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

In the parking area beyond the checkpoint we ran into the mayor of Jayyus, who offered us a ride in his pickup truck. As we climbed in, Khaled said, “Sometimes they keep you in that pen until past closing time, until all the taxis have left.” He pointed to a clump of bushes next to the lot. “Once I had to sleep there, next to those.”

There was only one more checkpoint to navigate on the way home, but the relatively clear road didn’t improve Khaled’s mood. We came to an intersection where, he said, the week before soldiers at a flying checkpoint had collected everyone’s IDs, kept them for more than an hour, and then dropped them in a pile on the road. This prompted a mad scramble that had only amused the soldiers. Without an ID no Palestinian can go anywhere.

The 202 Paratrooper company’s base, just off the 60 Road, sat perched on a rounded hilltop, part of a bevy of rounded hilltops arrayed like beads on a string. This was clearly a contested area. On the sides of some hills were Palestinian villages, and on the tops of other hills were illegal Israeli settlements. It was easier to distinguish them at night, when you could see that the lights in the villages were irregularly spaced and of varying brightness and color, with one prominent green light marking the mosque, whereas the lights in the settlements were regularly spaced and consistent in brightness and hue. This was because the settlements had been built subdivision-style, with many identical units.

The settlers had for years felt most unsafe not in their houses but out on the roads. Part of the 60 Road had been dubbed the “Highway of Death” four years earlier, according to Marc Prowisor, the security chief for the Shilo settlement, which I could see clearly from Omer’s trailer. Many settlers had been shot at on the 60 Road and at least twenty-two had been killed. When a family of four from Shilo was attacked on the road (the parents were killed; the babies somehow survived), the settlers demanded protection from the Israeli army, and got it. Owing to the diligence of soldiers like the ones from 202 Paratrooper, Prowisor said, the road was much safer now.

I asked Omer how his unit had managed to reduce the number of attacks on the 60 Road. A combination of measures, he said: checkpoints, intelligence, raids on homes, and making the soldiers’ presence known in various ways—by simply driving through villages, or by making use of the talents of his sniper squad. When I asked what, exactly, the snipers might do, he told me this story.

A month or two before, just after his company had moved into its base (which is known as the 773 Outpost, because it sits 773 meters above sea level), reports came in that stones were being hurled at night from a nearby hill at settlers’ cars traveling on the 60 Road. Omer sent a squad of camouflaged snipers out to investigate, and one night, using special optics, they caught a twenty-year-old Palestinian man from the village of Sinjil in the act. They shot him just below the knee with a high-powered rifle. Oddly enough, Omer was standing by with a military doctor, and five minutes after being shot the man was being treated by the same army that had just maimed him. An Israeli ambulance took him to a hospital in Jerusalem, where the government paid for his treatment. Part of the man’s leg had to be amputated, but the point was that he was alive, and could serve as a living warning. “Every day now his village will remember what happened,” Omer said.

I asked Omer whether it had been necessary to shoot the man at all. Couldn’t the soldiers simply have arrested him, or given him a stern warning? Omer found my questions puzzling. From his point of view, he had acted with restraint, because “legally we could have shot him—to kill.” Omer argued that the man’s actions posed a lethal hazard to those riding on the 60 Road; people could have been killed. In fact, as Omer reminded me, in March of 2002, not far from where we were standing, a Palestinian sniper had opened fire on a 60 Road checkpoint known as British Police (after those who built it), killing seven Israeli soldiers and three civilians with an ancient rifle. The sniper had never been caught. British Police, which was near a stand of tall pines, was now abandoned, but the incident, like so many others in this part of the world, was far from forgotten.

At dusk one evening I went out with Omer and two of his men on a patrol of two Arab villages near  the base, Sinjil and Jiljilya. Omer drove the Storm, a special armored Jeep with bulletproof windows and flatproof tires. The narrow road on which we were driving, much of it dirt, wound its way up a hill and past the simple whitewashed houses of Sinjil, the first village, where a soldier pointed out to me a wall on which a map of Israel and the West Bank had been painted—the whole of it filled in with the green, black, and white stripes of the Palestinian flag. For the soldiers this was unmistakable evidence of the Palestinians’ refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist, and a clear sign that we were in enemy territory.

None of the soldiers had told me what to expect, so the flying rock took me totally by surprise. With a bang it bounced off the roof of the Storm and skittered across the hood, making me jump. We had left Sinjil, traveled maybe two miles across an arid, vacant hillside, and were just coming into Jiljilya. I looked through the Storm’s thick windows to see where the rock had come from, but nobody was in sight. On either side of the road, however, were the remains of a makeshift barricade that had been constructed by locals; once it had spanned the road, but now it was a ruin of rocks, boxes, chairs, and a television. “I think we won’t go all the way in tonight,” Omer said, turning the car around at the other end of the village.

Only later did I learn that Omer considered it unsafe to proceed with only one truck. That was the next evening, after I had asked whether we might go back and drive in farther. Though he couldn’t come himself, Omer okayed the trip, sending me out in the Storm with Adam, an experienced driver, and Rooey, a radioman. We were followed by other soldiers in a Humvee driven by a young woman who, like about a quarter of Omer’s troops, was an immigrant from Russia. The soldiers chatted to one another and to the base on their radios.

The chatter stopped when the first stone struck the Storm with a bang—once again we were passing the scattered remnants of the barricade in Jiljilya. I jumped, but Adam drove on, smiling ruefully. “Even for us the first one is always a little scary,” he said. “The first one?” I said.

Then two more stones hit the Storm, while others flew by, barely missing us. This time I saw where they were coming from—a bunch of kids behind a wall. But the soldiers ignored them, and we drove on to a third village, Abwein.

In Abwein, five minutes later, I heard a loud, shrill whistling for the first time—the signal Palestinians use to communicate that army vehicles are on the way. Another round of stones rained down on us, but our two-vehicle motorcade kept moving, neither speeding up nor slowing down, and Adam’s face was expressionless.

“Why are we here, exactly?” I asked him.

“Just to show them we are here,” he said, smiling darkly. In other words, I thought to myself, intimidation.

Soon we reached the end of the road—the army had placed a big earthen mound across it. Such strategically placed road closures (as opposed to checkpoints) are common all over the West Bank; the army uses them to restrict access to roads favored by settlers, and to increase its control over Palestinian districts like this one. We started turning around, which took a long time on the narrow street, especially for the Humvee. “You mean we have to go back the way we came?” I asked. Adam thought this question was funny.

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Ted Conover is the author of Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, and is a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University.

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