Danger, Checkpoint Ahead

Gideon Levy

Since the killing of six soldiers at Ein Ariq and the killing of a policeman at Sudra, it seems that now, for the soldiers, almost anything goes.

1 March 2002

Walking in silence: Palestinian families on their way to Ramallah for the holiday pass the entrance to the Beit El settlement.

One by one: An IDF soldier at the Qalandiyah checkpoint

   The father and son took a few more tentative steps past the roadblock. It's hard now to know what is permitted and what is forbidden here. "Wahad, wahad" ("one by one"), roared the soldier, but the frightened little boy didn't want to let go of his father's hand. They were dressed in their new holiday clothes, with holiday gifts in their hands, a stark contrast to the surrounding filth and neglect. The father was fuming at the humiliating wait in the bitter cold. The soldier put them through their paces: Forward! Now backward! he barked at the few people waiting to cross. The stage directions of the occupation. 

The father took another step forward, another half step, and the soldier tensed. They were still about 10 meters apart, perhaps a bit more. Did the soldier mean to order the man to leave his son behind and move forward alone? Was the father supposed to send his son on ahead toward the armed and menacing soldier and remain behind himself? Was the soldier really afraid of the boy, who looked about 5 or 6 years old, and of his father as well, and is that why he threatened them with his gun? Or was it the general atmosphere of lawlessness that seemed to reign this past week at the checkpoints that gave him license to wave his gun, loaded and cocked, at the man and the boy? 

All this transpired in just a few seconds. The father took another step forward, hand in hand with his child. Nervous and agitated, the soldier - his rifle cocked and ready - aimed it at them. Another step forward and he surely would have shot them, the father and son, as his comrades this week shot two pregnant women and their husbands at another checkpoint. But the father stood still, and this incident, at least, ended well. 

Well? When this child grows up, he will certainly remember how the Israeli soldier was about to shoot him and his father at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, during the time of the Feast of the Sacrifice, when they were making their round of holiday visits. 
   Anything goes 

In the territories, when it's bad, it gets worse. If until now, the soldiers were unmercifully preventing pregnant women in labor from getting to the hospital, now they're shooting them. If they were ill-treating thousands of residents at an endless bottleneck at the checkpoint, now there are no more bottlenecks: the road is closed. If someone arriving at the checkpoint used to be cursed and humiliated, now he could get a bullet in the head. 

At the Hawara checkpoint this week, two women in labor were shot - this happened on two successive days at the same checkpoint, before Palestinian terrorists shot and wounded a pregnant Israeli woman. 

On Sunday, soldiers wounded Shadiah Shahada, and the next day they shot Maisoun al-Haiyek, killing her husband and seriously wounding her father-in-law, who were trying to get her to the hospital to give birth. At the Qalandiyah checkpoint, soldiers killed a man, and at the Tul Karm checkpoint soldiers killed a young woman. They even shot at the car in which Abu Ala, Speaker of the Palestinian Parliament, was riding. 

This trigger-happy interlude has now accounted for more casualties than in any previous such period, since the killing of six soldiers at the Ein Ariq checkpoint and the killing of a policeman at the Sudra checkpoint. It would seem that now, for the soldiers, almost everything is permissible. The IDF spokesman, responding to a question, said: No, there's been no change in the guidelines for opening fire. 

This past Sunday, in the middle of the most important holiday in the Muslim calendar, we traveled to the West Bank checkpoints between Ramallah and Bethlehem. It wasn't too much like a holiday as far as we could see, aside from what people were wearing and the gifts they carried. An entire people traveling on foot over rocky ground and through the fields, their bundles and gifts in their hands, despair in their hearts. The very heart of their land is rife now with dozens of checkpoints, and violence looms at every one. 

From Jerusalem to Qalandiyah alone, a distance of only a few kilometers, there are now no less than three checkpoints. Life, if you can call it that, goes on around them, pursuant to the new rules of the game. A terrible dread hovers over residents and soldiers alike, the former terrified of the latter and vice versa, and the soldiers fire easily, without delay, without hesitation. 

