by "Bell Way"
July 29 2006
My friend's father died last night at a checkpoint. Mahmoud Samha, father of Ahmad Samha whom some of you may know because he coordinated the Jayyous end of the RIQA [Rhode Island-Qalqilya Alliance] Schools Project. Those of you from RIQA would also know his nephew, Mustafa, who was active on the list. His family was taking him to the hospital, but the armed teenagers at the entrance to Azzun blocked their way. They waited, and waited. And Mahmoud died. For Israel, another notch on its belt, to which scores more were added as the night went on, Israel on a thirsty binge of Arab blood. To his people, a beloved martyr who died in the assault on their land and nation. I come from a society where it is unimaginable that such a thing could happen to your family, and if it did, everyone would consider it justified if you reacted with rage, violence, and law suits. I talked to some of his family members that I know. I heard no rage, no shock. There will be no law suits. This is a price that has been paid by many families, the price for being Palestinian.
The closure of Azzun is an ugly thing. About a month ago some kids threw stones at Israeli army jeeps driving by the main entrance of the town. Israel reacted with rage and violence. All roads to the town were closed, and remain closed a month later. If you need to get from Jayyous to Nablus, you have to come through Azzun. You can drive into Azzun from Jayyous, but you can't drive out of Azzun to go to Nablus. The main entrance to Azzun is closed with barricades and soldiers. This is where Mahmoud died. There is a minor road connecting to some small villages which eventually leads out to the road to Qalqilya. Israel brought bulldozers and tore up this road and piled stones across it. I came to Azzun a few times since it's been closed, this way. You have to climb up the pile of rocks, which is not stable, and down the other side. Twice there were elderly people with me in the minibus using canes to walk. We helped them inch by inch to climb from one rock to the next, up and up, then down and down, praying that we wouldn't slip off of the tottering rocks, that they wouldn't break an ankle or a hip.
Checkpoints. Terrifying places, terrorizing places, psychological minefields where you never know what could blow up in your face at any moment. An infrastructure designed for maximum insecurity. Stomach-eating anxiety. I've been through some of the most miserable checkpoints I've ever seen this week. Now with the army's big sporting events happening in Lebanon and Gaza, it must be boring for the soldiers stuck on duty in the West Bank. So little blood, so little death. No fear to shred straight through their bowels. Maybe to cheer them up they were told to go ahead and have a little more fun this week, spice up the routine humiliation and misery.
One of these checkpoints was Kalendia, now declared by Israel to be the entrance to greater Jerusalem which now Israel declares to be the entrance to Israel. Welcome to Israel, a red lit sign tells you in English and Hebrew. Have a safe and pleasant stay. The wall, the big concrete variety, closes in from east and west to this checkpoint. And, standing off on its own, a little tower with a wing of wall to the left and right, going nowhere, with a bit of landscaping to set it off. Israel's idea of an inspirational sculpture to brighten the place up a bit, I guess. Four turnstyle gates which are electronically controlled by invisible soldiers, so they can hit you in the face when they turn on the Go light and hit the Stop button. Four turnstyles, but only one is open. This day, hundreds and hundreds of people crammed nervously together, all eyes glued on that green sign, waiting for it to light up. And these are the people who are supposed to consider themselves lucky, the few who have some sort of Israeli permission to enter Jerusalem. Al Quds, the heart of Palestine. The heart that pumps the blood through your village and back again, making you a Palestinian. Some Zionists like to say, there never was a Palestinian state, and there's no Palestinian people, just Arabs, millions and millions too many Arabs, they can have Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt. But it's Jerusalem, Al Quds, that defines Palestine, the physical and metaphysical body of a people that is sustained by this heart, not by another.
