Checkpoints are one of the most obvious and humiliating apparatuses of Palestine’s illegal occupation. It aims to demean, degrade and exhaust the very existence of individuals attempting to travel on their own land, whether it be from home to work or family to friends. You are immediately subject to scrutiny and examination by the ones who run and maintain the checkpoints. Those who maintain it emphasize its importance in terms of ‘security’ whilst boasting of their self claimed superiority. After glancing at your ID and at your face, depending on the mood of the uniformed pawn checking you, you either pass, or stay a while longer for the contents of your bag to be searched, or even just detained and put on the side of the road for the sheer fun of it.
At the end of 2010, 99 checkpoints where recorded in the West Bank, 99 of these being fixed, meaning checkpoints that are always present, staffed and active. Additionally 310 surprise flying checkpoints were recorded – these of which are obstructed on any road, during any day, of any time. In fact the monthly average of these surprise flying checkpoints were 65 in 2010 according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Not to mention the 505 physical obstructions recorded in the form of road blocks, road barriers, road gates and earth mounds. Checkpoints are one of the most obvious traits belonging to an occupation, with young males no older than 21 or 22 dressed in green uniform and hard helmets, their rifles hanging from their necks, an Israeli flag waving on their guard posts as a watch tower looms over them.
Qalandia – Ramallah/Jerusalem
The largest military checkpoint to exist in the West Bank lies between the Palestinian town Ramallah, Qalandia refugee camp, and the Palestinian town of ar-Ram. It separates Ramallah residents from southern Palestinian towns and the northern Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. It takes inspections on foot or by vehicle. You only can get into the checkpoint through a narrow passageway, one-by-one, surrounded very closely on both sides by high metal bars. Then you must wait at first, one, then another, then often another, full body turnstile.
Movement through this is controlled by Israeli soldiers some distance ahead, in their offices behind bullet and soundproof glass. For fun or as collective punishment, the turnstiles are locked for long periods of time as the queue of Palestinians waiting to pass grows. Without reason, some lanes of the checkpoint can be announced as closed and everyone standing in front of them must move to the next lane, extending the waiting time. Children are separated from parents in turnstiles and momentarily get lost in the queues, some panicking, some used to this practice. It is at checkpoints where you will witness the absolute humiliation Palestinians go through. If the metal detector keeps beeping despite you taking off your belt and spare change, the soldiers can and will make you take off all items of clothing until you stand in your trousers and vest. You will witness old women with appointments at the hospital in Jerusalem being told that they cannot go pass and must go back, you hear them appealing to the soldiers, raising their hands in the air exclaiming in Arabic, pointing to her eye, the soldiers shaking their head without looking at her,”Yalla, Yalla” they say steering her back.
When taking the Palestinian bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem, passengers must disembark at the checkpoint except for the elderly and internationals (however you may wish to disembark in solidarity) while the bus goes through its own lane, they usually are not finished in time to get on the same bus and must wait for another bus which picks them up free of charge. However ambulances carrying patients in dire need of medial attention are also kept waiting to check the relevant documents, with the soldiers taking it upon themselves to judge whether the patient really does need medical attention. The same soldiers who receive no medical training to make such a decision. Palestine Monitor Organisation reports that there have been 116 deaths in total, as a result of people needing medical care being delayed or prevented from continuing at checkpoints. 31 of these deaths resulted from stillbirths. The same report describes how 19 women and 29 newborn babies died at checkpoints between September 2000 and December 2002.
Gilo Checkpoint – Bethlehem
Going through the large fixed checkpoints in the West Bank more often than not gives the impression of an airport security procedure, only with more unpredictable waits, fussier metal detectors, and the added humiliating features of full-body turnstiles between caged passage ways that resemble cattle chutes. Instead of meeting airline employees wishing you a nice flight, you meet armed young males shouting in Hebrew and broken Arabic through their glass booth, their bored behaviour obvious to the eye. Instead of presenting a passport, Palestinians present blue electromagnetic ID cards that correspond with their finger prints ensuring that they cannot use another person’s ID to pass through checkpoints. And instead of having your boarding pass checked, Palestinians going to Jerusalem have to have their hands scanned, something most people never hear about. And instead of showing a plane ticket, Palestinians with green West Bank IDs have to present an Israeli issued permit for entering Jerusalem.
