Thursday, November 20, 2003

Checkpoint Watch in Deir Ballut & Jubara

This morning I went on my first “Checkpoint Watch.” Similar to border crossings between countries, checkpoints are barriers manned by soldiers or border police to restrict pedestrian and vehicular mobility. However, unlike border crossings, most checkpoints in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are installed within the West Bank and Gaza, not around them. The Israeli government claims checkpoints are necessary to prevent Palestinian attacks on Israelis, but checkpoints primarily restrict movement between Palestinian cities and villages, not between the Palestinian Territories and Israel.

Abuses by Israeli soldiers or police are so common at checkpoints that Israeli and international volunteers have developed Checkpoint Watch to witness those abuses and if possible, intervene to stop them. Today we observed the checkpoint that monitors movement into and out of Deir Ballut, a small village just east of the Green Line, the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank. Last night, the army unexpectedly closed the checkpoint into Deir Ballut, and several villagers were stranded away from home. When we arrived in the early morning, the checkpoint was almost empty save for a few children on their way to school. In the old days, the students used to take a school bus, but the vehicle obstructions have rendered that option more hassle than it’s worth. Instead, the children and teachers walk past snipers and electric fences on their way to class every morning, showing their IDs and opening up their book-bags to be searched. And since checkpoint wait-times are always unpredictable, so are their school hours.

Three female teachers came to the checkpoint after we arrived and the soldier motioned for them to come up one by one. The first woman approached the soldier, waited while he searched her, and then continued when he nodded that she could pass. The next two women had brought their school identification but not their Israeli-issued identity papers. Apparently, school IDs had been enough in the past, but today’s soldier said that wouldn’t suffice. The women tried to explain to the soldier that if they went all the way back to the village to fetch their papers, they would be late for their classes. In the end, they went all the way back home and were late for their classes.

I asked the soldier if he was worried that the women were dangerous. He said it was against the rules to let them pass without papers. I took a step forward and asked him if he ever thought about the rules he was enforcing. He shouted at me to step back. I held my ground and said I just wanted to talk, but he barked at me to go back right away. I turned and walked back to the concrete blocks where my colleagues were observing. I felt terrible about the exchange. It seemed my questions had made him angrier, and I knew I would not be the one to suffer the consequences of my actions and his bad mood.

In everything internationals do, our first consideration must always be the effects our actions will have on the people around us, both long- and short-term. I believe the questions I asked the soldier were good ones, but it may have been a mistake to ask them at that moment. I may be able to leave when things become heated, but most people here cannot.

At 9 a.m. we left Deir Ballut for the city of Tulkarem to visit two women who are setting up a cooperative for local seamstresses. One woman asked me if I would help her sell locally-produced handicrafts abroad. I said I would inquire about possibilities, but I am not optimistic. Most Palestinian trade is restricted to countries maintaining good diplomatic relations with Israel, which excludes many neighboring Arab countries. Palestinian trade is also subject to Israeli taxes, which are sometimes higher than Palestinian merchants can afford to pay.

Both women work full-time teaching local female villagers about democracy, leadership, and communication. The women told us familiar stories of farmers denied access to their land at checkpoints, or allowed through but denied permission to return for up to a week, by which time their freshly picked crops had gone bad and could no longer be sold. Poor families are getting poorer, and many parents can no longer afford to send their children to school. It costs about 45 shekels (US$10) a year for a Palestinian child to attend school. The women implored us to raise money to help the children, many of them young girls whose education is not a priority in traditional families.[1]

We visited a school on the edge of Tulkarem near an Israeli military training camp. The headmaster reported that soldiers frequently taunt the children playing in the yard during recess. He said that the army once bombed the school from military planes. He wondered how anyone could expect the children to learn to read and write when they are worried about being bombed.

We left Tulkarem via the city’s southern checkpoint, Jubara, which was in chaos. The soldiers were keeping people back by placing a rubber rod on the ground and threatening anyone who crossed it. We felt trapped behind this imaginary wall as the soldiers walked back and forth in front of us with large guns. Of course, the barrier applied only to Palestinians; when the soldiers saw our group of internationals, they waved us through without even looking at our passports.

We were not the only privileged people there. Cars with yellow license plates drove straight through the checkpoint without stopping. Israelis and Palestinians have different colored license plates so that soldiers can easily identify whether a car is carrying Israelis or Palestinians. Israeli plates are yellow, while Palestinian plates are white and green. At Jubara checkpoint, as at others, yellow-plated cars were allowed to pass unhindered, while white-and-green-plated cars, ambulances included, stood waiting for hours at gunpoint.

I began to feel sick. I hadn’t eaten in hours because it is impolite to eat in public during Ramadan, the month-long Islamic holiday of fasting that began a few weeks ago. As I grew hungrier, I stopped taking in what I was seeing. It was too disturbing, and I couldn’t think about it anymore. I sat down on the curb and shoved a few bites of food into my mouth. When I emerged from my hunger-induced daze, the scene in front of me came back into focus. I watched the Palestinians standing squeezed together like cattle in the hot sun, knowing most of them had been fasting since four in the morning. I had only been fasting since ten.

I wondered where they had learned such patience. I wondered how I would react in their shoes. If I were a Palestinian, would I resist? Would I stand up for myself? Yes, probably. And then I would be kicked down. And down, and down again until I had no more spirit. Or maybe my spirit would grow stronger with every kick. Oppression affects people differently. Some grow more and more determined; others grow weak. Perhaps a few have the lucidity to think rationally about the situation. Then again, attempting to think rationally and practically in the context of such inhumanity would probably drive most sane people crazy.

[1]To donate money towards the education of Palestinian girls in the Tulkarem region, contact Hanan at the Palestinian Women’s Developing Center. Email:, Tel: (972) 92 67 58 35 or 599 675 914.