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

We in the modern world are used to waiting, and the first time one passes through a checkpoint in the West Bank, one thinks, Oh, this looks kind of familiar. This won’t be so bad. I will just need to stand in line a bit.

But then one sees that rather than a simple queue, this is more like a funnel—wide enough where it begins for thirty people to stand side by side, at the end of an open-air shed with a corrugated tin roof, but narrowing a few yards farther on, where everyone is pushing toward two tall turnstiles. One afternoon in the fall of 2004 (but it could as well have been today) it took forty minutes to reach the front at Qalandia, the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It was an exercise in gradual compression: I went from having some choice of movement (I’ll head for the left turnstile) to having none at all, as my footsteps were foreshortened by the people in front, my arms were pinioned by the people beside me, and my shoulders were bumped by the people behind.

Sometimes a checkpoint queue creates a sense of instant community: we are all occupying one another’s space, all suffering together, and conversation can provide relief. The man at my right, it turned out, was a doctor. He was returning home to East Jerusalem from work at a clinic in Ramallah, as he does every day. “Sharon’s strategy is to make it so bad we will leave,” he said. “He forgets we have nowhere else to go.”

Because this was my first time through, I expressed some concern about the squeeze to which we were increasingly subjected. He warned me not to drop anything—an ID, for example—because it would be impossible now to stoop down and pick it up. He looked tired as he told me that it had been even worse before the Israelis put up the metal roof and created some shade.

To be encased, as I was, in a crowd of 200 or 300 people is a sort of temporary imprisonment. If the crowd panicked, we would all be in trouble. I was thinking these thoughts because just a month earlier, bombers en route from Jenin to Haifa had gotten spooked and exploded a device at this very checkpoint, killing two Palestinians and wounding six Israeli policemen. And only the day before a Palestinian woman had blown herself up in the Jerusalem neighborhood of French Hill, just a few miles from Qalandia, killing two Israeli policemen. And yet I had the feeling that if I were to freak out—say, from claustrophobia—the people around me would try hard to let me out. A situation like this increases one’s sensitivity to the stress level of one’s neighbors.

The doctor and I were separated a few minutes later, just as we neared what seemed to be the most fraught part of the ordeal: trying to decide when to step into an open space in the turnstile. The pressure from behind had grown so great that the decision was now almost entirely beyond my control; I had to lean backward to keep from walking into the ends of the turning bars. I also had to be careful not to stomp on the foot of a child or an elderly person. To my relief, a muscular man approaching the turnstile at the same time said, “Hello, my friend,” and used his bulk, like a dike against the ocean, to create a small discretionary pocket of space for me. A minute later I stepped through the turnstile of my own accord and said, “Shukran”—“Thanks.”

It should have been a relief to be on the other side, approaching the end of the shed, except that this is where the guns are. About ten Israeli soldiers were visible that day, all of them young and laden with combat gear, including M4 assault rifles. Things moved faster now. A young female soldier examined the contents of my shoulder bag. Ten steps beyond her another soldier protected by a wall of concrete blocks, a thick plastic window, and goggles motioned me forward. I handed him my passport and journalist’s ID. He studied them for a fairly long time, pausing (as Israeli officials tend to) at a visa I had gotten years before for a tourist trip to an Arab country. Then he handed them back wordlessly and turned to the person behind me. That meant I was through. Walking out into the open air beyond, into the bustling taxi lot and impromptu bazaar that every checkpoint occasions, I felt as though I’d been paroled.

W ith the Gaza withdrawal complete and the death of Yasir Arafat fading into memory, the world’s attention is turning once again to the land that remains among the world’s most contentious: the West Bank. The violence that ebbed in the months following the death of Arafat is on the rise again; suicide bombings have returned to Israel as settlements continue to encroach on Palestinian land. The intifada never really went away, and neither did the Israeli soldiers, who continue working hard to keep a lid on things.

Israel manages its occupation of the West Bank—which is home to 1.3 million Palestinians and 400,000 Israeli settlers and is roughly the size of Delaware—to a large degree by restricting the travel of Palestinians. The most famous symbol of this restriction is the new “security fence” still taking shape alongside and east of the Green Line that marks the de facto border of pre-1967 Israel. Although the fence has become controversial for impinging on Palestinian territory and cutting off Palestinian farmers from their land, it has succeeded in greatly reducing the number of suicide bombings inside Israel proper. But more meaningful than the security fence to daily life in the West Bank is Israel’s dominion over Palestinian roads. The Oslo Accords, in 1993, and Oslo 2, in 1995, granted Palestinians the right to govern their own cities, but gave Israel control over the main roads in the territories. Thus checkpoints, which once were few and temporary, became numerous and often permanent. Although their number varies according to the security situation, about seventy checkpoints dotted the West Bank at the time of my visit. There are nearly as many today.

