Checkpoint of No Return

Al-Hawara checkpoint, 16 April 2005. (Photo: Feroze Sidhwa)


In a time of empty talk of peace and celebrating Ariel Sharon as a man of moderate politics, because of extremists’ protest against evacuation from Gaza, the situation on the ground in Palestine sees remarkably little change. Everyday life in the occupied territories is as always a continuous chaos of military interference. One of the most obvious and constantly present exponents is the Israeli grip on Palestinian freedom of movement, suffocating the fragile infrastructure.

“I’m here to protect my country against terrorists,” the young man tells me shrugging as if he is not completely confident with his answer.

“So have you seen a lot of terrorists here in Hebron?” I ask eager to get a first-hand description of such a menace.

Having spent almost two months in Palestine I am relatively convinced I have yet to see a single one. Somewhat disappointing, I heard so much about them before I went here. On the other hand I have seen a lot of things that is not getting as much attention back home, like this checkpoint where I am talking to guys, armed to the teeth, even younger than myself. It is of course not as intriguing as terrorists, but still. Maybe the five young Palestinian men leaned against the wall? They have been waiting patiently to have their ID’s returned for half an hour, but they don’t look very menacing. They are used to it they say. It is not a problem; these soldiers don’t even beat them up. It is a lot better in Hebron now they claim. Before, the children would often come to school bleeding from the forehead, because the soldiers used to scrape their faces along the wall for kicks. They don’t really do that anymore. My friend Laurence who has been staying in Hebron for four months breaks into the conversation between myself and the soldier:

“If I was a terrorist that wanted to get into the old city, I’d probably spend an extra ten minutes and walk around this checkpoint.”

The checkpoint is a permanent one by the entrance to the old city in Hebron. There is no problem in walking around it, besides from it being a hassle.

“But they don’t do that,” the soldier answers. “They are so stupid, the terrorists, I don’t know why. Well, sometimes they do it right, but they are just so stupid.”

Having spent just a little time in Palestine, one will learn that in most situations, checkpoints are avoidable and not very thorough in checking. One of countless examples is the major checkpoint of Qalandiya, North of Jerusalem, which features to lines for men, one with a metal detector, and one without. You’re free to choose between them. One must wonder if security really is the essential issue.

Checkpoints

A checkpoint is a military installation varying in size, with the purpose of making soldiers capable of easily controlling and checking Palestinian movement from one point to another. For example from Palestine and into Israel, but a large majority operate within the occupied territories impairing movement between Palestinian towns. Or in the middle of Hebron, making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for children to go to school or for the Muslim population to get to the mosque. Besides from the permanent checkpoints, Palestinians are daily bothered by dozens of so-called “flying checkpoints”, in essence one or more military vehicles parked pulling Palestinian cars over for checking. The constant criminalizing and humiliation of ordinary people trying to lead a normal life is extremely tiring to witness. The Israeli human rights organization of B’tselem, last year published a report about this phenomenon which states that in the period of 2000” 2004, at least 39 Palestinians died because of checkpoints denying or delaying access to medical treatment. B’tselem’s report sees the checkpoints as but a detail of the racist Israeli policy of separation, seeking to make life in the occupied territories as miserable as possible. Claiming that all Palestinians are potential terrorists, Israel punishes a whole population and perpetrates daily crimes violating human rights and international law as it sees fit.

The forbidden roads regime

Since the occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967, Israel has spent billions of shekels building roads in the occupied territories. The “bypass-roads” connect the Israeli settlements in a big contiguous area making up for 60 % of the West Bank. The rest consists of more than a hundred smaller islands in this sea of forbidden roads and stolen land. On these roads, Palestinian vehicles are completely or partially prohibited access. The roads with complete prohibition are referred to by the military as “sterile roads”. The Israeli authority claims that the Palestinian population also benefits from these, and official limitation of Palestinian movement is in fact hard to find in writing. As is often case in the Palestine, the reality on the ground is remarkably different from official descriptions. With the use of hour-long delays, cement blocks or other forms of obstacles at the entrances of bypass-roads, unreasonable imposing of fines and confiscations of Palestinian vehicles, the Israeli system facilitates the deterrence of Palestinian movement. Even though Israel is rarely mentioned as an occupational power by mainstream media, it is only with such a status that the existence of the forbidden roads regime is possible. This status makes it possible for Israel to rely largely on verbal orders and leave the smaller military units relatively autonomous to sabotage Palestinian day-to-day life. The absence of written orders also effectively prevents proper official discourse on the subject.

Gaza, strictly bad business

When one speaks with the young soldiers at the checkpoints about their service in the occupied territories, they are often puzzled by the fact that we want to volunteer here. If they were able to decide for themselves, many say, they would get drunk and party in Tel Aviv, India, Europe or wherever. This is just a job. But often there is some pride to be found in their voice. They are proud to serve their country, many say. But is it indeed Israel that these young men serve, obstructing Palestinian lives in the occupied territories? Perhaps if they by Israel mean a small elite with military background which happens to in government again and again. But not the Israeli people. Israeli professor Tanya Reinhart, points out in her book “Israel/Palestine” How to end the war of 1948”, how the majority of Israel in several polls turn out to desire withdrawal from the occupied territories. A main problem in the Israeli political system is a familiar one. When the Israelis vote, they effectively have only two candidates to choose from, always with a military background and through the somewhat different rhetoric, the same agenda: no concessions. Sharon’s plan of withdrawal from Gaza, should it ever come true, merely stems from economic concerns, even though it has undoubtedly shown to have a completely undeserved PR bonus. Israel will continue to have all the control and options of military interference it could ever want, but leaves the Palestinian Authority with the responsibility of costly areas such as health and educational services in a territory exhausted by almost forty years of occupation. It has nothing to do with peace gestures; it is merely a way to try to save the ready-to-crumble Israeli economy. A true Israeli aspiration for peace will be easy to recognize, since it will start with unconditional military withdrawal, at least a theoretical recognition of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return and an evacuation of at least 90 % of the settlements leaving the remaining 10 % (the largest settlements) for possible integration in a sovereign Palestinian state with the pre-June 1967 borders as an absolutely doable minimum. But as the Western heads of state and media are tripping over each other to praise Sharon to the clouds, the Palestinian reality on the ground is the same. The checkpoints in Hebron? They are not going anywhere. It’s just business as usual, it’s just their job. For the safety of Israel.

“Why are you detaining so many guys today?”

“Did you hear about the girl in the mosque?”

“What does that have to do with these guys?”

“They tried to stab us!” “So what are you doing here?” “ID checks.”

“Do you think this will make them more or less likely to attack soldiers in the future?”

“It’s all I can do.”

“You could leave, you could refuse and go sit on a beach in Tel Aviv.”

“And while I’m playing in the sea they will come and shoot me in the back of the head.”

“Do you not see that it is the occupation that is the root cause of the violence?”

“This is my country and this is what we do.”

Kasper Lundberg is 22 years old and from Denmark. He has been working with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank for two months.