Sunday, November 30, 2003

On the Way to Samariya Ruins

Without experiencing it first hand, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to wait at a checkpoint. For most Americans, the only thing like it is security at airports, especially right after the September 11 attacks. Most of us have been through it: You arrive at the airport and wait in line to show your ID to get a boarding pass. Then you rush to another line, where you wait to go through security. Airport employees open your bags, shuffle through your belongings, ask you to take off your belt and shoes. When that’s over, you rush to the gate where, often, you are checked again.

How do you feel going through this screening process? Are you annoyed that you have to wait? Are you thankful that someone is watching out for your safety? Have you ever missed a flight because of heightened security? I have, but I still comply at airports, as most of us do, because we figure it’s a necessary precaution, and we know it’s only once in a while.

Now imagine that you went through the airport’s three-stage 80-minute security process two, four, six times every day, every time you went to work, to school, to the hospital, or to visit your family. Imagine that every little movement in life involved the chaos and burden of going through airport security. Imagine that instead of flights you stood to miss weddings, graduations, funerals, and other major life events. Think of how impatient many of us become waiting in line at the grocery store or the post office, and compare it to how much more Palestinians go through all day long trying to get anywhere. That gives you a small hint of how disruptive checkpoints are to Palestinian daily life.

Checkpoints are not just frustrating; they are debilitating. It’s hard to hold a steady job if you never know whether it will take you fifteen minutes or four hours to get to work. Unless you happen to have a university in your village or the funds for a second residence, higher education is probably out of the question. And if you require urgent medical care, you’re out of luck if there’s a checkpoint between your home and the nearest hospital.

During my stay in Nablus, my friend Aldo and I went to visit the ancient Israelite ruins of Samaria near the Palestinian village of Sabastiya. We chose somewhere close, hoping we could relax. Our destination was just nine miles away, but checkpoints along the way prolonged our journey to almost two and a half hours.

We arrived at Beit Eba, the first checkpoint, to find a group of more than 50 Palestinians waiting in the sun. They looked like they had been there for a long time, and it was another 15 minutes before the army began to show signs that they were going to start allowing people to come up and show IDs to try to get through. There was a long walkway of about 150 feet between the soldiers and the crowd of waiting Palestinians huddled around a concrete roadblock.

A soldier pointed his gun from his post to the crowd and shouted at the whole group to take a step back. All the men picked up their bags, all the women picked up the children, and everyone took one step back, so they were now 152 feet away from the soldiers. The soldier walked from one side of the post to the other and then commanded the group to take another step back. The group grumbled but obliged. The soldier began to talk to another soldier who then yelled to the group to take another step back. Finally, one soldier motioned for people to start advancing. Six women and children started towards the checkpoint window at the other end of the path. A soldier yelled something to them and the group stopped and looked confused. Then they understood. The soldier only wanted two people at a time. So four stopped to wait but another soldier yelled at them to get back to the concrete block. They turned around to walk back. When they arrived, it was their time to go up so they turned around to walk up again, two by two.

The process was painful to watch: dignified but exhausted people trying not to lose their tempers or their pride as they obeyed seemingly arbitrary commands to move to and from the window and the concrete block in the hot sun, carrying bags and babies, with flies buzzing all around. The soldiers seemed nervous and adamant about maintaining their control of the situation. Aldo and I stayed behind with the crowd to avoid the possibility of making the soldiers more nervous until we felt we could do some good.

We didn’t have to wait long. The fourth group up was a mother, father, and young daughter holding her father’s hand. When the mother handed over their ID cards, the soldier walked over to the father and yelled something very loudly and violently in his face. The little girl by his side burst into tears.

Aldo and I quickly moved down the path to the confrontation, where we quietly watched it develop. The father was trying to comfort the daughter and the mother was yelling at the soldier in Hebrew. A second soldier asked us what we were doing and we said we were watching. He said that was illegal. I told him that was not true, and that I was curious what the problem was with the family. He said that the family was Palestinian but they had Israeli passports, so they should not have been allowed into Nablus in the first place (Israelis are prohibited from entering the city). He said it didn’t matter if they had relatives there. I pointed out that they were trying to leave Nablus, not enter it, but the soldier was unmoved. I told him I was concerned about the first soldier’s behavior towards the family. The first soldier overheard my comment and looked noticeably embarrassed that his outburst had been witnessed by internationals.

The soldier told us to go either through the checkpoint or back to the block. About halfway down the path, back toward the crow, I turned and saw the soldiers let the family through. It was a quick, sweet moment of relief, but there were at least forty people still waiting to get through.

