A Checkpoint Checkup

Just as the United States imposed far tighter security at airport checkpoints after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Israel set up more stringent security checkpoints on West Bank roads after Palestinian terrorists, including many suicide bombers, were able to use those roads to launch deadly attacks.

No doubt US airport checkpoints are usually more pleasant than Israel’s road checkpoints, but what Americans have faced in airports is often inconvenient, time consuming, and even sometimes humiliating. While the aggravations of US security lines are usually ignored by the media, it is standard fare for journalists and opinion writers to refer to the Israeli checkpoints as “humiliating” terminals at which Palestinians are forced to endure hours-long waits at the hands of snarling (or sleeping — take your pick) Israeli soldiers.

Charges of this kind have long characterized coverage, including:

… [Israel has imposed] hundreds of humiliating and disruptive checkpoints … (Andrew Phillips: No relief for the Palestinians while Israel enjoys impunity, The Independent, Feb 1, 2010)

… [Palestinians] are forced to endure hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks whose purpose seems humiliation as much as security … (Joe Klein, Why the U.S. Should Start Talking to Hamas,Time Magazine, June 11, 2009)

[Palestinians experience] walled cantons, checkpoints, ethnically segregated roads, dispossession and humiliation. (To blame the victims for this killing spree defies both morality and sense,The Guardian, March 5, 2008)

A more recent AP article, Checkpoint misery epitomizes a Mideast divide, (February 21, 2010) examined the major Qalandia checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem and seemed like more of the same, invoking the familiar “daily humiliation” language.

But to gauge just how humiliating the transit supposedly is, Ben Hubbard, the AP reporter, spent a week at the terminal interviewing Palestinians, and timing their passage through the checkpoint. And even though it’s almost certainly unintentional, Hubbard’s report actually casts doubt on just how much misery and waiting Palestinians experience at these checkpoints.

In fact, judging by Hubbard’s data, Palestinians get through the Qalandia checkpoint more quickly than travelers get through security checkpoints at some major US airports.

Here’s a summary of Hubbard’s report, followed by data from US airports.

• On the first day the Palestinian worker followed by Hubbard takes all of 22 minutes to get through. And this is during the early morning rush – Hubbard admits that “outside of rush hour, crossings can take mere minutes.”

• Day two: also during the early morning rush the wait is again only 22 minutes.

• Day three: progress is a bit slower, perhaps because the day before a would-be Palestinian attacker was stopped at the checkpoint, armed with a “pistol and four knives.” The Palestinian followed on this day by the AP takes 54 minutes to pass though the checkpoint.

• Day four: despite a fight among Palestinians in the line, passage takes only 33 minutes.

• Day five: the wait is down to 25 minutes.

These are not exactly the humiliating, hours-long delays that some media reports have portrayed.
How do these waits compare to what travelers face at, for example, John F. Kennedy Airport in New York? The Transportation Security Administration has suspended its tally of security wait times, but past data is still available at many travel web sites. On Fox World Travel, for example, we find the following information for JFK on a Monday morning during what is apparently the busiest time of the day (8 AM to 9 AM) at the busiest terminals:

Passengers at Terminal 6 – JetBlue had to endure an average wait of 38 minutes and a maximum wait of 45 minutes to get through security, while passengers at Terminal 6 B had to wait almost as long, about 30 minutes, with the wait extending to 35 minutes from 9 AM to 10 AM.

Other aggregated current data from United Airlines indicates that the average peak wait on peak days at JFK is more than 40 minutes, with the situation even worse at other airports. Unlucky travelers at Albuquerque International Airport, for example, faced a peak wait of 40 to 50 minutes.

So, on average, Palestinians get through the major Qalandia checkpoint faster than some travelers at JFK and other airports get through US checkpoints. Considering the extreme and daily terror threat faced by Israel, the fact that people traverse Israeli checkpoints as quickly as they do is a testament to the country’s efforts to balance the demands of security and human rights.
In covering this story, reporters would better serve readers if they were to dispense with clichés and present facts such as these in full and clear context.

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