Everywhere you go in Ramallah people talk about checkpoints. Then they talk about living in a prison. But they are not talking about prison as we know it. They are talking about the ongoing strangulation of their city by frustrating checkpoints, stifling barbed wire, and hostile Israeli settlements.
In Ramallah, like most of the West Bank, the number of checkpoints has increased drastically over the last few months and of late, these checkpoints are almost always impassable without proper permit, which most residents do not have.
Then there is the barbed wire and the fencing, miles of it. Israel is in the process of encircling the eight major cities of the West Bank with barbed wire caging and building a long fence slightly east of the 1967 boarder. Barbed wire is so ubiquitous in the occupied territories that it even makes its way into much of the artwork by Palestinian children.
Just beyond the checkpoints and barbed wire sit the settlements. Imposing themselves on hilltops, the settlement residents hide behind huge walls and guard towers. They keep vigil on their surroundings, selfishly guarding the outlying fields from their former Palestinian owners. The settlements are always growing, always finding new ways to steal land, water, and—worst of all—sense of security.
The Israeli soldiers, too, are an ever-present factor in the daily life of the Palestinians who live in Ramallah or anywhere in the occupied territories. Even when there is no invasion, no tanks in the streets, no mass arrests at gunpoint, no house-to-house searches, the soldiers are a constant presence. They sit at checkpoints, watch from towers, poise just outside the city limits in their tanks and helicopters. The Israeli soldiers, the majority of them young men between the ages of 18 and 22, are the human tools of the occupation. Carrying out the occupation is their job, and as in any job, the nature of their work affects who they are and who they become.
The checkpoints, settlements, barbed wire and soldiers create a reality of oppression and injustice and an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness. On the street in Ramallah you hear the heartbreaking stories of families cut off from each other, of sick people dying for lack of access to hospitals, and, most of all, of the daily humiliation of trying to navigate the checkpoints. Amidst the concrete barriers, sandbags, and barbed wire that characterize the checkpoints, soldiers with guns hold hopeful travelers’ fates in their hands. "It’s their decision whether we cross or not and you never know if the answer will be yes or no," explained Sahar, a woman who is no stranger to checkpoint crossing as she used to work in Jerusalem. "Sometimes it’s easy and we go through with no problem and other times it is as if the soldiers are in a bad mood. They bark at us and make us wait for hours. They make the men and sometimes the women lift up their shirts to show that we don’t have bombs strapped to us. As a woman, it’s awful to have to lift your shirt up for an Israeli soldier. Sometimes we see men and even women beaten or arrested at the checkpoints. Sometimes they set off sound grenades or throw teargas. Sometimes there are even shootings. The checkpoints are awful and dangerous places. Why should they be allowed to keep me from moving freely on my own land? The whole thing is frustrating and humiliating."
These soldiers who hold so much power are also frustrated. Many soldiers say working the checkpoints is the worst and most grueling of jobs in the occupied territories. Charged with the impossible task of preventing terrorist attacks by keeping potential assailants out of Israel and the settlements, young Israeli soldiers regulate daily traffic in and out of West Bank towns and cities. This job puts the soldiers face to face with Palestinians and places the soldiers in the position of denying these Palestinians their right to freedom of movement. Yet for all of the restrictions on movement, the suicide attacks continue. The checkpoints do not prevent terrorism, but they provide soldiers with a venue to express their anger, frustration, and grief.
Hatred and racism toward Palestinians abounds within the Israeli army and at the checkpoints, it is easy to get away with harassing, humiliating, and mistreating Palestinians. In fact, that is all part of the job description of checkpoint work since the work centers on enforcing rules that deny Palestinians access to some of their basic necessities such as income, healthcare, and education. While enforcing these rules, there is a lot of leeway for soldiers’ own interpretations of orders and own style of carrying them out. Many soldiers’ "style" includes excessive use of force and aggressive show of power.