Each checkpoint has a different character. Most permit both vehicles and pedestrians to pass, but some allow only pedestrians. Some close at dusk and open at dawn, permitting no passage at night; others are closed to vehicles at night but allow pedestrians through. Some allow anything to pass once the soldiers have left for the night. And some change the rules from day to day.

In addition to permanent checkpoints like Qalandia—which typically feature traffic dividers and concrete blocks behind which the soldiers stand, and sometimes roofs for shade and tanks of drinking water—there are “flying checkpoints,” which exist for only hours at a time and may be run by as few as two or three soldiers or border policemen, often acting on intelligence tips.

What are the checkpoints for? Israeli officials say that like almost everything else in the West Bank, checkpoints are for security—they enable the Israeli army to interdict weapons and bombers. The army hopes to find some of these through random searches; others may be captured through the powerful Israeli intelligence agency, Shin Bet, which provides daily updates on whom and what to look for. But soldiers at checkpoints spend most of their time examining the identity documents issued by Israel and by the Palestinian Authority to every Palestinian aged sixteen and up. If a man’s residence is in Nablus but he’s headed for Bethlehem, the soldiers may turn him back. Or they may not. The arbitrariness of checkpoint-rule enforcement makes life miserable for Palestinians. For them checkpoints have become not just bureaucratic irritants but emblems of Israeli arrogance.

Whether at crossings of the security fence or at strategic points inside the territories, checkpoints provide the human face of the occupation—his is as close as some Israelis and Palestinians will ever come. The face is seldom friendly: taciturn soldiers meet put-upon civilians, investigate their documents, and decide (often according to mood, Palestinians say) whether they may cross over to the other side. Sometimes the soldiers make Palestinians wait for hours in holding areas. For the soldiers checkpoint life is often grindingly dull, stress-inducing, and alienating. For the Palestinians it is monumentally frustrating, humiliating, and anger-provoking.

Checkpoints can also be brutal. During my visit the Israeli military convicted the commander of the Hawara checkpoint, just south of Nablus, of beating numerous Palestinians and smashing the windows of ten Palestinian taxis. One of the army’s own cameramen had videotaped the commander in the act of bashing a Palestinian man in the face with his fist while the man’s toddler held on to his shirttails; the camera’s audio then picked up the sounds of the man’s being punched or kicked in the stomach inside a hut where the commander had dragged him. One of the cruelest indignities to which they are subjected, Palestinians say, is the capricious and sometimes hours-long detention of ambulances carrying Palestinian patients; according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, at least seventy-one Palestinians have died because they were delayed unnecessarily at checkpoints.

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.”

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.”

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.

Numerous rocks pelted the Storm over the next few minutes, and again as we neared the tumbledown barricade in Jiljilya. There was no exit from the road we were on, and the rock throwers knew we’d have to retrace our route. “Is that all they’ve got?” Adam muttered as we rolled slowly through the hail of stones. That was when a Coke bottle filled with engine oil smashed against the windshield and I discovered, from the patches of dark oil on my arm and pants, that the Storm’s seals weren’t perfectly tight. I looked back to see what the Humvee would attract and saw a Molotov cocktail explode right in front of it, drawing a straight line of flame diagonally across the road between us.

Both vehicles stopped. Adam turned on the windshield wipers of the Storm and cursed when they managed only to smear the oil. “I wish they’d hit us with the cocktail instead,” he said. The Humvee began to turn around, heading back in the direction we’d just come.

“What are they going to do?” I asked Adam.

“If they can catch them, they can shoot them in the lower legs,” replied Rooey, the radioman, from the back seat. From the military’s perspective, throwing a Molotov cocktail is aggression of a higher order than throwing stones. Shooting to hit the lower legs is standard practice if the provocation is violent but not likely to be lethal. (There is even an Israeli children’s game, like dodge ball, in which the object is to hit your opponent below the knee.) The Humvee disappeared for ten minutes as it rumbled around the back streets of Jiljilya, but then returned in our rear-view mirrors; it had failed to catch the throwers.