Thousands of Palestinians and large numbers of tourists go through the Bethlehem checkpoint to enter East Jerusalem and Israel daily. The Bethlehem checkpoint is known as the Gilo checkpoint, named after the nearby illegal Gilo settlement, which is odd. Why is a checkpoint meant for Palestinians only named after a Jewish-only settlement, the residents of which never have to use such a checkpoint? Nevertheless in the West Bank, all Palestinian-only checkpoints (there are checkpoints located right in front of settler only roads before a settlement, but of course no checks happen there) are named after the adjacent Israeli settlement near it such as Yitav, Beit Hadassa, displaying the occupation of Palestine even more clearly.
The first thing you notice as you get near to Gilo checkpoint is the illegal apartheid wall. The wall in Bethlehem especially is famous for its Banksy work, as well as millions of other spray painted messages and images done by internationals. A Palestinian man had described where he lived as “the wall where all the foreigners come to paint”. The hilly structure of the West Bank allows you to see behind the wall at certain angles of certain roads. And you only see bare land. You come close to the checkpoint entrance to see several Palestinian cars parked up, soldiers standing loosely in between as they wait to be permitted to cross back into the West Bank. You move through them and reach the grey concrete wall. A soldier indicates you to move on in, nodding his head to the right.
You enter and its a long narrow caged pathway, slightly bent outwards then inwards, preventing you from seeing where the path ends. You walk a minute or so to reach a full body turnstile, behind it a single booth is located with another turnstile waiting at the end. Placing yourself through, you meet the soldier sitting behind the bulletproof glass. You suddenly need a cigarette even if you do not smoke. “Passport” he says. He would not even have to say anything to a Palestinian. The procedure would be all too familiar for them. I take out my passport, knowing what he wants to see, I find the page in my passport where the visa is stamped, and I press it against the glass. He nods, I move on, passing through the second turnstile.
Confusingly you enter a large space, with a short metal building before you, but Palestinians seem to come towards you from the left of this building, not from inside it. You wonder whether that was all, because if it was, it was too easy. Thus you begin walking towards where they are all entering from. “Lo! Lo! Lo!” shouts a voice 15 meters away. An Israeli man dressed in a black t-shirt and cream combat trousers with a rifle hanging round his neck is waving and gesturing for you to come back, and points at the building across you. Of course that wasn’t all. You sigh to be greeted by another turnstile with an “Entrance” sign above it written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. You pass through the full body turnstile and seemingly enter the short building. It is here you immediately notice how airport-like the setting is. Palestinians are lined up outside again, another turnstile, which is locked. Joining them you wait. And wait. You wait more than you should. There are more lanes with turnstiles, about 3 more. Yet only one operates. The Palestinian in front of the queue starts banging the turnstile and shouting for it to be opened. An overhead speaker comes on and you hear some mumbling in Hebrew. The Palestinian replies back angrily. This goes on for a few minutes until the turnstile is unlocked and he goes through. The turnstile is locked again until he takes off his shoes, belt and wallet and put its on the x-ray machine, something we’re used to seeing to put our luggage in. You hear the turnstile click. Its unlocked. The second person moves through and repeats. Belt. Shoes. Wallet. It is your turn.
You go through the turnstile and begin to take off any belt, spare shekels, bag, and shoes to place them in the x-ray machine. Whilst doing so you see a soldier across the x-ray machine in an office, with earphones plugged in, a phone in his hand, looking rather busy and bored. You walk towards the end of the x-ray machine to collect your belongings. He still does not notice you. The space is very confined. To your left is the only hallway and door. You open it to face a large orange door. Two meters of rectangular blue flooring, followed by another orange door. And again and again until it feels a bit of a straight maze. At the 4th door you finally exit into large space. There are several booths lined up across you horizontally, like you would find in an airport when wanting to stamp your visa. Only one is staffed. He doesn’t notice your presence until you are standing in front of the glass he sits behind.
“Passport?” I ask taking it out my bag and flicking it to the stamped page. He narrows his eyes and asks me to pass it to him through the gap under the glass. That’s where you notice the biometric hand scanner. You feel disgust. There are Palestinian men waiting behind you. All of which who will press their hands against this machine. You shudder and stare at the soldier scrutinizing your passport. He is bored. Returns your passport through the gap and moves his gaze to the Palestinian men. The half body turnstile in front of you clicks open, you pass through. For someone carrying a non-Palestinian ID, that is all.