But what about those soldiers who do not come to their job with malicious intentions? Sergio, a former IDF soldier who now refuses to serve in the Israeli army for reasons of political conscience, spoke about the dehumanization that the checkpoint soldier undergoes in order to carry out his or her job effectively. Sergio called that checkpoints "an educational framework for the younger generation." He says that some soldiers approach their job at the checkpoint determined to be friendly and polite to the Palestinians, but it doesn’t matter because the soldiers still can’t let the Palestinians through the checkpoint.
Sergio believes that there is no way for a soldier to continue working at a checkpoint and maintain his or her humanity because the checkpoint work forces soldiers to act against their consciences so often. "To survive the checkpoint," he says, "you must become an animal. You become a machine of the checkpoint. You might be a very nice guy outside of the army, but to survive the checkpoint you must become something else. Your choice is to become something else or to refuse to be there. But you do not have the option to stay there and continue having a humanistic approach to other people. That choice just doesn’t exist."
Examples of the inhumanity of the checkpoint soldiers abound. Judging from the experiences of Palestinians at the checkpoints, it is obvious that the soldiers have succeeded in closing themselves off to the injustice that they are perpetrating. The checkpoint work has taught them well to act against all moral codes. Instead of treating Palestinians with respect and dignity, the soldiers regard each with suspicion and disdain. The nature of the checkpoint work teaches soldiers to view each Palestinian not as a human being trying to carry out his or her daily life, but as a potential terrorist. Once each man, woman, and child has been reduced to a potential terrorist, it is easy for soldiers to justify all kinds of unfair and inhuman treatment.
A man by the name of Shukri told his story of trying to return to Ramallah after working in Jerusalem all day. "One day I was coming home from work. I worked in Jerusalem with the United Nations. That day there were two checkpoints between here and Jerusalem, the permanent Qalandya checkpoint and another temporary one before it. I got through the first checkpoint with no problem, but the second one, the Qalandya checkpoint, was completely closed. They weren’t letting anyone through. I waited for about an hour to see if they would change their minds, but the checkpoint was completely closed. So I decided to go back and try to find another way home, but when I got back to the first checkpoint I had come through, the soldiers said that it was closed to traffic going towards Jerusalem. I was stuck. I couldn’t go home and I couldn’t go back. I was afraid that I would have to spend the night on the road between the checkpoints. I waited for six hours and they finally decided to let us through the Qalandya checkpoint. I got home in the middle of the night."
Rather than being an exception, Shukri’s story is representative of a common experience. All in Ramallah have their own version, their own special relationship with the checkpoints, their own account of how the checkpoints make their lives harder to live. Each story represents one more time that an Israeli soldier shut off his or her conscience and chose instead to carry out the racist and unjust policy of preventing the movement of civilians in their own homeland.
Even when traffic through the checkpoints is moving quickly, it takes much longer to get places than it used to. For example, take the Surda checkpoint, which lies between Ramallah and Birzeit University and many other small villages to the north of Ramallah. It used to take 7-10 minutes to get from downtown Ramallah to Birzeit University. Now it takes half an hour to an hour on a good day. Why? Because the road has been completely blocked off to cars so travelers have to take a taxi, then walk about a kilometer, carrying everything they want with them, and then catch another cab on the other side of the checkpoint. One Birzeit student named Diala explained that recently the Surda checkpoint was completely closed for two weeks. Anyone trying to cross was at risk of getting teargassed or shot. As a result of all of the invasions and checkpoint closures this semester, she has only been able to attend the university for a total of one month, leaving her and her classmates far behind in their studies.
Teargassing, shootings and scare tactics constitute a common experience for people at the Ramallah checkpoints. I was recently at the Qalandya checkpoint, the main checkpoint on the road from Ramallah to Jerusalem, and I witnessed the soldiers teasing the people waiting to get through. The soldiers would let people approach and then would set off a smoke bomb or shoot a sound grenade into the crowd to send everyone running.
