Feeling the closure

Walking to the office this morning I could feel the intensity of the closure. It’s not only a feeling of being locked up, caged, or under siege. You can actually hear the closure — the engines of cars and trucks waiting in long lines at checkpoints. My office is located just across from al-Ram, the main checkpoint between the West Bank and north Jerusalem. I am working for LAW, a Palestinian human rights organisation.

Above: The daily traffic jam at the Al-Ram checkpoint. LAW’s office is the second building from the right (AEF, 2002)

Since last weekend it seems that this artificial border has been moved further to the north. A checkpoint has been set up near Qalandia refugee camp, next to the Qalandia Airport landing strip. It is always packed with cars and people trying to cross from one side to the other.

To get to Ramallah, 15 minutes north of Jerusalem, I had to take a taxi to this new Qalandia checkpoint, get out, and walk a few miles. The walk takes you past Israeli soldiers enforcing the siege with their US-supplied M-16s. They stop every single car, asking passengers for their identity cards, before deciding whether to allow them to pass or not.

Yesterday, an Israeli army truck became hemmed in between the cars waiting to pass the checkpoint. It was congested, as only Palestinians with a Jerusalem identity card and foreigners were being allowed in to Jerusalem, and so many people were being turned away.

At one point the driver of the truck, a young Israeli soldier, got out and started waving his M-16, signaling to the Palestinian drivers around him to move so he could turn round. In the back of the truck were four Israeli soldiers. Tension was high. I was afraid that the driver would freak out and was about to shoot at some Palestinian cars if they didn’t move soon.

It became increasingly difficult for people move because more and more cars were approaching the checkpoint. Finally, the Israeli soldier pointed his M-16 at some Palestinian drivers and they started moving. Fortunately, he didn’t put his finger on the trigger. As I watched while I continued walking, I could only think about this absurd situation.

It’s not just that main roads like this are cut off by military checkpoints — entire villages have been cut off. The worst situation is in the rural areas, where villages are completely isolated and beseiged in spite of the announcements in the media that ‘Israel is easing the closure’.

Villagers cannot reach hospitals in the cities. Ambulances cannot reach these places. Today I heard from some of our fieldworkers that a woman delivered a baby at a checkpoint. Some villages south of Bethlehem were cut off from both the water and electricity networks when the Israeli army dug trenches to reenforce the seige, damaging the pipes and wires that carry these amenities to the villages.

The basic fact is that three million Palestinians have been put under house arrest. Every single Palestinian is being punished for his or her existence. Even our office is empty because half of the staff are imprisoned in their home village or town.

In Gaza it must even be worse. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are currently cut off from fuel, food supplies, and medicines. Reading the word “ceasefire” makes it all even more absurd. How does the death of 42-year-old Bajis Salimiyi fit into that? Salimiyi suffered a heart attack and was being taken by ambulance for urgent medical attention. Israeli troops at a military checkpoint denied passage to the ambulance and Bajis Salimiyi passed away before reaching hospital. This is not a ceasefire.

I have to postpone my visit to my family in Nablus. The city cannot be reached since the Israeli military besieged the town. They are barring all vehicles and people from entering. All roads to the villages surrounding Nablus are blocked in an attempt to isolate the city from its rural hinterland.

Israeli soldiers stationed near Nablus stop every car and force passengers to get out and stand in line. They are not allowed to walk, speak, smoke, or use their cellular phones. Young Israeli soldiers at military checkpoints threaten and interrogate Palestinians, demanding: “What is your reason for leaving Nablus?”

On one occasion, an Israeli soldier angrily told a Palestinian, “If you leave Nablus, you might enter Tel Aviv” and threatened to beat him up if he returned. My family is currently trapped in this city. They are locked up in a few square kilometers. Imagine how much worse life currently is in the towns and refugee camps of Gaza, Khan Yunis or Jabalya.

It’s hard to switch between witnessing or hearing about daily human suffering and talking to officials, diplomats, and journalists, all striving to maintain a ‘balanced’ position. How can you be ‘balanced’ about universal human rights? How can anyone expect me to tell Palestinians that human rights are in fact not universal, simply because members of the international community will not enforce their protection?

Back at home I can’t stop thinking about everything, and it’s hard to fall asleep knowing that I will wake to face another day filled with yet more human rights violations and the pervasive feeling of closure.