Ibrahimi mosque checkpoint
A Hebron businessman is the source for our title phrase. He meant that checkpoints were killing his business and those of others. Checkpoints make transport more difficult because permits are necessary to use Israel’s apartheid highways. The requirement for a permit often leads to extortion by Israeli security agents to force the Palestinian applicant to become a collaborator. “We would like to help you move your goods through these checkpoints and if you help us by reporting how often so-an- so comes to your business and for what purpose, we will help you get your permit. This puts the storeowner between a rock and a hard place. He must work to support his family, but he doesn’t want to betray members of his community.
Many shopkeepers in the Old City cannot afford a truck, so their suppliers use handcarts that they must push through the gates at the checkpoint. These are locked electronically and how long the wholesaler must wait for it to be opened depends on the mood of a young soldier with a gun who pushes the release button. This could be immediately upon request or 10 to 15 minutes later or even longer. All this adds costs: for the permit to enter Jerusalem where the checkpoint permits are issued; for the travel to Jerusalem; for the checkpoint permit itself; for the time consumed in the process. Trucks and carts can be held up for hours at any checkpoint.
If forced to become a collaborator with Israeli forces, people face punitive dangers from their neighbors both to themselves and their families, if discovered. We in the West have seldom experienced checkpoints. (Except for the Irish – and why do the Irish have to be so different, anyway?) Perhaps the police in the West prevent us from using a street temporarily because of construction or a large passing parade or demonstration. Or we a cop may prohibit us from using a parking lot near a sports stadium. But in Palestine, according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are hundreds of permanent and semi permanent checkpoints … or only thirteen, as counted by the Israeli Military.
Checkpoints come in several varieties. The simplest consists of two soldiers, heavily armed of course, standing inside a U-shaped concrete form about four feet high. Or two soldiers or Border Police inside a windowed steel box; or simply large concrete blocks or steel barriers or a six-foot high pile of earth or garbage blocking entrances to streets or highways. Flying checkpoints consist of four soldiers in a Jeep parked on any road, stopping Palestinian vehicles for ID check and/or search. The most elaborate checkpoints are concrete monstrosities like the one at the NE entrance to Bethlehem that looks like a penitentiary, which in many ways it is. The two checkpoints that we monitor daily have been upgraded in the past two years from a simple steel hut to two story structures with large bright lights, high fenced-in walkways, tall turnstiles and a concrete room where observers cannot see what happens to detained Palestinians, both adults and children.
Checkpoints can be dangerous to your health. When we had neighbors all around us, we got the occasional knock on the door from someone who wanted us to accompany them through the checkpoint because a family member was seriously ill. They were afraid of being detained too long. As a result, most of the neighbors moved uptown away from the Old City into safer areas with no soldiers or settlers nearby to harass them. Here we have picture of ambulances stopped by coils of razor wire strung across a street near the Al Alia Hospital. And in one of my earliest years here, while the world was seeing photos of bus bombings in Jerusalem, no newspapers reported the deaths of the 52 babies who died when their pregnant mothers in distress were arbitrarily held up for too long at a checkpoint.
Checkpoints can be a dangerous place for Israeli soldiers, too. If a Palestinian has a grievance against the army, because a friend or family member was unfairly beaten, shot or jailed, all he has to do for revenge (a value for many people all over the world) is go to a checkpoint. Soldiers there may as well be wearing a target on their backs – in fact they are: it’s the uniform. And Palestinians getting shot at checkpoints is a too-common fact of life.
Two of my friends here have had bullet wounds to their legs, caused by a nervous and panicky young soldier. One friend is a photographer for Reuter’s News Service and the other, who works for a human rights organization, had surgery to his left knee last week. I saw the wound myself.
Every morning at 7 AM, CPT monitors two checkpoints through which pass more than 200 students and some 20 teachers. Hassan Imar, the principal of the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Boys School is also at the Qitoun checkpoint [CP 209 in military lingo] every morning. He is there to yell at the soldiers for delaying his teachers and students too long (i.e., over five minutes). We are there to collect data for UNESCO about the numbers of children and teachers who pass each day, how many are delayed, detained, searched, or subjected to tear gas, concussion or sound grenades, skunk water, rubber covered bullets or live ammunition rounds. We have witnessed all of these over the years. We know that our presence with cameras helps reduce delay times and searches, because teachers tell us so.
Besides disruption of the school timetable, the checkpoints have other impacts:
- Settler vehicular traffic barrels across the nearby intersection; and because there are no traffic cops provided for safety, the principal and teachers must take the role of crossing guards each morning.
- No Palestinian cars are allowed through; nor are trucks carrying furniture, equipment, books, or food for the school canteen (biscuits, juice).
- Workers must be hired to carry goods through the tall turnstile because truck permits are almost never issued and if they are, lots of advance notice is needed.
- Needed repairs and renovations to the school are difficult to achieve because tradesmen, like electricians and carpenters, carry potential weapons such as putty knives, chisels and screwdrivers.
- And no one wants to subject themself to the humiliation of the checkpoint, if it can be avoided.
I spent four hours one night in a restaurant with four young Palestinians; two men and two women who worked as computer consultants. They were doing a tour of Palestinian cities training bank employees to use new software products. On this lovely warm night, a few miles from where Rachel Corrie and Tom Hearndon had been killed by Israeli soldiers in previous weeks we enjoyed each other’s company. About a quarter of our four-hour conversation involved exchanging jokes. The best ones, as always here, revolved around checkpoints. One that I use often – about checkpoint delays in heaven – never fails to get huge guffaws from a local audience. Using humor to cope with a bad situation is smart because Palestinians love to laugh, as do we all. Despite the prevalence of checkpoints, hope remains undeterred.