Those who are lucky have permits to travel to Jerusalem for work. Palestinians can only get these permits with the help of an employer. Those who do not have a work permit to leave Ramallah are stuck. This means they cannot leave to visit family in other places in the West Bank, and they cannot visit Jerusalem even to pray. Those in the small villages surrounding Ramallah are stuck too because most of the roads have been completely closed off and blocked with ditches and mounds of dirt. Ahmed, a teacher from the village of Dir Ghassaneh, which lies 27 kilometers northwest of Ramallah, came to Ramallah four months ago to receive medical treatment and has been trapped ever since. The road has been completely closed since February and he has not felt well enough to make the four and a half hour trek through the mountains that it now takes to reach his village.
There is reportedly some sort of process by which Palestinians can ask for permission to travel for a few days. However, the procedure takes from three days to a week, and most people are turned down unless it is for medical treatment. Even then there is no guarantee. The process is extremely bureaucratic, and it is so humiliating to ask the Israeli government for permission to move around one’s own homeland that most people do not bother applying for permission. They either stay home or they take one of the bypass routes around the checkpoints. These alternative routes are dangerous because they are heavily patrolled. Travelers are often subject to arrest, beating, and/or shooting. It also takes much longer to travel these routes because they involve circuitous dirt roads and sometimes a great deal of walking.
Many people who live in the small surrounding villages work in the city. Most of those in this predicament sleep in Ramallah during the week and then circumnavigate the checkpoints and roadblocks to go home on the weekend. Shadi works in downtown Ramallah, but lives in a small village several kilometers to the south. He sleeps at the UPMRC office during the workweek and only sees his family for two days on the weekend. He says that this has been hard for his mother who misses him and worries about him when he is making the long and hazardous journey home every weekend.
Missing and worrying about family has become life as usual for those who live in the West Bank cities under closure. A man named Mahmoud told me that he has not seen his brother’s family in over six months. "They live in Nablus and it is just too hard to travel there. You always have to think about whether it is worth the trip. From here to Nablus can take over seven hours when it used to take just about an hour. And with the kids all the walking is too hard."
The checkpoints also hinder the health care system. Ambulances are often detained for hours and then searched thoroughly, while emergency patients wait just moments away on the other side of checkpoints. Since the main hospitals are in Ramallah and Jerusalem, it is increasingly difficult for people, especially those in the isolated villages, to receive medical treatment. Palestinians who need routine treatments such as kidney dialysis are in an especially bad predicament. There are several documented cases of people dying due to lack of access to this simple treatment.
Working on an ambulance has become one of the more dangerous jobs in the occupied territories because ambulances are often shot at and workers and patients are often subject to arrests and beatings. This treatment of people in need of medical care and of those trying to provide that care constitutes a violation of international law. That these violations are not exceptions but have instead become the norm is telling. The Israeli soldiers’ lack of respect for medical personnel and their lack of compassion for those in need of treatment are outrageous. The soldiers’ actions in this regard are indicative of the general disregard for Palestinian life that permeates the Israeli army, and provide a grave example of the success of the army institutions in turning young men into callous soldiers.
The closure of Ramallah has had a severe affect on Palestinians’ job security and economic situation. The checkpoints hamper the availability of goods and hinder the movement of the buyers and sellers of those goods. Because of the economic decline in the Palestinian territories, many Palestinians depend on jobs within Israel. Recently, the Israeli government stopped issuing new permits for travel to Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. It is even refusing to renew expired work permits. This puts an incredible amount of pressure on those who depend on their jobs in Israel.
