Checkpoints

Above: Long lines of Palestinians having their ID examined at an Israeli checkpoint. In Gaza, severe exit restrictions have been imposed on Palestinians since 1992. In the West Bank, Palestinians have been cut off from their capital, Jerusalem, since Israel errected checkpoints around the city in March 1993, six months before the first Oslo accord was signed. Around 1 percent of Palestinians hold the needed travel permits at any one time, meaning that the other 99 percent — close to 3 million people — are trapped all of the time. Israel’s racial permit system is not imposed on its Jewish citizens. Apartheid is alive and well in 2002. (EI) Photo by Musa Al-Shaer.

No one writes about the checkpoints nowadays. They have become a permanent, almost “normal”, fixture of Palestine. Soldiers with guns, old women turned away, ambulances stopped for hours, hundreds of shoes covered in mud, a row of young men standing by the side of the road as their IDs are supposedly checked. All this is apparently normal now. Or perhaps written about, talked about, debated about too often. So people have decided that the checkpoints are old news. Particularly now that they are “better”. Far less shooting, less teargas, less screaming plague Qalandya these days. So it is alright. It is no longer worthy of attention. It is no longer an affront to human dignity.

That’s what the media silence on these structures of oppression would have us believe, leniency becoming synonymous with right.

I have not experienced a checkpoint under fire, sitting frightened in a taxi as bullets fly past me targeting children on the hills. I do not know what it is like to see old men beaten, ambulance drivers harassed or women pained by pangs of oncoming childbirth. I have only known the checkpoints of Palestine at a time when they are considered by everyone to be “easy”. Lenient, open, safe.

Yet they are anything but lenient, allow everything but free passage, and make you feel anything but safe.

It’s 6:30 a.m. and I am walking along Ramallah’s quasi-deserted streets toward the center of town called the Manara. The air is sharply cold, but the sky is clear.  Good, I think.  There won’t be any rain, and at least the checkpoint won’t be a morass of reddish-grayish mud. Always look at the bright side of things.

The Manara is unusually empty, with only the yellow service cabs lining the streets that in a few hours time will be brimming with shoppers, vegetable stands, wafts of oil-drenched falafel and men standing on every street corner.  “Qalandya, Qalandya,” shouts out the young driver, as I get into the cab, paying my two-shekel fare.

And so begins a trip to Jerusalem.

The road to Qalandya is well paved in a few places, pothole ridden in most. Dusty and deserted, it does not hold happy remembrances. It cannot be said to lead to a destination. For no one actually wants to go to a checkpoint. It leads, slowly, slowly, to a point in the universe where the essence of your humanness is questioned. It leads to a place where the certainty of your heritage is just a hypothesis; where you are human only if others decide that you are.

Qalandya appears on the horizon, the taxis and small shops set up on this side of the checkpoint quickly approaching. The ground is white, chalky, an unpleasant dustiness. Men and women all stumble out of the taxi, walking the thirty or so meters to the short slalom course of concrete blocks leading to two Israeli reservists.

Above: A Palestinian worker on a bicycle expresses amazement as an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint threatens him with a rifle. Israeli checkpoints can be surreal, manned by recent Jewish immigrants from Russia or Ethiopia who can’t speak Arabic, English or even Hebrew, refusing passage to people who can trace their ancestry back a thousand years or more in this country. (EI) Photo by Musa Al-Shaer.

Apparently there is a line for West Bank ID holders and a line for people with Israeli ID or international passports. But it does not really matter which line you take. More often than not one of the soldier looks at your ID, while the other one searches your bag. There are soldiers keeping watch on the higher plateaus that overlook the checkpoint, some also standing by the side of the road, observing people’s tedious walk.

There is a short line of about twenty Palestinians with green ID cards. The Israelis like to colour-code things. This makes the job of segregation and oppression so much more efficient. Green IDs are West Bank IDs. Only Gaza IDs are possibly more useless. Old men and wrinkled women wait amidst the few young men who have “permission” to enter. The old women here still wear the traditional Palestinian dress, magically embroidered with mesmerizing colours and patterns. Their pruned hands grasp the edges, lifting them slightly in a futile attempt at keeping them clean from the red, white, gray dust.

