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

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.

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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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