Checkpoint Blues


A peasant woman knocked gently on my car window Tuesday as I waited in a long line at the Bethlehem checkpoint. “Could you help me,” she asked kindly. ” I need to get these bags to the farmers market outside Damascus Gate and the soldiers are not letting me pass.” Surprised, I suggested that she tries to circumvent the checkpoint and that I will wait for her on the other side. “What is your name I asked before she left, “Um Ayman, she replied and she followed just leave them with any farmer and I will get them. When I reached the Israeli soldiers manning the post I was asked to open the car trunk. “What is this,” the soldier asked pointing to four plastic bags stuffed with all sorts of agricultural products. ” Just vegetables I answered with such confidence as if I had packed them myself.

Um ayman didn’t make it to the other side of the checkpoint. Israeli soldiers were watching all the back roads. As I drove to Jerusalem I wondered how this Palestinian woman had trusted me completely with her agricultural products, that when sold would certainly bring some needed cash. I delivered the package to one of the farmers and continued my drive to Ramallah, wondering if Um Ayman will make it to Jerusalem or whether she will find a way to get some monetary payment for her hard earned pickings.

As I was considering both the trust and desperation that I personally witnessed, my cell phone rang. An Israeli filmmaker wanted my help. He has been trying to obtain a copy of the “Battle of Algiers” to show it to Israeli audiences but was not getting anywhere with the film’s owners. He thought that maybe they were suspicious of his motives and he was wondering if a Palestinian would be willing to go into a joint venture with him. His offer was that he would pay for the rights of the showing the film cinematically and his Palestinian partner could show the film in the Palestinian areas without any cost. His motive for this project was purely political, he assured me. He is totally opposed to the occupation and felt that if Israelis would see a film like the Battle of Algiers they would realize the futility of militarily holding a proud population against their will.

As I got close to the dreaded Qalandia checkpoint I decided to tune in to the Voice of Palestine. Although the Israelis had blown up the station’s transmitters and studio, it was still broadcasting on a new FM frequency from an undisclosed location. A caller was telling the anchor about the difficulties his community is facing from the checkpoint near their village. “Do you think the Ein Arik checkpoint will be eased for the upcoming eid al adha” the caller asked without expecting the Palestinian host to be able to answer.

The name of the village, Ein Arik, jumped at me when a television announcer in the evening told of a Palestinian guerilla attack against soldiers manning that checkpoint. What worried me was not the coincidence of the complaint that same day about this particular checkpoint, but the fact that this village was near my Ramallah apartment were I was planning to stay that night. However, images of Israeli soldiers shooting at my Tireh apartment didn’t last very long because one of my colleagues called and ordered me not to go home that night but to stay at his place in a much safer location in the middle of town.

I went to sleep that Tuesday knowing full well that this will not be a pleasant night for many. A friend had come in and reported the cities of Ramallah bulging with soldiers and other Palestinian security personnel rooming the city street, not wishing to sleep at their barracks that night.

Everyone at the apartment, except me, were awakened at 5 am by the Israeli helicopter attacks at the headquarters of President Arafat. One even climbed the roof with his camera trying to capture some shots but was too late.

Wednesday morning brought warm and pleasant sunshine but the streets of Ramallah had an eerie silence to them. At work a colleague who was trying to get to Jerusalem for medical check ups was unable to pass the Qalandia checkpoint. “They shot at us,” said Muna clearly shaken by what had happened. She also reported a number of taxis with bullet holes in them. They are not allowing anyone in or out. Another colleague trying to come to Ramallah from Jerusalem also reported the same problem, except Bassam said he and a number of journalists taking photos were target of two tear gas attacks. I had meeting planned in Jerusalem that afternoon and another in Ramallah that evening. I knew that one if not both of them will unlikely take place.

They all wanted to leave Ramallah before things got even worse.

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.