We waited for the light to turn green, but when it did, the turnstyle would only let one person through, then lock again. People began to get frantic, desperate. Shoving and shouting and squeezing to have a chance to pass through the metal jaws. I've never seen this before in Palestine, where it felt like people were reaching their breaking point and things could spin out of control very quickly. Large men trying to squeeze by threes into each compartment of the carousel, their faces squished between the metal rungs. Then the Israeli voice, "one by one, one by one, go back or none of you can go through". Hundreds more piling up; desperation. Let all the sisters go through first, a few of the men began to say. There was a women's line, but it was closed. Desperate men let go of their frantic grip on the iron cage to let the women squeeze their bodies into the cage. Finally, I was through. Then, another set of gates, with stop and go lights. Three of them were functioning, two with long lines already. We rushed to the empty one. A voice on the loudspeaker said, "Jews only! Jews only! No Palestinians, only Jews! Go to the other lines." Of course there were no Jews (he didn't say Israelis) waiting for the opportunity to be processed like a piece of meat through Kalendia checkpoint. Everyone moved slowly back to their lines. The green light went on again over the gate for Jews, the lights over the Arab gates stayed red. People rushed over again, hopefully. "No, no, no!"came the voice as if it was addressing a kindergarten class. "I told you that line is only for Jews! No Palestinians." Psychological violence. A good laugh for the soldiers, watching the frantic people scurry back and forth at their bidding.
On from Kalendia, I went into Israel for the day. It is so strange to go from the interaction with the soldiers at Kalendia, where they see you as some kind of vermin to be squashed under their boot, into their towns where they assume you are one of them. A Jew. A veteran soldier. A human being. It seems half the people are in army uniforms everywhere you go. Teenage soldiers shopping for bikinis, sitting next to me on the bus talking on their cellphones. Soldier lovers sitting in cute little coffee shops on pretty streets full of flowers that are built on the graves of the Palestine villages that existed there 58 years ago. Soldier girls and soldier boys with their arms around each other, each with a weapon bouncing casually on their hip. Soldier girls painting their nails, with a pink purse hanging from one shoulder and a semi-automatic weapon from another. When I see this rude and crude culture, disgusting even in the way they treat each other, I can't help but think of the early Zionist description of Jews … pale insecure creatures with big noses and sad faces, etc. Maybe Herzl's Zionist vision was like its sister ideology, Nazism, in another way too, the culture the Israelis have created for themselves, with their blonde, tanned, arrogant soldiers, seems so much like the prototype of the Nazi youth. Maybe what Herzl wanted to give his children, and grandchildren, was the opportunity to be Nazi youth in Palestine, since they didn't have that opportunity in Europe. I visited a man named Israel, a holocaust survivor. Why did the Jews have to come HERE? he said. He was born twenty years before the Zionists gave his name to the land they stole. Such a young project, Israel. I can never understand it when people say, well, it's a crime for Israel to have created "facts on the ground", settlements in the west bank and such, but you can't very well undo the damage now. On a tour of the settlements recently a guide said, you couldn't just empty out these towns and give them to the Palestinians, they are not just housing stock, they are part of an infrastructure connected to Europe. After 500 years of colonizers building their infrastructure in Africa, and all over the globe, completely tied to Europe, they had to hand it over. They can whine about the blacks ruining the pretty towns that they built, but as it turned out they didn't get any eternal right to keep the picturesque and criminal facts they created on land that wasn't theirs. With Israel, there's less than 60 years of facts, lawns and nightclubs and quaint little arabesque coffee shops, to hand over for the legitimate owners to deal with. Imagine if you broke into someone's house and remodeled it while they were sleeping, and when they took you to court you won the right to the house and they had to move out based on the fact that you had put so much work into it. Such is the circus called international law, UN resolutions, etc. when it comes to the case of Israel. Jews and white people stay, we like the colors you picked out for the kitchen. The Arab owners can have the chicken coop.