Ismail Abu Taah, a researcher for the human rights organization B'Tselem, is tense: for two days now, his sister, who lives nearby, has been unable to get through for the holiday meal. She lives on one side of the checkpoint and he lives on the other, with only a few hundred meters and one checkpoint separating them. Will she get there for dinner, nor not? 

"I said go back, go back," bellows the reserve-duty soldier, a big, strong man, at the people waiting on the south side of the Qalandiyah checkpoint. The roadblock is almost completely deserted. What had been until this week the largest, busiest checkpoint in the West Bank - with thousands of people passing through on foot and hundreds going through in cars in an endless traffic jam, with kiosks selling food and beverages along the side of the road, and dozens of taxis traveling here and there - is now closed, nearly deserted. In his steel helmet with a star stenciled on it, armed and wearing protective gear, the soldier fends off a dozen people who have showed up anyway. 

The wind whips at everyone: the soldier whose stocking cap peeks out from under his helmet, the little kids holding their parents' hands, the old man leaning on his cane and the infant held close to his mother's body, bundled up in wool blankets and a hat, his face blue with cold. 
   Going home 

It was cold at the Qalandiyah checkpoint this past Sunday and the wind threatened to blow everything away. When the checkpoint is empty, its ugliness is all the more striking. Mounds of garbage all around, with no one to clean them up - accumulated over long months of the selection process through which tens of thousands have passed - are all the more conspicuous in the empty setting. Periodically, the wind picks up a bit of trash and sends it farther on its way. The stink is dreadful. Not so long ago, we saw a soldier, busy checking people, inadvertently step on the carcass of a little orange kitten. That was on the last holiday. 

"Back, go back, get back there," the soldier now on duty intones. Faced with a photographer, he tries a new tack: "No one is going through until the photographer moves away," he blusters, and the family, a handful of people, lower their gaze and wait submissively in the fierce wind until this latest edict is carried out and the soldier satisfied. 

Crossing the biggest checkpoint on the West Bank is now permitted only to those who can prove that their home is on the other side. Now the only movement allowed is to go home. Anything else - holiday visits, school, work, illness and health, business, friends, errands - permission denied. Bear in mind that this is not a checkpoint guarding an entrance into Israel. "Go to the brigade HQ and bring a pass from the brigade commander," suggests the soldier to one old man in what sounds like an especially macabre and callous type of humor - even for a soldier at a checkpoint. The brigade? A pass from the commander? This old man? 

We go through the checkpoint on foot, all by ourselves: the lucky ones. "Don't stop along the way," instructs the soldier. More street theater awaits on the opposite side. Here, too, only a handful of people are waiting; no one else dares to come near the place. Those who have come are getting the runaround - move forward; move back - from the soldier on duty. They look odd, not to say expressionless, stepping forward and back in the wind. But this routine by the soldier involves more than just moving forward and backward as a group; there's also opening one's coat, exposing one's body, and turning around. The choreography of the checkpoint. 

Here's how it goes: The soldier stands a few dozen meters from the group of people who want to go through, and when he holds up his hand or raises his voice, the next in line may come closer. Halfway, the soldier instructs his subject to stop and then the person must open his coat all the way and turn round in a circle, in case he's wearing a belt of explosives. Even the old man who was standing there leaning on his cane is not excused from participation in this stage business, but it didn't help him because the soldier sent him back anyway, lame and limping, whence he had come. 

What was this soldier thinking about when he sent the old man back home? A not very long line of cars is standing in front of the closed checkpoint, waiting for Godot. The driver of the first vehicle in line, an Arab Israeli whose truck is carrying oxygen canisters, says that for several days now he's been trying to go home with his truck, which bears Israeli license plates. 
   `Eased conditions' 

"Five yards back. Farther back, go back some more," in a Russian accent. Is this what the soldier immigrated to Israel for? Is this why he joined the Israel Defense Forces? Two drivers are arguing over their place in the line, which is anyhow not going anywhere. All the anger they've been accumulating against the occupation, they now take out on one another. A couple with an infant say their baby has a heart problem and that they're on their way to see a doctor; the soldier lets them pass. An ambulance, too, passes after a brief check. 

