Tuesday, February 22, 2005

X-Ray Checkpoint, Prayer on Threathened Land & an Ad-Lib Roadblock

The most depressing part of being back in Palestine is seeing how far the Wall has come. Last summer construction started near Iskaka, a village in the center of the West Bank. The Wall is reaching about 15 miles east of the 1967 border, taking everything it can with it. The protests continue, but for some it’s too late; the cage door has been shut. Munira and her family still live locked up in Mas’ha, while nearby Elkana settlers move freely to and from Israel. On the other side of the very same settlement is a village named Azzun Atma, now stranded between the Green Line and the Wall. Azzun villagers are cut off from most of their schools, shops, land, and loved ones, and they live in what is rapidly becoming for all intents and purposes part of Israel. However, they are denied the basic rights granted to their neighbors because they don’t have Israeli citizenship.

The villagers who work or live in Azzun Atma now rely on permits for everything. They apply at Qedumim settlement and they have to renew them every 6 months. Meanwhile, Jews are encouraged to move into settlements on Azzun’s land. They don’t need permits.

Azzun Atma villagers who want to enter other parts of the West Bank must pass through a checkpoint in the Wall. That’s the easy part—the hard part is getting back to their village. The checkpoint’s westward passage involves extremely long waits and then passage through a body-screening device rumored to be an x-ray machine, like those installed by Israel at the Rafah international crossing from Gaza.[1] According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the x-raying has raised serious concerns about adverse health effects and violations of privacy.[2]

Shelly and I went to Azzun Atma to do Checkpoint Watch. When we arrived at 7 a.m., there were 25 people waiting to go through, either in cars or standing in line to show their IDs. I asked a man at the front of the line how long he’d been waiting and he said 2 hours. He said one has to get there between 4 and 5 a.m. to avoid the lines. Security going into Azzun is strict because you are effectively entering Israel. The thing is, the people waiting in line don’t want to go to Israel. They want to go to their homes and jobs in Azzun village. Israel unilaterally built the Wall inside the West Bank, but the Palestinians are the ones who have to come before dawn to get somewhere that used to be as close as their backyards. More than half a million Palestinians live less than a mile east of the Wall, and need to cross it to maintain land, jobs, and family connections.[3]

The soldiers aren’t making it any easier. The morning I came to the checkpoint with Shelly, four soldiers were manning it, two of whom were exceptionally rude. One, who looked barely 18, kept yelling at people who advanced too slowly or quickly when he waved his hand to make them come. He looked very scared. He even seemed threatened by a farmer who rode up on his donkey. The old man had nothing but an empty, rickety cart and a tired old animal, but the soldier insisted that he stand in line, where he waited an hour to pass through the machine.

I asked the soldier whether he was really suspicious of the farmer and his donkey and he replied sharply, “We need to maintain order! No exceptions for anyone.”

Exceptions are not uncommon at checkpoints. That day at Azzun Atma, for example, most women and children were not being searched. The old man on the empty cart was clearly not carrying any explosives, but the young soldier’s fear had made him either delusional or just plain mean.

The screening process was painfully slow. I watched a man go through the steps and break down. He looked like he was in a hurry, but he wanted to pass through, not make a scene. First he parked his car in line and went to wait in a line of about eight people. It took a full 10 minutes to scan every ID—how long does it take to enter a number?—so he waited well over an hour. Then he pressed his ID up against a window and waited for a soldier inside to check it in the system. After a while, he was told to walk through the machine and came out carrying his belt and coat (which everyone must remove during the scan). Then he went back to his car and waited another 20 minutes before being allowed to turn on his engine and advance forward. When he did come forward, the soldier started yelling at him for passing the line on the road that he should have stopped at before getting another signal to come forward. He sighed and backed up his car, waiting for the signal from the 18-year-old. But the soldier decided to punish him by making him wait longer.

The man in the car put his face in his hands and then banged his head against the steering wheel. When he was finally motioned through, his car screeched forward in an explosion of his pent-up emotions. Fifty feet later he was told to stop the car and turn off the engine again. Two soldiers had him empty everything out of his car and wait while they went through his belongings.