We tagged along with a friend to Jericho for a day. In ten minutes you are in the desert, it is unbelievable, like a huge secret. How could this be here so close, all the time, and we don't feel its presence in the city. The mountains are shaped like the bodies of huge sleeping camels. After the first checkpoint, our friend said, I promise you, that will be the last one, I am picking a route where we can avoid all of them. But we found ourselves at another checkpoint and waiting for an hour for our turn, only to be waved through. And another. The heat was frightening, the way it sucks the water out of you. The Bedoin live there without much water or grazing, and without fear. We all hoped to get a quick trip to the Dead Sea. But it turns out the Dead Sea is not for the likes of the natives any longer. Jericho is an unbelievable hot place, but if you are a Palestinian, go take a shower. The Dead Sea is for Jews and their friends.
When we came back from Jericho, my friend said, I cannot cope with that road, I'll try another one. After a few minutes we reached an unbelievable scene. Cars were jammed in four lanes stretching as far as the eye could see. Thousands and thousands of cars, with their engines switched off, they had obviously been there a long time and had given up. We got out and walked and walked, looking for the checkpoint, but we gave up without ever reaching the front of the mess. An old woman got off a bus and put her basket of cheese on her head and trudged off in the direction of Ramallah. A man got out a screwdriver and did some work on the trim on his car. Another man took out a tray of sunglasses and started inching through the mayhem, hoping for a few sales. We went to talk to the driver of an ambulance trapped in the middle. Does this happen to you often, we asked? Yes, he said. What if you have a critical case, is there anything you can do? All we can do is flash our lights and put on our siren, but as you can see, they are too far ahead to even see us, and it does not good. Have you lost any patients due to situations like this? Of course. Especially old people who have come over the bridge from Jordan. They are already exhausted, and they cannot survive the heat. We bring them to their families dead.
Our friend's nerves began to wear out. There is just one reason for this checkpoint, he said. To make us feel that our lives here are an unbearable hell, so that we leave. After an hour some soldiers squeezed their way through the mayhem and started screaming at the drivers to turn around and go away. How do you turn around thousands and thousands of cars packed like sardines? Eventually we did, and felt a rush of freedom to be out of that pressure cooker, even though we were going in the opposite direction of our destination. We followed the cars in front of us which struck off on a dirt route, a hopeful detour. After bouncing along like that for some time – with the wall, and behind it, Jewish settlements with their slick highways zooming off to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem -- we found that the road we had taken led to a sheep pen. Again, all the cars had to turn around, churning up clouds of dust til our mouths and noses and eyes and armpits were full of the desert. We wandered off in an endless sad convoy, and tried another dirt path. We reached a steep patch which our little truck couldn't handle. We slid back down the hill and the cars behind us reversed in alarm. Finally, with all of us out of the car and a big man sitting on the front, we made it up the hill, and then the tire went flat. After half an hour with a useless jack, someone showed up with good jack, and a man trudged up the hill through the heat to bring us cold water. Finally, on our way again! We made it through some villages and back on to the main road past where the check point had been. While we had been dealing with the flat, the soldiers had moved the checkpoint. We found ourselves in exactly the same situation as before. It was psychologically unbearable to be trapped again among thousands of cars in the terrible heat, but there was no choice but to bear it. Eventually we were able to turn around again and backtrack to where we had had the flat tire. We asked villagers if there were any other little used trails we could try. We eventually headed off on another one. Before long we found ourselves in a scene just like the earlier two. At this point our friend, someone with endless good cheer, had run out of even curses. We sat grimly silent, feeling like we would never get out of this situation. Finally, we made it home.
There is no way to really describe a day like that. You just hope with everything in you that you will not ever have to live through another one. And of course, that is exactly the purpose for which these checkpoints were engineered. To take you beyond the end of yourself, so you will not find any psychologically sustainable option but to leave, if there is any way you can.
But the pulse of jailed Jerusalem still holds this people and their land together. And so, instead of leaving, the other choice is taken. And some will draw their last breath at these checkpoints, still waiting for the cry of their hearts to be answered. And others will draw their first breaths at these checkpoints, who will carry the same cry in their hearts, and who will continue to wait for the answer.