by Samah Jabr
The barriers are cement, not just
small lean-tos for guards. Ten years ago, Palestinians left their
houses and farms to discover a new Israeli surprise: the checkpoint.
The Israeli military phenomenon sitting squarely in the center of
our roads told us all that these roadblocks were not temporary. They
ominously signaled more oppression to come. The move was an
enhancement of Israel's plan to separate us into village
archipelagos and cantons. Apartheid had begun in earnest.
Palestinian villages and towns, not to mention closure of the city
of Jerusalem, lay before us.
Since just the sight of the
cement barriers stopped us short on our way to work, hospitals,
schools and neighborhood visits, we could not slough off this latest
Israeli affront: another "security measure." We knew it
was yet another imposition we'd have to live with. It did not make
for happy relations with the brothers and sisters who had decided to
move into our backyards and our front yards as well. At least the
move gave us something new to talk about and talk we did. Taking
action against the checkpoint move, however, was another matter.
The guards manning the
checkpoints were fully armed. Perhaps they would not shoot, but the
butt of a gun can be painful, too. Furthermore, the checkpoints had
accessories: special offices to issue permits. Anyone living outside
the city of Jerusalem would now have to get an entry pass to enter
the Holy City.
Just imagine driving from your
home in Alexandria, Virginia, to your office in the Department of
the Interior in Washington, DC, and having to stop at least four
times to be checked before you crossed the Potomac and, finally,
having to get out and argue for a pass to the city in order to
simply go to work.
I live with my family in Dahyat
al-Barid, just across the Israeli checkpoint on the Ramallah-Jerusalem
road. To Americans, this road would appear to be a street, a street
full of potholes, to say the least. My home is within walking
distance of the checkpoint and the city of Jerusalem. For the last
ten years, every member of my family, including myself, wanting to
go about our daily business in the city just down the street have
had to pass through this checkpoint. Even our closest grocery store
is across the demarcation line, so a simple trip to pick up milk
becomes a hassle sometimes involving long waits because the Israeli
soldiers at the checkpoints have decided to pull a suspect aside
without the courtesy of letting the rest of us pass.
I remember being in America for
the first time and going on vacation with my host family. We were on
the Indiana toll road and I saw a huge barrier rising ahead, slow
down signs and bumps on the road to make sure we did. I felt a
tightness as we approached the booths, and I almost asked, "Was
this checkpoint put up for me?"
My hosts were puzzled by my
tenseness. To them, this barrier was a benefit not a threat. I wish
they could know what the sight of it meant to me. On the other hand,
maybe it was better that they didn't know what life is like in a
part of the world their country's government made possible.
My friend, Betsy, tried to tell
me that the checkpoints are just like U.S. toll booths. Not exactly.
The checkpoints are not there to raise money to improve our roads.
Unlike toll booth operators who wish travelers a pleasant day,
checkpoint guards are there to harass us. Then, there's the ID card
issue. Should, by chance, one of us leave home without our Jerusalem
ID (those born in Jerusalem have an identity card to prove
themselves or they can be sent away from the beloved city, but that
is another issue), that person is in for more harassment than usual
and a return trip to the house to get the card is the least penalty.
No, being Palestinian and living in a canton created by those who
would possess our land is not like driving from New York to
California without a question asked along the way. You know the
American Express advertisement, "You can't leave home without
it?" Well, you get the point.
My mother is the driver in our
family. She works at a school in Shufat which is just a 15-minute
ride from our home. That is, it was a 15-minute ride ten years ago.
Now, with the checkpoints in place, it takes her as long as an hour
during rush hour. Often, Mom is chauffeuring me and, as I sit there,
I make good use of my time. Sometimes, I jump out and run over to a
little shop to buy a newspaper and coffee. I see school kids doing
their homework in the back seat and women fixing makeup or men
actually shaving their beards. I'm proud of the coping mechanisms of
my people. Stop us short and we'll come up with useful ways to make
the time count. I feel sorry for the frustrated drivers who honk
their horns and yell slurs, often with the risk of being pulled out
of their cars and held for long periods.
