explanation, with no real avenue for appeal. In addition, permits already granted are easily revoked, also without explanation.
Since October 2003, Israel has also been enforced a permit system in the “seam zone” – areas severed from the West Bank by the Separation Barrier, often separating landowners from their land. Under this system, Palestinian farmers must apply for permits to access their own land and renew them repeatedly. Restrictions are imposed on anyone who is not a landowner, and on bringing in farming equipment.
Initially, after the occupation began, Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip could travel almost entirely freely. Tens of thousands worked in Israel. Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and Israel maintained family ties; students from Gaza studied in West Bank universities; and extensive trade took place among Palestinians, no matter where they lived.
In January 1991, during the Gulf War, Israel changed its policy, introducing a demand that any Palestinian wishing to enter Israel or East Jerusalem, including for the purpose of travel between the West Bank and Gaza, must obtain a personal permit from Israel. This policy split the Occupied Territories into three separate areas – the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – leaving travel between them entirely dependent on Israel’s approval.
The impact of this policy change was not immediately apparent. In the first few months, a great many permits were issued and for relatively long durations. As a rule, most Palestinians were still able to routinely enter Israel or travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, Israel gradually reduced the number of permits issued and they became harder and harder to obtain, until, in March 1993, after Palestinians from the Occupied Territories killed nine Israeli civilians and six members of the Israeli security forces, Israel imposed full closure “until further notice”.
To enforce the closure, Israel installed checkpoints along the Green Line (the boundary between Israel’s sovereign territory and the West Bank), between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, and on the Gaza border, and required Palestinians wishing to cross them to obtain a permit. These permits are canceled every time the military imposes a “complete closure” on the Occupied Territories, such as on Jewish holidays. The military often revokes Israeli entry permits after attacks, too – sometimes for all Palestinians in the West Bank, sometimes for residents of the attacker’s community, and sometimes, only for his or her family members.
Over the course of the second intifada, Israel imposed severe restrictions on Palestinian movement even inside the Occupied Territories. In the West Bank, it installed dozens of checkpoints and hundreds of physical obstacles – such as dirt mounds, concrete blocks and ditches – and also began building the Separation Barrier. Some of these obstacles have been removed and others have become permanent checkpoints, but altogether they formed the most extensive, longest-lasting restrictions on Palestinian movement since the beginning of the occupation, disrupting the daily lives of all residents.
Israel put up checkpoints inside the Gaza Strip as well, dividing it into three separate areas. In 2005, it implemented the Disengagement Plan, withdrawing its permanent military presence from Gaza, which made travel there free again. In June 2007, after Hamas took power, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip – a policy still in effect today – prohibiting, with rare exceptions, entry and exit.