"Go that way," suggests the soldier to a couple he turned away and for whom he seemed to feel some slight compassion; they are all dressed up in their holiday best and now he's turning them back. Over there? The soldier points his hand eastward. Indeed, a few dozen meters away from the closed checkpoint is an alternative checkpoint - a rocky path through the mounds of trash, up the hill overlooking the checkpoint and around the edges of the quarry, finally bypassing the Qalandiyah checkpoint in plain sight of the soldiers. This is the soldier's advice for today. 

The day before and the day after this scene took place, the soldiers there fired on people trying to get through on that path. But today there's considerable action on the alternate route: hundreds of families climbing the hill, not an easy task for the very old and the very young, but they've no choice. Who knows, maybe that's the "easing of conditions" announced by Israel for the holiday: No one will shoot at people going through the dump on their way to a festive meal at their parents' house. 

Dozens of yellow taxis are waiting on both sides of this Burma Road for the pedestrians on their holiday rounds, waiting to drive them to the next checkpoint. This is a yellow time: The entire West Bank is now crisscrossed with yellow blotches like this, and there's yellow under nearly every tree. You raise your eyes unto the hills and what do you see? A yellow blotch. You look down along the valley and see more of the yellow blotches. Yellow is the "in" color. Ad hoc taxi stands are ranged alongside every checkpoint and at the terminus of every goat path used by pedestrians: yellow cabs waiting to transport them to the next checkpoint. 

A story for the holidays: Mohammed Sa'adi, his wife and their daughter wanted to visit his parents and his brother this week, for a holiday meal. The Sa'adis live in Ramallah; Mohammed works for the Palestinian Water Authority, and his family lives in Tul Karm. After they had tried in vain to get from Ramallah to Tul Karm on the direct route, they decided to try another way, a more costly way. 

They went to Jericho, got out of the car on the main road and walked about six kilometers on foot toward the city. There, they signed up to cross the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. They paid a fee of NIS 129 per person to the Jordanians and another NIS 130 for an exit permit, a total of NIS 777 for the family. In a cab that was supposed to take them in the direction of the bridge, they rode to Tul Karm, presenting their pass to the soldiers at the checkpoints along the way as though they had just come from Jordan. Five hours after leaving home, they arrived at his parents' house - and great joy reigned there that day. 

"Ten minutes' drive and you're in your new villa with a large garden at Rimonim" [a nearby settlement], proclaims the billboard east of Ramallah. A bunch of yellow taxis wait by the Jab'a checkpoint, another one that has been closed. At the Hizmeh checkpoint, the right lane is for Jewish cars and the left lane for Palestinian cars, though all of them bear yellow Israeli license plates. There are no soldiers manning the next checkpoint at the entrance to the road that climbs up to the Beit El settlement. No Palestinian would dare to travel anywhere near here in any case. A large menorah crowns the hill for no obvious reason. There are brightly colored concrete blocks, and a young settler youth stands alone at the checkpoint. 

The entrance to the Beit El settlement is through an army base. On the right, the firing range; on the left, parking for tanks; straight ahead, the shopping center. The Ramallah-Nablus road, the second entrance to this large settlement, is blockaded and deserted. There are a few yellow blotches on the sidelines, to prove that here, too, there are alternate routes that end in a queue of parked cabs. 

Alongside the military court building there's a line of exhausted people walking from their villages in the area toward Ramallah. It's almost dinnertime. They walk past a tank, its motor running, filling the air with gray exhaust, turret moving back and forth menacingly. They walk without speaking, but it's not hard to guess what they must be feeling, or what they must be telling their children about why they have to walk like that in the cold to visit their grandfather, while the Jews are riding on the roads without hindrance. 

What do the settlers of Beit El think, given this view of a closed road, people mired in mud, the enormous army base at the gates of their town, everything accomplished by menacing force? The road through paradise is deserted; no one is outdoors. One almond tree is flowering, nonetheless. And there is a lone Filipina maid out walking a noisy dog in the afternoon. 

"Zu Artzeinu" ("This is our land"), says the sticker on a settler's armored car speeding along the deserted main road. Yellow metal ducks stand at the roadside, an environmental sculpture that the settlers put here as a protest against the terror confronting them. Ismail Abu Taah's sister-in-law telephones: They've arrived for dinner after all.





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