Samar, an employee of the American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), spoke about her checkpoint experiences both before and after the expiration of her permit. "I used to travel back and forth to Jerusalem every day to my job. It used to take me 15 to 20 minutes to get to work. Then they set up the Qalandya checkpoint and after that there are usually one to three other temporary checkpoints. Because of these checkpoints, the trip to Jerusalem now takes hours. You never know how long they will keep you waiting at the checkpoint. It just seems to depend on the mood of the soldiers working that day. Sometimes they let everyone through easily. Sometimes they make you wait in the sun for hours, just to turn you away at the end. Sometimes it did not matter that I had a work permit for Jerusalem. The soldiers would tell me that my permit was not valid for that particular day. So I never knew when or if I would get to work, and that made me really stressed. My employers were very understanding, but they would always tell me to try harder to get through the checkpoint or to go around in order to get to work. They wanted me to be careful and safe, but they wanted me to get to work. Sometimes, it was impossible for me to do both and I would take risks because I really need my job."
Samar continued: "Then my permit to go to work in Jerusalem expired on May 31, and since then, I have not been allowed to travel to Jerusalem to my job. ANERA has been really good to me. They have found me a temporary position working on a project here in Ramallah, but I do not know how long that work will last. If I cannot get to Jerusalem, I am afraid that I will lose my job. ANERA has been trying to get my permit renewed, but now the government is saying that they will not issue any more Jerusalem permits at all right now. So I do not know when I will ever be able to go."
Everyone trapped in Ramallah feels angry and frustrated at the situation. The pressure is building as the residents feel increasingly helpless and afraid. The economic depression is only adding to the tension. Ramallah used have a vibrant nightlife that was enjoyed by both Palestinians and Israelis. Now, Ramallah’s night streets are usually pretty deserted by 10:00 p.m. People are afraid to go out at night because they never know when the army will enter, bringing with it curfew, arrests, death, and destruction. We feel like cattle," said Ahmed. "They trap us here, surround us by barbed wire, and control the food that comes in and out. And then they slaughter us."
For all the checkpoints and fences, Israel has not achieved security. Suicide bombers still regularly make their way into Israel, effectively avoiding the checkpoints and crossing the fences. The stated goal of sealing off the West Bank from Israel for security reasons is an impossible one to achieve. Those who enter Israel with bombs strapped to them do not go through the checkpoints. Checkpoints serve instead to collectively punish and humiliate the Palestinians who are just trying to go about their daily lives. The buildup of anger and frustration among the Palestinians who cannot cross the checkpoints or who wait hours to do so are serious factors in the overall hopelessness and rage that are at the root of the suicide bombings. For the Palestinians the checkpoints are not a deterrent, but a provocation.
These piles of concrete and sandbags are an intersection where Israelis and Palestinians confront each other daily. Through this confrontation, the power dynamic between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians becomes apparent to both sides. At the checkpoints, Palestinians plead with their oppressors for the right to pass, and Israeli soldiers show their power to interrupt plans and hassle the innocent. Both sides learn a valuable lesson from these encounters and confrontations. The checkpoints serve to show the Palestinians just how powerless and trapped they are in the face of Israel’s overwhelming force. It is also at the checkpoints where the Israeli soldiers’ desire to humiliate and terrorize the Palestinian civilian population is permitted and cultivated.
In response to these feelings of humiliation and hopelessness, the majority of Palestinians are continuing to fight a losing battle to maintain some semblance of normal life while a tiny minority of Palestinians become suicide bombers. On the other side, the majority of soldiers take advantage of the power given to them at the checkpoints to exact their cruel form of collective punishment on the Palestinians, while only a few, like Sergio, chose to leave the army.
And so the cycle continues, and the terrorizing violence on both sides is fueled by the power relationship inherent in the military occupation of the Palestinian territories. The checkpoints and the closures are only one example of this dynamic, but they are much more significant than most people think. While the media focuses on the more sensational violence of dead Israelis blown apart by suicide bombers or the bloody corpses of Palestinian children gunned down by Israeli forces, the checkpoints and the inherently unjust relationship of the oppressor and the oppressed is kept in the background. And yet it is the daily and by now routine syndrome of occupation, the humiliation on the one hand and the injustice that characterized collective assumption of guilt on the other hand that make Israeli checkpoints the breeding points of terror.