Back at the base Omer let his concern show more than usual. “The bottles and the rocks are normal, but the Molotov cocktails—that hasn’t happened before on that road,” he told me. “It says something very serious about them, about how ready they are to attack us. Molotov cocktails really can make a car explode.”

“But aren’t the armored vehicles immune?” I asked.

“Well, in theory,” he replied.

A day later Omer invited me to come along as he and a handful of soldiers set up a middle-of-the-night flying checkpoint along the deserted stretch of road between Sinjil and Jiljilya. It was about two a.m., very dark and very quiet. A few steps from the checkpoint we could look west to the Mediterranean and see the bright lights of Tel Aviv. It is such a small country.

There were almost no cars to be seen. But even when there’s “a very low probability of actual contact with terrorist activity,” Omer said, “checking a road in a random manner causes uncertainty, making it practically impossible to say when and where you can sneak out of a village without being checked.” He continued, “Working in various times and places lowers the level of threat faced by our forces.” When the first car finally approached the checkpoint, Omer’s soldiers turned powerful spotlights on it at the last minute and appeared to scare the driver almost to death. The driver told the soldiers that he was a pharmacist returning from a late-night restocking of his shop, and he was very accommodating of their requests to search his trunk, his back seat, and under his hood. Another hour and only two cars later we headed back to the base.

As our service taxi passed near the now abandoned  British Police checkpoint on the 60 Road, Khaldoon   al-Khatib, a student at Birzeit University, just outside Ramallah, pointed it out as a landmark, just as Omer had. For him, however, the checkpoint had a different name—Ayoon al-Haramia (“Eyes of the Thieves”)—and the massacre of the Israelis by the mystery gunman was not a tragedy but a triumph. “Even on the Palestinian side we still don’t know how he did it,” Khaldoon said, beaming. “It’s like Spiderman!”

Traveling south on the 60 Road, I was revisiting familiar terrain, but with a tour guide so different that it seemed like another land entirely. Khaldoon’s brother, Ahmed, an acquaintance of mine who is a student in Pennsylvania, had suggested that I look up Khaldoon. When I got to Ramallah and told Khaldoon of my interest in checkpoints, he proposed that we travel south for a weekend at his parents’ house in Hebron, where often a checkpoint was set up just down the street.

The twenty-two-year-old Khaldoon, slender, handsome, and hyper, was in his third year at Birzeit and studying psychology. As we rumbled south in a succession of service taxis, switching whenever a checkpoint or a barrier required it, he kept asserting that none of the checkpoints was impregnable. Show me a checkpoint, he would say, and I’ll show you a way around it. The Qalandia checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, was Exhibit No. 1: if you were willing to make a big detour and to pay about eight times the normal taxi fare, you could avoid it completely. South of Eyes of the Thieves we did just that, switching taxis at a junction called Arram and ending up in the taxi lot south of Qalandia. Our circuitous and costly route demonstrated why most Palestinians prefer to subject themselves to the checkpoint.

But in other places, Khaldoon told me, evasion was riskier. You could get around a checkpoint by taking a dirt back road or a remote footpath, but the army wasn’t stupid: knowing the net had holes, they sent out patrols to catch the fish who slipped through. Every Palestinian has heard stories like the one told me by a waiter in Nablus. Returning home late in the day and finding the Hawara checkpoint closed, he hiked up Mt. Gerizim to walk around. The soldiers who caught him beat him up and held a pistol to his head. Service taxis are regularly fined or confiscated when caught detouring around a checkpoint. Khaldoon nevertheless sounded defiant. “They close a road, we find a hundred roads!” he proclaimed. “We will make more roads! Anywhere!”

I was starting to believe him when our service taxi stopped at al-Quds University, in East Jerusalem. Across the street a panoramic view of the city had been replaced by a long section of Israel’s new security fence—a blank, imposing structure that ran along the edge of the school’s dusty playing fields. The original plan had called for the wall to cross the fields, rendering them useless, but it was revised after Condoleezza Rice intervened. At that moment only one panel remained to be installed before the stretch of wall was complete. “You’re not going to make a road around that,” I commented. Khaldoon gave me an unhappy look and said nothing more on the subject for the rest of the trip.

Outside Hebron, Khaldoon used a cell phone to alert his father, Awni al-Khatib, that he would have to pick us up downtown. But his dad called right back: traffic was so stacked up at the checkpoint near their house, he said, that it would be hours before he’d be able to get there. An alternative rendezvous was picked. As we approached the city, the taxi dropped me and Khaldoon on the side of the road. We climbed a five-foot-high earthen barrier (the army has constructed hundreds of these to restrict Palestinian access to main highways like the 60 Road) and hiked a quarter mile or so down a back street to meet Khaldoon’s father.