The feeling you get after enduring a checkpoint is strange. An international can never understand the true extent of the physiological effect checkpoints have on Palestinians. To think if others had come onto your land and declared it as theirs. The land you were born on. Then to place devices that restrict your movement. The land your ancestors passed down their surname to you, for you to carry it with dignity and honour, had been taken so swiftly, so ruthlessly, that you found yourself with a dead father, handicapped brother, imprisoned uncle, and a sick mother, living in a refugee camp. You wonder is it even possible to be a refugee in your own country? However to say Palestinians are refugees implies they have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster; but can return. But if they are forbidden to return by the thieves who have stolen their land, those people have no choice but to be known as exiles.
Checkpoint 56 – in Hebron, H2.
Generally, checkpoints are located on motorways where settlements are near when travelling from city to city or village to village in the West Bank. Hebron happens to be the only city in the West Bank that has a settlement within it, also making it the only Palestinian city with a large military presence. To enter into H2, the Israeli controlled area of Hebron, you must pass Checkpoint 56. Hebron’s checkpoints are notoriously known for their constant harassment of Palestinians, especially during the month of Ramadan where they are detained under the sun for long hours, and kept waiting at the checkpoint prevented from going to iftar, spitefully done on purpose.
Before you enter a CP 56 you briefly analyse it. Wondering how many soldiers await inside and on the exit. As you move you see a silhouette of a head on the small window of the checkpoint move. You continue walking to see the checkpoint’s door lightly sprayed with the star of David. Shaking your head you walk up the two steps and find yourself having just passed through a metal detector. It does not work. There is another one on the right of the checkpoint. Across you, you can now see the face of the silhouette who is now staring at you. Again, behind a window, bulletproof. Behind him hangs a creased flag of Israel. He waits for you to put your bags and everything else in an orange crate, to pass the second working metal detector. You notice the other soldier standing on the exit of the checkpoint with a blank expression on his face. You walk through the detector. It beeps. You take a step back digging your hands in your pockets to find spare shekels. You throw it in the crate and walk through again. Nothing beeps, you pick up your belongings from the crate with the soldier behind the glass moving his gaze to the second suspect, a Palestinian. Stepping out of the checkpoint the soldier at the exit studies your large bag whilst you stare at the empty Shuhada street.
Tel Rumeida Settlement
After having the contents of your bag glanced at by the bored soldier, you quicken your pace up towards the slope of Tel Rumeida. Walking up, to your right you notice a wall of graffiti in Hebrew, signed by ‘Artists for Israel’. Sighing you reach a choice of two streets. The one to your left, is a large settler street harboring the infamous wanted terrorist Baruch Marzel, (a right-wing radical Zionist, born in Brooklyn, New York, and founder and leader of the Jewish National Front Party whose avowed aim is to take over the whole area west of the Jordan river for the Israelis) with two soldiers placed at it’s corner with Israeli flag waving in the wind above. And on your right is where the Palestinians reside. The two soldiers eye you and leave their stand to approach you. “Hey, you tourist?” nodding automatically I reply, “Yeah, I’m just wondering around, having a walk.” The second soldier, with Ethiopian features steps forward, “You from England?” he asks with a heavy English accent. Surprised in an unpleasant way I asked “you from England too?” He nods and warns me, “you know about the Muslim quarter because you’re heading up there?” Again, repeating myself I say I just want to see the place. He then asks me whether I’m Jewish. “Am I supposed to be Jewish to walk here?” I ask innocently. He shakes his head and gestures me to continue walking, in which I do, towards the Palestinian ‘quarter’.
What do checkpoints achieve? Although I have described two large checkpoints for entering Jerusalem, it should be understood that very few checkpoints separate Israel from the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of them are internal barriers located within the West Bank which serve not to ‘protect’ Israel from ‘terrorists’ but simply to ease life for settlers and which, in the process, make Palestinian lives miserable, isolating Palestinians from each other, separating communities and making the entry into towns and cities almost inaccessible. Palestinian journalist, Mohammed Assadi said that a 60 mile journey from Jenin, in the northern West Bank, to Ramallah, can now take up to five hours as he must pass through at least four checkpoints. Or a simple trip from Nablus to a near by village which initially was 5 minutes is now 2 hours as the road has been blocked because it is ‘too close to the Israeli settlement’. Again, somehow the settlements and settlers seem to be the cause and problem. Their presence and the constant annexation of the occupied land to make room for Zionist settlers is frustrating. Their attacks upon Palestinians and their property with no accountability to anyone is defeating. But regardless of whether it be checkpoints or settlements, such crimes and violations committed upon the Palestinian people, with all of their human rights mocked and vandalised, will only make them more determined. Though they may grow tired, they refuse to give in. And they will not, until justice wins.
For more of Selin’s writing, visit her blog
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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