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

Omer and some of his soldiers also recall having to drive into Nablus—in broad daylight on a number of occasions—to rescue buddies whose vehicles had become trapped or disabled. During some of these missions residents on rooftops assaulted the vehicles with an assortment of heavy objects, ranging from cinder blocks to an oven. I asked one of Omer’s drivers, a dark-humored man named Adam, which parts of Nablus were the most dangerous. Which were the bad spots? “All of Nablus is a bad spot,” he muttered.

One day Omer drove me up the hill overlooking the Hawara checkpoint, past an Israeli-only road leading to Bracha, a Jewish settlement of 400 to 450 people (checkpoint soldiers have barracks there, too), and, a little higher up, through an ancient town of Samaritans, who are now Israeli citizens. The hill, which is called Mt. Gerizim, is mentioned in the Bible; Abraham, having just received the promise from God “I will make of thee a great nation,” had brought his tribe to set up camp in the oak grove between Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, a hill to the north. Out of that camp grew the biblical city of Shchem, which today is Nablus, home to 300,000 Palestinians. It’s an affront to many of them—and illustrative of the problems facing this region—that Israeli road signs refer to their city not as Nablus but as Shchem.

My mental image of Nablus, based on the descriptions of soldiers I talked to, was of a large, foul-smelling slum. So I was surprised to see gleaming white buildings, many of them tall and invitingly perched on either side of a valley. At least from a distance, Nablus was beautiful. But to Omer the view was less glorious. He pointed out one landmark after another where bad things had happened to him and his company. As we made our descent, he pointed out a building that the soldiers called the Disco: it was a Palestinian party hall that the paratroopers had taken over during the tensions of 2002 in order to provide the settlers with additional protection. One night, as the soldiers slept, two Palestinian militants attacked, killing a sergeant and a lieutenant before they themselves were killed. Losing those two soldiers seemed to be Omer’s most painful experience, and yet I could see that some part of him really wanted me to know what had happened in Nablus. It had been his idea to come here. Weeks later, when I met up again with Omer and told him I had gone back to Nablus alone, he seemed amazed—and also a bit envious.

Israeli civilians are forbidden by military order to enter Palestinian towns; indeed, it would be dangerous for most of them to do so. But I’d been told it wouldn’t necessarily be dangerous for me, as a non-Israeli and a non-Jew. And so, in hopes of understanding checkpoints from a Palestinian point of view, I went.

I needed a Palestinian commuter, and I found one in the person of Abdul-Latif M. Khaled, a hydrologist who was educated in Holland. He lived not in Nablus but in Jayyus, a village about twenty miles to the west. His daily commute had once been an easy thirty minutes, he told me. Now between home and office loomed two permanent checkpoints and as many as five flying checkpoints, and the trip often took more than two hours each way. The afternoon of my visit Khaled invited me to attend a presentation on the subject of water conservation that he was giving in Nablus to officials from more than two dozen local villages. When it was over, we boarded a shared “service taxi”—an aging yellow Mercedes wagon typical of the semi-public transportation available in the West Bank—for the journey to his house.

Khaled is a tall, well-dressed man in his late thirties who speaks excellent English and clearly commanded the respect of the officials. As the two of us settled into the taxi, he chatted with the other passengers about the afternoon checkpoint situation, trying to assess what lay ahead. It was the Palestinian version of a radio traffic report. There was no alternate route, but at least he would know what to expect.

After passing through a flying checkpoint inside Nablus, we disembarked from the taxi at Beit Iba, a neighborhood on the city’s northwestern edge, and walked to a terminal-style checkpoint similar to the ones at Qalandia and Hawara. With roughly 250 people waiting to go through, Khaled expected that it would take us about half an hour to get to the front, assuming all went well. When I sighed, he told me just to be glad we weren’t there on a Thursday afternoon, when the students at nearby An-Najah National University headed home for the weekend. Their numbers, he said, usually swelled the queue to several hundred.

After fifteen or twenty minutes the tides and currents of the crowd separated us, and I found myself pushed up against a man in a checked shirt—or, rather, pushed up against his satellite dish. Apparently he planned to hand-carry the waist-high dish through the queue. As absurd as this seemed at first, it soon occurred to me that he probably had no other choice, and so I did what I could to help. Others did too. Before long the crowd had deposited me at the turnstile just ahead of him.

As I waited in a short line to reach the soldier who would examine my papers, I heard a clanking and saw that the satellite dish was stuck in the turnstile. Undeterred, the man in the checked shirt managed to dislodge the dish and started sliding it through a set of vertical bars next to the turnstile. When the job was almost finished, I reached over to help steady the satellite dish against the bars on my side.

Big mistake. The soldier in whose queue I was waiting stood up and shouted at me, demanding that I come directly to the front. His English wasn’t good, but he made it clear that I had broken the rules and that he was not happy about it. I was very apologetic; it was my first time through this checkpoint, I said, and I hadn’t realized I was doing anything wrong. When he took my passport and Israeli press pass, I thought I was going to be okay. But he pointed to the back of the sea of humanity in which I had recently been adrift and declared, “End of line!” Startled by this punishment, I tried to stall, promising it wouldn’t happen again. Khaled, who was in front of the next soldier over, began to argue on my behalf. For his troubles he was sent away to the holding pen, a small area of hard benches behind a clump of bushes, which was filled with eight or nine other men who, for whatever reason, had run afoul of the authorities. Still I dug in my heels. “End of line!” screamed the soldier.

As I started to turn back, a silent alarm seemed to go off among the soldiers: something had gone wrong toward the back of the line. My tormentor and five other soldiers picked up their M4s and ran outside the shed, quickly disappearing into the crowd. The checkpoint was now officially closed.

Twenty minutes later the soldiers returned and slowly resumed their duties. No explanation was offered, and the crowd was so big that I couldn’t see what had caused the ruckus. The soldiers were uniformly young and dull-eyed, their burnout showing through and through. I approached my soldier again, and he began to reexamine my passport with an air of studied indifference. Khaled could see me from the pen and started shouting at the soldiers; they ignored him.

The soldier called over his commander, who asked me questions for fifteen minutes or so before deciding to let me pass. Khaled, however, had to stay. I walked past the soldiers and took up a position at the far end of the terminal to wait for him. To see a person of Khaled’s stature treated so disrespectfully was unsettling. Several times he pointed at me; I feared that for championing my cause, he might get himself beaten up.

But after about twenty minutes the soldiers decided to let him go. Khaled was red in the face when he told me that his detention would have continued had he not been able to point at me and tell the soldiers about the bad publicity they were creating for themselves. When I blamed myself for his problems, he brushed it off. Before they would release him, he said, he had been forced to say “I am namrood.” He asked if I knew what that meant, and I said it sounded like “nimrod”—“idiot”? “troublemaker”? Yes, he said, though in Arabic it was more like “naughty.”

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