On all sides, from every direction, Qalandya seems speckled in light blue. The colour of the Palestinian school uniforms. Children invade it. Small, so tiny their bags seem twice as large as they are, holding an older sister’s hand, or laughing with a friend, these children cross this checkpoint everyday. Twice a day. They cross it under sun, under rain, under hail. They cross it with fresh air and with teargas. Everyday, they walk to get educated. They walk and see guns, soldiers, and foreign flags everyday. They see their people held up. They see their new shoes destroyed by floods of mud. They see the places where friends were killed.

Cars are being checked a few meters to the right, only five waiting to cross Qalandya today. People have simply given up coming through here. And so the rest of us — those who can still pass — are no longer forced to endure the long waits. People have stopped coming through Qalandya. People have stopped going anywhere. Ramallah holds them silent captives, as Tulkarem and Nablus have the more sensational stories. Subtleties are never easily seen, even more difficultly described. The violence of the everyday Palestine thus disappears, its far deeper wounds left untreated, festering dangerously.

The young woman looks at my passport and then stares at me.  “Stand on the other side of the block,” she tells me, as I realize that I am standing right next to it. She needs that one meter of security; I have not yet been determined to be a “non-terrorist”. Until then, stand on the other side of the goddamn block. She hands my passport back to me. I pass and walk another twenty meters or so of a rocky dusty path cordoned off from the asphalt road by concrete separations, until I reach the collection of cabs and vans parked along the road that leads to the by-pass. Cars with yellow (Israeli) plates can drive from here until East Jerusalem on that road. Everyone else cursed by white-and-green plates has to head for an even more dreaded place — A-Ram checkpoint.

I hop into a taxi that is going to A-Ram with five other people, all of us crammed tightly against one another. The cab gets nowhere near A-Ram checkpoint. Cars are backed up at least half a kilometer from it. We all know what this means, as the taxi stops; we get out and start again, walking, walking, walking. The sun is getting hotter.

Walking alongside cars that have been still for hours is nothing short of insanity. Anger is palpable, patience long run out. It also happens to be the holy month of Ramadan and most people are fasting. No one is smoking. Even those who don’t fast can’t smoke in public. Everyone’s nerves are raw and up ahead the Israeli jeep gives no sign that it will move. The cars wait. Here too there are hundreds of children. Blue everywhere. A-Ram checkpoint appears — a military barracks with about five soldiers checking bags and IDs. Once again for most people. The line is longer here, but moving. I lift my passport and the soldier does not grace it with more than a passing glance.

The cars are still waiting.

On the other side of this flimsy, silly, humiliating barricade there are lines and lines of buses. Vans are full. The drivers are shouting that they cannot drive all the way to Shufat, where many of the schools are located, because there is a flying checkpoint there this morning. They will go as far as possible and turn around before getting stuck in deadly traffic.

“Flying checkpoints” is the name that one of my friends uses for those checkpoints that are not “normal”. The checkpoints, in other words, that are not permanent, that you don’t expect. Like a pop quiz on Monday morning in math class, they are only insult added to injury.

Thank God I don’t have to go there, I think. I am going to Beit Hanina, the neighbourhood of East Jerusalem immediately preceding Shufat. Always look at the bright side of things, right?

I catch another taxi to the intersection with Hizma Road. I get down and walk up a hill that seems like Mount Everest at this point. I look at my watch, remembering — almost in a panic — that Fadi had asked me to be at the office by 8 a.m. sharp. The checkpoints make you lose track of time because they violently sever you from your own humanity, your own certain place in the cosmological order of things.

I search for my cell phone in my small purse, and take it out. 7:55 a.m. On time. Barely. Over an hour to get here. Almost an hour and a half. If you could drive from the door of my house to Hizma Road it would not take you longer than fifteen minutes. And today was a good day. Today was easy, calm, and lenient.

Fadi greets me, asks me how the road was.  Good. Yes, today the checkpoints were good. Humiliation was strictly rationed out, cars were held up for only a couple of hours, and not one shot was fired. So it doesn’t matter if you feel humiliated, if you feel tired, or if you just want to get to work or school without being checked two or three times, because today you have nothing to complain about.

Not even the fact that in a few hours time you will be going through the whole “procedure” once again, in reverse, in order to get back to Ramallah.

No, on a day like today, the checkpoints offer no stories, no sensation, no violations of human rights. Today, the checkpoints are just normal border controls. And Palestinians should be thankful that they can cross them.

Giulia El Dardiry is a Ramallah-based researcher in Mental and Environmental Health, currently working of the Institute for Community and Public Health, Birzeit University.