Once a friend of mine was
attending the funeral of his sister-in-law in Bethlehem. A
well-known Palestinian attorney, he crossed through the last
checkpoint on his drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem but was told to
leave his car at the checkpoint for special inspection. He left his
car and walked into town only to return to find that checkpoint
soldiers had burned his car to ashes. "Security," they
told him. Another time, I was walking through a checkpoint and a
soldier was kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach for some
undefined offence. I stopped to help and ended up in detention for
the rest of the day. It amuses me to hear friends tell of how they
avoid the checkpoints by going through people's backyards and up and
around the hills of the Holy Land on days when the guards are on the
alert, looking for another "evil" Palestinian.
"We have our ways of getting
where we want to go," is a common jest among us. But, in truth,
this isn't very funny. It isn't funny that we are forced to have
"ways." Having to have our ways is not a path to peace, is
it? Road rage takes on new meaning in the Holy Land.
Sometimes, when I'm in a hurry, I
leave my mom's car and take one of our service vans that run all
over the West Bank. The "courageous" service drivers have
developed some skills that helps them know how to "handle"
the checkpoints. They know all the tricks and the back ways into
town. Remember when the Israelis-dressed like Arabs-snuck into
Ramallah and ended up getting killed by an angry crowd? The
international press suggested that these poor Israeli soldiers were
lost. Lost? Given that there is only one street from Jerusalem to
the suburb Ramallah and anyone who lives in the area, Israeli or
Palestinian, has to get through the checkpoint or around it, and
there is no way to do that without knowing exactly where you are
going, how could these men have been lost? Could it be that they
were not as clever as their country supposes them to be?
For me, the greatest problem of
living in a world of checkpoints is fatigue.
Daily anxiety provoked by
wondering every few miles whether or not there will be "an
incident" is an exercise in the infliction of Israeli-imposed
stress. I feel that for us, everyday Palestinians, the checkpoints
are designed to make life so unbearable that we'll just go away and
let Israel have our homes and land.
If you spend ten years of your
life going through checkpoints, you cannot avoid the days when you
have to get out of the car, put your hands above your head and wait.
If you tire of this and decide to turn back, you can be shot in the
back as you walk away. While most of us do not get shot in the back,
the harassment of the exercise takes years off our lives-a form of
intimidation that adds to the stress upon us by the Israelis who
feel that 'might makes right' and that torture like this will allow
them to win. No, there is not much win-win mentality among Israelis,
at least not among those who have put us on islands or reservations
as the Americans call them.
How many women have delivered
their babies at a checkpoint? How many patients have died before
they reached the nearest hospital? Checkpoints are a sign of
apartheid leveled at us by those who claim that having had evil done
to them, evil by them is permissible, all in the name of security,
'might makes right,' and the famous words, 'never again.'
That the others, we Palestinians,
had nothing whatsoever to do with the victimization of the Jews in
Europe or with their self-imposed exile (which they now expect us to
adopt for ourselves) doesn't matter. Something, you see, has
happened to the Zionists and is exhibited through their denial of
what we experience every day: the warped Jewish interpretation of
the "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you"
The Israeli/American war decreed
against the indigenous people of Palestine is as un-winnable as the
war in Vietnam was for the Americans. Might makes right can never
win over the will of oppressed people who love their homeland and
their lifestyles and who really have no choice but to stay in place.
There are more Palestinian refugees outside our borders today than
any other group. Where is the place to put more? Where is the famous
intellect of the Jew? Have these people lost all their common sense?
Beyond that, however, is the
biggest question of all. If the Israelis murder every single one of
us, we will die in body, but Jews will die in spirit. One cannot
perpetuate evil and not feel the effects and that is the bottom line
to all of this. Might makes right may overtake us, but morality and
justice will have the last word. That is my strength and the
strength of the people I love in my small world. We may lose the
lives and lifestyles we love, but if we do, the moral strength and
standing of Judaism will be gone forever. That's what losing really
(Samah Jabr is a freelance
writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written
with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)