Awni, an engaging, outgoing man in his early fifties, welcomed us into his Volkswagen Polo, where we also met his youngest son, Muhammad. We drove about ten minutes to an intersection that was in total gridlock with long lines of cars and trucks.

“Uh-oh,” I said.

But Khaldoon had a different reaction. “No, no—we’re home!” he exclaimed. He clambered out of the VW, threaded his way across the road through the bumper-to-bumper traffic, and opened what turned out to be the gate to the family’s driveway. After about five minutes the drivers nearby were able to make enough space for the VW to squeeze through, and we pulled into the driveway. “You see what we have to put up with,” Awni said, as Khaldoon closed the gate. I didn’t at first, but then Khaldoon explained: those cars and trucks were all queued up for the local checkpoint, a hundred yards down the road. “When they set up the checkpoint, they don’t put in enough soldiers,” Khaldoon observed. “People have to wait a long time.”

Awni is a scientist with a doctorate in inorganic chemistry from the University of Florida at Gainesville. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Utah State University and was a Fulbright visiting scholar at the University of Oklahoma. He has a family of six, who lived in an apartment block for years after they moved to Hebron. Awni’s promotion to vice president of Hebron University had enabled them to build this gracious house, perched on a hillside on the edge of town, with a balcony, flower gardens, and commanding views of an olive orchard across the valley.

But their lives had been completely changed by the arrival of the checkpoint on their doorstep, in 2001. As Khaldoon’s mother, Latifa, served us tea on a patio outside the living room, a succession of Palestinian men scrambled furtively past the gardens every few minutes, prompting wild barking from the family’s German shepherd. “They’re getting around the checkpoint,” Khaldoon explained. They would have to run across a settler road below the house to do it, he said, and then wind through the olive orchard. As long as they didn’t get caught, they’d save a lot of time.

I was curious about how much time, so the next day we walked down the road to where the soldiers were. One stood guard up on an overpass, and two more were stationed below. I joined a crowd of about forty Palestinians who were waiting impatiently for the soldiers’ attention. Being American, I discovered, did not speed things up. After more than half an hour, when I was finally allowed to approach him, a young soldier with red hair examined my documents and then stepped close enough to whisper in my ear that it was dangerous in town. “If I were you, I would climb up there,” he confided, pointing to the settler road up the embankment, “and hitchhike out of here.” I thanked him for looking out for me; he was clearly harried, and not required to enhance my safety. “But I’m with a friend,” I said, pointing to Khaldoon. “I think I’ll be okay.” The soldier looked surprised and let us both pass.

Omer kept referring to “the old 60” and “the new 60,” and one day I asked what he meant. The old 60, he explained, had connected all the major Palestinian cities of the West Bank. But with the growth of Israeli settlements in the territory, and with Israeli settlers encountering trouble when they traveled through Palestinian cities, bypass roads had been created. The peak of this construction was in the late 1990s. Bypasses now constitute the main 60 Road, which skirts not only the cities but many of the villages as well.

One morning intelligence reports indicated that bombers out of Nablus would be heading to points south, and Omer decided to set up a flying checkpoint on the new 60 Road where it intersected with the old 60, just below the company’s base. After all, a smart bomber might decide to avoid the main routes, with their permanent checkpoints, in favor of a longer journey on back roads.

Four soldiers went out at mid-morning with a Humvee driver to set up the flying checkpoint, and I went along to observe. In charge of the operation was one of Omer’s most trusted platoon leaders, a twenty-one-year-old man named Ori, who unloaded from the Humvee two ammo boxes containing the pakal machsom, the checkpoint kit, which included reflectors, a warning sign on a tripod, and two lengths of “dragon’s teeth”—collapsible spikes that extend about six feet across the road, to make sure cars stop where they are supposed to.

I had talked to Ori at length the evening before, at a picnic table on the base. Short, handsome, and conscientious, he had served two years in the army after an eight-month stint in the navy. Like many of his buddies, he was still trying to make the adjustment from his active life as a soldier patrolling Nablus to a relatively more passive one manning checkpoints. “In Nablus you feel like a warrior,” he told me. “You arrest people, you bring them to justice, and all of that. But here you don’t see the fruit of the work. The challenge is the people and their problems and all the pressure they put on you, and your soldiers looking at you and trying to see how you do it. And you need to deal with the threats, which at a checkpoint are very large. The threat could be in a lady’s bag, or in the engine behind an air cleaner, or behind the nearest hill, or a grenade could be thrown at you from fifty meters.” As Ori spoke, I thought of his platoon’s symbol: a clown juggling grenades.

