The Checkpoint

For Israeli soldiers checkpoint life is dull, alienating, and stress-inducing. For the Palestinians it is frustrating, humiliating, and anger-provoking. Yet it’s the human face of the occupation—and as close as some Israelis and Palestinians will ever come

According to the Israeli military, a total of fifty-six Israeli soldiers and border police officers have been killed at checkpoints and roadblocks since the second intifada began, in September of 2000. In 2003 two were shot dead south of Jerusalem by a Palestinian man carrying a rifle rolled up in a prayer rug. In December of 2004 members of Hamas and Fatah tunneled several hundred yards to place more than a ton of explosives beneath a checkpoint in Rafah, near the Egyptian border with Gaza. The attack killed five soldiers. And in December of last year a Palestinian passing through the Qalandia checkpoint, right where I had walked, fatally stabbed a soldier in the neck.

Omer (the Israel Defense Forces forbade me from using his last name, or the last names of any of the soldiers I got to know) is a wiry, affable red-haired man of twenty-six who commands a company of the elite 202 Paratrooper Battalion. His company consisted of about a hundred young army conscripts, and in the fall of 2004 they occupied a base camp atop a hill between Ramallah and Nablus, where I stayed for almost two weeks. The base is located just off a major highway known as the 60 Road.

The 60 Road runs north–south through the entire West Bank and is the main connection between the cities of Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. In ancient times the route extended all the way north to Damascus and as far south as Beersheva. The problem with the 60 Road, Omer told me, is that it has become a thruway for terrorists. The security fence has yet to be completed in Jerusalem and many areas in the south—one reason, according to the military, that on August 31, 2004, ten days before my arrival in Israel, suicide bombers from Hebron were able to kill sixteen people in two separate attacks on buses in Beersheva. More recently other bombers have increasingly used the 60 Road to travel south from the politically turbulent cities of the north. So in addition to Hawara and the other permanent checkpoints along the road, the Israeli army deploys units like Omer’s to patrol it. “A suicide bomber traveling from Nablus to Jerusalem will have to go right past us—and we’ll try to stop him,” Omer told me. His company sets up flying checkpoints, conducts surveillance missions, and makes nighttime arrests in nearby Arab villages, usually acting on tips from the Shin Bet.

Though still in his twenties, Omer has already served nearly eight years in the army. He still carries shrapnel in his leg from fighting against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the late 1990s, yet he is nostalgic for those days, because in that job he was engaged in actual combat, which to him is real soldier’s work. “The Hezbollah warrior was like me, dressed up like me—he had a gun,” Omer told me one afternoon in his command trailer. “When one of our guys fell, it was like, hey, they were shooting, we were shooting. It was an army for us. It was sexier. And there was no question in terms of the conflict. There was Hezbollah, a clearly terrorist organization. But here the mission is trickier to explain to the soldiers—what you’ve achieved in terms of terrorism, how you buy time, buy intelligence, and at the end you will catch them.”

He continued the comparison. In the West Bank “the collateral damage is unbelievably higher,” he said. “In Lebanon the villages were either with you or against you—they’d fight alongside you, or else shoot back. Here the collateral damage in moral terms is unbelievably problematic, and that’s a serious problem in the long term.”

Innocent civilians, in other words, are inevitably damaged by the army’s work in the territories. “Searching a house, looking for a gun, taking in nineteen- to twenty-one-year-old kids and telling them it’s okay to turn the house upside down to find one gun. It’s bad for the guy’s four children in there—that’s obvious. But what’s not plain until the fifteenth time is that it’s bad for you.”

Israeli soldiers are posted to checkpoints for anywhere from two to six months; three months is typical. Before the current assignment, on the 60 Road between Ramallah and Nablus, Omer’s company had spent a little more than three months at Hawara. Most of the Hawara posting, he freely admitted, had been exhausting and dispiriting. In rotating shifts the soldiers spent eight hours on duty, eight hours off, with few breaks. Every day 5,000 Palestinians—a mass of humanity with whom it was difficult to communicate—passed through Hawara. Many of them were inclined to ignore, or even argue with, the soldiers’ orders. Against this backdrop Omer’s soldiers had to be ever on the lookout for the person in the crowd who might be wired to blow them up.

Fortunately for company morale, two incidents toward the end of their posting showed that hard work could pay dividends. In the first a female soldier, looking in the large gym bag of a ten-year-old boy, discovered a cell phone with wires attached, and beneath it a bomb. When questioned, the boy seemed to know nothing about the bomb. Apparently a man near the checkpoint just a few minutes earlier had offered him a few shekels to carry the bag through. Army officials believe the bomber was simply trying to sneak the bomb through the checkpoint, but they always worry about what Omer calls the “default threat”: the chance that the bomber, once discovered, will set off the bomb no matter where he is.

The second incident came nine days later. A soldier of Omer’s named Doron, nineteen years old and from the city of Rishon Lezion, just south of Tel Aviv, had been in charge of a checkpoint line that morning. He told me what happened: “It was maybe two p.m., and the Shin Bet called me and said, ‘There’s a bomber in your line!’ And I said, ‘What do they look like?’ They said, ‘Maybe a girl, maybe a boy, maybe fourteen, maybe sixteen.’” The Shin Bet monitors cell-phone transmissions in the area around the checkpoint, and had overheard the bomber making a call. Doron immediately closed down the checkpoint and ordered everyone waiting in line to stand back and then to approach the soldiers one at a time for thorough pat-downs. “Then a kid—we said, ‘Remove the jacket,’ and he didn’t want to; he was shaking,” Doron recalled. “But then he did, and we could see something under his jersey. So we said, ‘Lift your shirt.’ And so he did.” When the soldiers saw that the boy was wearing a vest wired with explosives, they trained their guns on him. A bomb robot was deployed to deliver a pair of scissors to the boy, which he used to cut off the vest. The soldiers then exploded the bomb.

The army wanted the world to know about the dangers its soldiers face in the Palestinian territories, so Israeli officials had called an AP stringer in Nablus and arranged for a television camera to tape the incident. Images of the frightened boy dressed in the vest and holding up his arms were soon transmitted around the world. Afterward, as a souvenir of the episode, Omer’s soldiers had a T-shirt made with a likeness of the boy and a caption that read, “They promised me 72 virgins in heaven, but instead I got the soldiers of the 202.”

After doing their time at the Hawara checkpoint, Omer and his company spent a few high-adrenaline months in Nablus, a city roiling with politics and rebellion, which the Israelis considered to be a major source of terrorism. Their experiences were both terrible and, to hear Omer tell it, thrilling. Under cover of night they would slip into town—sometimes in an armored vehicle, sometimes on foot, occasionally disguised—to arrest suspects. They drove through the impoverished Balata refugee camp, on the southeast edge of Nablus, attempting to draw fire from insurgents in order to discover their hideouts. They demolished the dwellings of Palestinians who, according to intelligence reports, had engaged in attacks against Israel. In one incident a Palestinian boy threw a stone that broke Omer’s nose. In another Omer’s second-in-command was ambushed, and Omer himself, coming from behind an ambulance that had been called to the scene, walked right into a boy who was holding a lighted Molotov cocktail. Omer shot him reflexively fourteen or fifteen times “in the legs”—“but he died.”

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