Boston Review — Oded Na’aman: The Checkpoint
As you stand at the checkpoint, you must constantly consider the various ways in which you may be attacked: Where are they going to come from? What will their strategy be? Is that child as innocent as he seems, or is he smuggling a weapon? Is that ambulance really rushing a woman to the hospital to give birth, or are there enemies hiding inside? Is that old man harmless, or is he deliberately diverting your attention from something that is happening behind your back? You have to get into their minds. They are creative, and they have already exploited our naivety and good will in the past. They can come up with anything, and you have to come up with it first.
These are the instructions soldiers receive before beginning their principle combat mission in the IDF: enforcement of military rule in the West Bank.
In the West Bank, the IDF is directed neither to conquer enemy territory nor to prevent an enemy from conquest. It is engaged in “low intensity conflict,” a phrase that encapsulates the indecisiveness of occupation. The enemy—the foreign people the military is charged with subduing—is within a territory that is already under the military’s control. Since the military occupies the land on which the enemy resides, it cannot conquer the enemy’s land any more than it already has. And insofar as the enemy has no land, it has no political independence, no real capacity for civic life. It is therefore impossible for Israel—logically impossible—to “go to war” with the Palestinians in the West Bank: Palestinian individuals may suffer to a greater or lesser degree, but the Palestinian people, as a people, cannot be further defeated.
At the same time, West Bank Palestinians are foreign to Israel. They are not Israeli citizens, and Israeli civil law does not apply to them. Israeli martial law—the law that, at least in principle, guides and constrains the IDF—also is not a law for the Palestinians, although it does affect their lives in profound ways. Law does not govern the relations between the State of Israel and Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Unlike citizens, who obey the police not only because they are powerful but also because they are authoritative, Palestinians obey the orders of the IDF only because it is powerful. Military laws in the West Bank therefore are not laws at all, but merely what the legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart called “orders backed by threats”: the source and limit of their authority depends on the source and limit of particular threats.
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