Then an amazing thing happened: the line started to move quickly. An old woman was woken up from her nap in the dirt to walk the path, and the old men were let through while the luck lasted. People were called up in fives and let through with almost no hassle. Aldo and I looked at one another in wonder. Could it be that easy to make a difference?

Within twenty minutes all fifty people were through, along with another twenty or so who had arrived during the hour of waiting. After the last man passed, Aldo and I approached the window. There was a female soldier checking IDs. She was pretty, with big eyes and spiky hair. She looked at my passport for a minute and then frowned up at me. She asked, “Your name is Anna?” “Yes,” I answered, and started to get nervous. Then she passed me my passport back and smiled, “So is mine.”

It was a wonderful feeling to walk beyond the checkpoint. It was a relief to pass through and, although we could not be certain, it was encouraging to believe that our presence may have made a difference. The Palestinians were surer of the difference than we were: after crossing, we found several smiling and waiting to welcome us onto a bus. Kids ran up to hold our hands, and a teenage girl offered me her seat on the bus next to her mother, who invited us to her home. We didn’t have the chance to accept because before we knew it, we were waiting in line again at another checkpoint.

Our bus waited 10 minutes until we reached the front of the line, where we were asked to get off the bus and show our IDs—again. The soldiers separated the men and women, and let the women back on the bus. Aldo and I stayed with the men. The soldiers then let all but two men go, but still we stayed. The soldiers asked us what we were doing and we said we were wondering what the two men had done. They said they could not tell us, but that they were being detained for security reasons. The soldiers told us it was illegal to be there and we said we would stay as long as the men were detained without charge. We said goodbye to all our new friends and the bus drove away.

We were in the middle of nowhere. The two men walked across the road to sit down. We sat down near them and leaned over to ask what was wrong. They said they had no idea. We waited. We watched the soldiers search an ambulance that had been waiting behind our bus with the emergency lights on for at least twenty minutes. The driver yelled to us that there was someone sick in the back. We all just shook our heads. The Israeli military justifies the systematic detention and holding-up of Palestinian ambulances at checkpoints by citing stories of Palestinians using ambulances to transport weapons and “wanted” people in the past. As it turns out, most of these stories are fabricated.[1] But even if the accounts were true, one must remember that the soldiers are blocking ambulances traveling from one Palestinian town to another. How does controlling such movement enhance the security of the Israeli people as compared with the health risks to which it inevitably condemns innocent Palestinians?

Aldo and I continued to wait. Occasionally, the soldiers would look over at us to see if we really intended to stay. We pretended we had all the time in the world. After another fifteen minutes the soldiers finally called up the two detained Palestinian men, gave them back their IDs, and told them to go. The two flashed us a wave and started their long walk home.

Aldo and I walked the rest of the way to Samaria and had a pleasant picnic. On our way back, we came across the same two soldiers, who were arguing with two new Palestinian men. One of the Palestinians was pointing angrily to a blocked-off parking lot full of taxis. The soldiers shooed the young men away, and when they came in our direction we asked them what was wrong. They said they were taxi drivers and that the soldiers had taken away their keys along with those of eight other drivers three days ago. No one had been given any explanation as to why their keys were confiscated, nor any indication of when they would be returned, if at all. They said this was not an uncommon occurrence, and that they were going to walk to the police station.[2] I remembered hearing about soldiers taking drivers’ keys and either impounding their cars or making them do something humiliating like dance or bark like a dog to “earn” them back.

I asked if the taxi drivers wanted Aldo and me to come for support and they said the police station was 4 miles away. We decided against it; it was getting late. Instead I gave them a card with phone numbers of helpful Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations. They thanked us, hailed us a service taxi, and started their long walk over the hills into the night.

[1] In the entire history of the conflict, there has been one single documented incident of a Palestinian ambulance possibly being used to transport explosives, and even this is uncertain. AmnestyAmnesty International wrote about the case: “There are several suspicious circumstances about it. The ambulance passed through four checkpoints on the way to Jerusalem without being searched (which is abnormal) and then was delayed for more than an hour before being searched to allow TV cameras to arrive (which suggests that [the army] had, at the least, prior knowledge of something hidden there).” Besides this alleged incident, the only documented ambulance abuses were by Israel. “Shielded from Scrutiny,” AmnestyAmnesty International, p. 35; As cited in Finkelstein, Chutzpah, p. 129.

During the Second Intifada, more than 150 sick or injured Palestinians died at checkpoints after they were prevented from reaching a hospital. “Report: over 5,000 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army since 2000,” Ma’an News Agency (February 21, 2007).

[2] Dozens of Israeli veterans have come forward with stories of confiscating the keys of innocent drivers either “to teach the Palestinians a lesson” for leaving their homes, or to assert their power. Here are just two examples of many: &