The term siege (“encirclement” in military jargon) relates, in this context, to fully or partially preventing residents from entering or leaving a certain area, while isolating the area from other parts of the West Bank. This is done by blocking the access roads to the area by means of physical obstructions, which forces the residents to pass through a staffed checkpoint on their way in and out of the area. The degree to which the siege is enforced varies from place to place and from one period to another. In almost every instance, the most immediate impact of the siege is on residents of villages situated outside the area under siege, who depend on the services provided there.
The frequent use of sieges is one of the unique signs of the second intifada. In the first years of the intifada, the army imposed a siege on large areas in the West Bank (primarily Area A), but subsequently removed it in most instances. However, a partial siege, which varies in magnitude, continues to be imposed on Nablus and its periphery, and sometimes on other parts of the northern West Bank, primarily Jenin and Tulkarm. A siege has also been imposed, since May 2005, on the Jordan Valley, though in a slightly different format. Unlike the siege on Nablus, the main restriction imposed as part of the siege on the Jordan Valley involves the entry of Palestinians who are not residents of the area; Jordan Valley residents “only” have to undergo a check at the checkpoints set up along the access roads.
The siege on the Nablus area
The Nablus area, which includes the city, three refugee camps and fifteen villages, contains over 200,000 persons. It has been under siege for six years. Entry and exit is possible only via four checkpoints that surround it. Crossing the checkpoints entails stringent checks of persons, vehicles and goods in both directions. Physical obstructions block all the other entrances and exits to the area.
From time to time, Israel also imposes collective prohibitions, completely prohibiting residents from leaving the besieged area, except for those with a special exit permit. Generally, where a siege has been imposed, the army does not issue permits to cross for “routine” reasons, such as work, family visits, or studies, but only for reasons the authorities consider humanitarian, such as medical treatment.
Collective restrictions, which have been imposed periodically since 2002, generally apply to males in a specific age group, usually 16-35. At times, the restrictions also apply to females. In 2006 alone, the movement prohibitions were in force for more than nine months. From January to August 2007, this collective prohibition was in force at least 45 days.
These restrictions cause extensive, profound harm and affect fundamental aspects of the fabric of life in the area: many of the residents have lost their jobs and ability to support their families; pupils and students cannot complete their studies and exams; residents of nearby villages are unable to receive regular medical care or other basic services; many persons find themselves separated from their families living outside the besieged area, and so forth and so on. The harm is aggravated as a result of the sweeping nature and extensive duration of the restrictions.
In response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanding that the siege on the area be lifted, the army contended that the “encirclement” enables control and supervision of persons entering and leaving the city and makes it easier for security forces to thwart terrorist attacks. The army further argued that the collective prohibitions are also needed because it is impossible to conduct a thorough check of every person crossing the checkpoints, and because “the existing intelligence is incomplete and security forces do not always have a complete list of names of terrorists living in the greater Nablus area who are planning to carry out attacks.”
The group prohibitions in the Nablus area are an additional means to the many other sweeping and protracted restrictions imposed on the area, the primary one being the siege. In light of this, even if the group prohibitions have a certain measure of effectiveness in achieving their security objective, they are unjustified because it is hard to find a reasonable relationship between the added benefit that the army contends they provide and the unreasonable harm that they cause to the local population.
Furthermore, even if we accept that argument that it is not possible to pinpoint the persons who pose a security threat, and that the prohibitions are not intended as punishment, one must still conclude that the army's action is a form of collective punishment, which is outright prohibited under international humanitarian law.