The low points of his military service, Ori told me, were the three months he spent working the Hawara checkpoint and a recent dangerous assignment in Gaza. He had been sent to Gaza the day after a rocket-propelled grenade had killed five Israeli soldiers traveling in armored personnel carriers. Ori’s challenge, in the middle of taking fire from snipers, was to try to retrieve the remaining small body parts of the slain soldiers, so that their relatives would have something to bury.

But today he was back at a checkpoint, battling the heat and the boredom of examining each and every document handed to him from a slow-moving line of cars. As the line began to stretch back over a hill and out of sight, much like the scene in Hebron as I had waited with Khaldoon, Ori, exposed on the blacktop, summoned one vehicle at a time to move ahead of the rest, and then spoke to the driver in the Arabic phrases he had learned during his boot-camp training.

Wain raieh? (Where are you going?)
Jai min wain? (Coming from where?)
Lahalak fi al-saiara? (Alone in the car?)
Laish raieh? Shu al-shughul? (Why are you going? On what business?)
Itfee al-saiara! (Turn off the car! [An order that is often ignored at first.])
Itla min al-saiara! (Get out of the car!)
Iftah al-sanduq! (Open the trunk!)
Irfa qameesak! (Lift up your shirt!)

All morning long I watched Ori and his colleagues do their work. I watched them stop an ambulance and make everyone get out, including an old man in back who was apparently on his way to a hospital and looked pretty close to death. Later, in their defense, Ori and other soldiers pointed out that ambulances had been used on more than one occasion to carry explosives.

I watched them allow cars with yellow-and-black Israeli license plates—as opposed to white-and-green Palestinian ones—to skip the queue and pass through the checkpoint by using the oncoming-traffic lane. Most made eye contact with Ori before proceeding, but some just zoomed by.

I watched them make a pregnant woman wait more than twenty minutes in the broiling sun while a soldier ran her ID through a computer back at the base.

I watched them order several Palestinians to pile out of a service taxi, leaving inside an incapacitated man whose foot was wrapped with gauze through which blood had oozed … I wondered what had happened. Ori, wary of a trap, then made the man, despite his evident pain, get out of the taxi and hop over to him with his documents. After getting the all clear the man was carried back to the taxi by the other passengers.

I watched an old woman climb out of the car she was riding in and hobble up the road, saying that her husband could pick her up once he got through the checkpoint, but she was not going to wait a minute more. “Go ahead and shoot me!” she told Ori as she walked by.

After about three hours Omer arrived and decided that although no bomber or contraband had been interdicted, the checkpoint had served its purpose. Back at the base Ori and the other soldiers seemed glad to take off their heavy combat gear and eat lunch. Ori told me that he would have liked to be a soldier in the time of the Haganah—the Israel Defense Forces’ precursor—or of an early elite strike force like the Palmach. Such fighters, he said, recruited themselves, lived in a group, and worked together for one purpose. “Now it seems so complicated—you don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, and if we’ve done the right thing every time.”

Surely this sentiment is shared by thousands of soldiers—Israeli, Russian, American—at the dawn of the twenty-first century, when it appears that the hardest thing is not taking control of a territory (the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq) but attempting to administer it once you are there. The battlefield is no longer a highly militarized beachhead, plain, or jungle but a road, a checkpoint; and the challenge is picking out the enemy—a teenager in a long coat; a woman with a baby carriage—from the large mass of civilians, who are noncombatants, without creating additional enemies in the process. The great risk, as you contend against the unseen, is that you may come to demonize even those who are not part of the resistance. That’s what the job does. No wonder Ori felt nostalgic for the old days.

And no wonder Omer, in command of a base surrounded by historical enemies, didn’t seem at all fearful of traditional defeat. His side clearly enjoyed overwhelming military superiority. But Omer did worry a lot about his men’s state of mind. Arriving back at the base one morning just before dawn, after a particularly difficult arrest in a house in a Palestinian village, he sat on his bunk and ruefully told me of a boy’s shaking, a mother’s sobbing. They had got the bad guy, he said, but the work still took its toll. He unlaced a boot. “The real daily fight,” he said, worried about his soldiers, “is fighting for a soul.”

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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