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

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.”

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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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