I wondered how this man could contain his frustration. I don’t think most people in the United States would be so restrained if their ten-minute commute to work was turned into a humiliating two-hour ordeal. Just watching the man, I felt the urge to lash out, to express my aggravation with the system.

I got a chance to vent a few days later at a demonstration in Rafat village, where Wall construction threatens the olive trees that local families have lived off for generations. We were marching to the groves when army jeeps revved their engines behind us, anxious to pass. Several protesters stood in the road to block the jeeps but soon gave way as their friends talked them out of it. As the jeeps passed, they sprayed tear gas on the demonstrators, most of whom had done nothing more than walk with signs and sing liberation songs.

Once in front of us, the army stopped the march in its tracks. We could see the land being destroyed ahead of us, and it made us feel powerless and angry. The organizers encouraged demonstrators to sit down, which can be a good strategy to make your point without being threatening. As we sat, village representatives stood up to make speeches. Some soldiers listened. Others laughed.

Then a special thing happened. A village imam began to sing a call to prayer, his voice loud and strong, even over the drone of the bulldozers. The protestors, who just moments ago had been waving banners and chanting, became silent. I realized it was Friday, the Muslim holy day. The villagers began to rub their hands in the dirt and symbolically “wash” their faces with it (in the absence of water, Muslims can use earth to clean themselves before prayer). After they had each said their individual prayers, they stood up, facing east, shoulder to shoulder, and began to pray together. I stood captivated next to the soldiers as hundreds of men, women, and children for a moment seemed to forget about everything—the bulldozers, the Wall, the Occupation—as they bowed their bodies and touched their heads to the land. What a simple but precious luxury to be able to worship with your hands in the soil that you’ve nurtured for generations. But for many it may have been the last time. Bulldozers rip through the precious soil with every passing day.

After prayers, demonstrators began walking back to the village. A few protesters dropped rocks in the path to delay the jeeps. Others caught on and dropped larger stones. Pretty soon people were working together to move large boulders into the road, not because anyone thought it would actually prevent the jeeps from passing, but to give the soldiers a taste of the roadblocks they install to block Palestinians every day.

I didn’t know what to think. Putting rocks in the road seemed like provocation for the soldiers to retaliate. On the other hand, it was a nonviolent act of civil disobedience, and isn’t that what I’m here to support? I didn’t join in, but I started to cheer. Why shouldn’t soldiers get a taste of the frustration that Palestinians suffer as a result of the Occupation that those same soldiers are upholding?

The soldiers patiently moved the stones out of the way by hand so that they could pass. They didn’t retaliate. I was relieved. We left with a feeling of having made a point, despite the fact that the land destruction we had come to protest had continued unabated.

[1]Gaza Strip: Access Report” UN OCHA (July, 2005). domino.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/eed216406b50bf6485256ce10072f637/06c5a148f751f8a68525707000546c0d!OpenDocument

[2] The x-ray machines have allowed Israeli Occupation forces to view civilians completely naked, and the x-ray ionisation process is considered particularly harmful to pregnant women (many of whom have to leave through the crossing to pursue health care that is unavailable in Gaza) and people with heart conditions. “Israel’s Peeping Tom in Rafah still operational,” PCHR (April 7, 2005). www.pchrgaza.ps

[3] John Dugard, “Implementation of General Assembly Resolution 60/251 of 15 March 2006 Entitled ‘Human Rights Council,’ Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” United Nations Human Rights Council, A/HRC/4/17 (January 29, 2007).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If the check points are using radiation in their search they are harming people and it may be quiet but it is a dangerous assault against their bodies and their future.....
The National Academy of Sciences panel, after five years of study, rejected that claim. “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionized radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” said Richard R. Monson, the panel chairman and a professor of epidemiology at Harvard's School of Public Health. The committee gave support to the so-called “linear, no threshold” model that is currently the generally acceptable approach to radiation risk assessment. This approach assumes that the health risks from radiation exposure declines as the dose levels decline, but that each unit of radiation, no matter how small, still is assumed to cause cancer. “It is unlikely that there is a threshold below which cancer are not induced