The Secret Weapon

Twice in a row, my friend Maha and I have been lucky at the Kalandia checkpoint: A breeze provided occasional relief from the blazing mid-day sun, and the wait to get through was only an hour each time. Regardless, Kalandia was very disturbing.

Checkpoints constitute an essential feature of this conflict—a key front line between the occupier and the occupied. But waiting in line with dozens of Palestinian men, women, and children sweltering under the sun, followed by the eye and the gun of an angry sodier perched on a hilltop above us, revealed that the true front lines of this conflict are internal: psychological and moral. And on that inner front line, the Palestinians are winning.

A phrase one hears repeatedly in conversations with Palestinians, whether citizens of Israel or those living under occupation, is ‘ghair insaaniyyah’ — inhumane, lacking in humanity. The brutal IDF attacks last spring, characterized by collective punishment, prevention of medical care, indiscriminate shooting and shelling, the use of human shields, an enforced siege, and many other violations of international humanitarian law, are dramatic examples of Israeli inhumanity, but the checkpoints illustrate the banality and absurdity of Israeli inhumanity clearly, hour by hour, day by day.

Just a few minutes drive from some of the nicest hotels in Jerusalem, where vacationing American families are swimming, laughing, and eating pizza, Palestininas are lined up between cement barricades that narrow to a small, tight passageway that even a thin person like me could hardly squeeze through. Soldiers bristling with walkie-talkies, guns, and ammunition shout orders and wave people through, stop ambulances, and constantly shout at people to move back.

The crush of people is not chaotic or annoying, however, as Palestinians have devised an unspoken set of rules for passing through checkpoints. Pregnant women and anyone with small children are allowed to move forward in the line, as are very old people. As Maha and I got into line, after filming the general scene surreptitiously from the other side of the street, a young woman came into the line along side me holding an infant that could not have been more than a week old. A rush of panic filled my body as I wondered how the baby would fare if we had to wait in the hot sun for more than an hour. Before I could voice my concern or allow her to pass in front of me, though, the crowd wordlessly made room for her to pass through to the front of the line.

Though the sun is hot and the wait can be long, no one slouches or whines at checkpoints. To the contrary: people make small jokes and greet each other warmly. Most people in line around me stood tall, proud, and dignifed, a mass of people demonstrating patience but not surrender, compliance but not defeat, and a degree of grace under pressure that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in Israel or America, where pushiness and impatience have become the daily fare of urban life.

When one middle aged man behind us seemed to be pushing a woman near me, a woman to my right looked over her shoulder and said “al-ihtiraam ahamm ishi, khyee” (“Respect is the most important thing, brother.”) The middle aged man to my left looked straight ahead at a shouting soldier and said “those who respect us, we will respect them,” nodding towards the soldiers to indicate that they, though well-armed, were far from respectable or dignified in their behavior. They may have immense military power, but they have sacrificed their humanity in the process.

From this angle, it looks like they, and the state they represent, has made a very bad bargain. One soldier looks embarrased to be here, another seems disgusted or bored, but the third one, perched above us on an escarpment, worries me. He is very angry and agitated, and never puts his gun down, but rather keeps it pointed at us constantly, his glowering raven-like eyes burning in a face that looks far too vicious to belong to such a young person.

Soon, Maha and I reached the end of the cement barricades and were about to pass through. Where the two long cement barricades came together in a v-formation, almost touching each other, I nearly tripped. Looking down I saw a metal bar protruding three inches from the rocky, rutted ground at the bottom of the barricade to my left. One last dirty trick before you pass through, an extra, gratuitious insult and annoyance for those who have had to wait hours to go to work, visit a sick relative, deliver important papers, or see family members.

As each person passes through the checkpoint and shows the soldier his or her papers, however, they stand tall and walk proudly, as small children approach from the other side of the checkpoint to sell bread, toys, candy, and cigarettes. Here the Palestinian secret weapon is on full display: a reaffirmation of the importance of maintaining one’s humanity, dignity, and perseverance in spite of decades of suffering, Israeli cruelty, US intransigance, international neglect, and UN malfeasance.

On the moral and psychological front lines, the Palestinians are winning. In the childish displays of their opponents’ coercive power and gratuitous cruelty, one senses that the Israelis know that they are losing. No amount of US tax payers’ money or US supplied arms can change this equation.