Sunday of this week was a freezing cold day in the northern West Bank. A vicious dry wind relentlessly lashed the faces of everyone who ventured outside. Hunched against the wind, a group of men sat on the muddy ground, at the edges of Hawara checkpoint outside Nablus. They had been there for hours. Delayed. They wanted to go home to Beita, to work in Nablus, to a physician in Rafidiya, to a teacher in Balata - what difference did it make? After all, they didn't dream of entering Israel. One of them hid the palms of his hands. They were totally blue. He was ashamed. Not dressed appropriately, lacking protection for their heads, unspeakably humiliated, the men sat there, like a small herd of animals that had been left by the side of a large puddle until their masters deigned to fetch them. Let them wait. Students and teachers, old and young, together on the ground. There's no rush. Not even the rush of the wind. An hour, two hours, four hours. What's the difference? It's their time, not our time. Their ID cards are in the hands of the soldiers, and so is their immediate future: Will they be allowed to pass or not?
The soldiers check. What are they checking? With whom are they checking? No matter: they're checking. They're checking with the Shin Bet, the security service. "The Shin Bet is busy," says one of the soldiers at another checkpoint, this one at Beit Iva, in reply to a question about why a person with a kidney ailment has been waiting there for six hours in the cold. What's the hurry? The jailers don't even glance at their prisoners. None of the soldiers asks himself by what right he throws elderly people onto the slag by the side of the checkpoint, to wait there like animals. And if they were their own parents? The soldiers are busy, "doing their job." Classifying, separating, allowing, forbidding, asking things that are none of their business. Checking whether the boy is really sick, examining the x-ray of the aged woman, the size of the pregnant woman's belly.
In the meantime, other people have gone through the checkpoint, the fortunate ones. They have learned to stand in a row, ramrod straight, like soldiers on parade at the conclusion of an army course. They know that if the straight line of the column starts to fall apart, even for an instant, the soldier will stop letting people through. Obedient, submissive, subjugated, properly trained, they stood there and waited, each holding his orange or green ID card, grasping it tightly - it's the source of all life - his goods in his hands, tense with expectancy, uncertain whether he will be allowed through. A few of them also hold a pile of tattered notes - a doctor's letter, an old authorization from an employer. They may not help, but they can't hurt.
This is their daily routine: from home to work, to school, to the clinic, via this daily humiliation. From checkpoint to checkpoint, kilometers on foot, no matter what the weather, no matter what their age, no matter what their state of health. The lame and the halt, the blind and the crippled, the children and the aged, the women in labor and the toddlers, the educated and the ignorant, the rich and the poor - all of them in this march of the living, from checkpoint to checkpoint, from humiliation to humiliation, caged in their own land.
Yet however adaptive they are, their patience, too, has already run out and they have come to the end of their tether: the roads, the checkpoints, the alternative ways through the fields and rocky terraces - lately they are almost empty. In the past few months, the roads and checkpoints of the West Bank have become empty of Palestinians. In one sphere, at least, their consciousness has been burned: They have given up the right of movement. The truth is that it was hard to understand how they had put up with everything.
On Sunday of this week, a group of Knesset members - the "checkpoints lobby," which was initiated and established by MK Roman Bronfman (Meretz) - went to visit the infrastructures of terrorism. Of the 22 members of the lobby, three showed up for the tour: Bronfman, Colette Avital (Labor) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad). The guide was Najib Abu Rokaya, from the human rights organization B'Tselem, and they were accompanied by a fairly large number of local and foreign journalists, many of them Russians who were making their first visit to the area. The vehicle was an armor-plated settlers' bus, with the world "Children" inscribed in the front and on the side.
Two earth mounds and rocks obstruct the asphalt road that branches off from the main road to Nablus, opposite the settlement of Ofra, toward Ein Yabrud and Yabrud. Why two mounds? Isn't one enough? Do the residents of Ofra, who pass by here every day, wonder about this, too? Have the "moderate" leaders of this "moderate" settlement - Rabbi Zvi Gisser, Israel Harel, Uri Elitzur and Pinhas Wallerstein - ever asked themselves that question? Has their neighbor, Haggai Segal, who was a member of the Jewish terrorist underground in the 1980s, and is at least not considered "moderate," ever given the subject a thought? Have these people ever stopped for a moment to wonder why their neighbors - the inhabitants of four villages that are far more ancient than their settlement - are fated to a life of suffocation only because of them? Has the sight of the impassable road across from their homes ever bothered them?
So why two mounds, which are separated by a few dozen meters? In order to prevent any "back to back" transfer of goods and to prevent the transfer of patients from one ambulance to another. Two is twice as good. The way to the four Palestinian villages at the bottom of the road is blocked doubly: no goods and no patients. Perfect arterial blockage.
Hardly have we had a chance to take in the road monstrosity when an army jeep appears out of nowhere, carrying three soldiers with black baklavas. "Did you let anyone off here?" Heaven forbid. The road is strewn with Israel Defense Forces vehicles. Tank transporters, jeeps, vans, trucks, armored vehicles, Border Police, blue police, a large occupation host. In the absence of other cars, this military presence is now even more pronounced, as in a war zone, and despite the reduction in the scale of the IDF troops in the West Bank that the media reported this week.
A yellow taxicab bounces along slowly and shakily, the driver taking care not to slide down the slope - a steep goats' trail that comes down from one of the hills along the road - by the village of Sinjal, which is also caged, of course. The taxicab has no other choice. The entry gate of the village festively welcomes visitors - a colorful inscription along with lamps that once lit the sign at night, too, but that was in a different time. Now, though, the gate is shut. There is an earth obstacle directly beneath the welcome sign. It's worth spending a few minutes to look closely at these obstacles: heaps of earth, piles of scrap and other junk that the IDF has dumped at the entrance to the villages, as though they were landfills, the refuse cans of the occupation.
Wadi Haramiya, the valley of the thieves, site of the checkpoint at which six IDF soldiers and four civilians were cut down, is abandoned. Suddenly security can be preserved without this harassment checkpoint in the middle of the road. Was it necessary for 10 people to be killed in order to bring about the elimination of this harassment obstacle, one of dozens, which have absolutely nothing to do with security? To placate the incensed settlers - they're always incensed - they received compensation for the abandoned checkpoint: a soldiers' memorial hostel will be erected at the site, no less, and further along the road, near Luban, the IDF impounded a large house, evacuated the residents, draped the entire structure with a huge camouflage net, like a work by the environmental artist Christo, hoisted the Israeli flag and the unit's standard, and presto! there's a military position on the road, for the welfare of the settlers. Where is the owner of the house and the occupants? What was their sin?
MK Zahalka is outraged by the sight of the blue hands of one of those who is waiting on the marshy ground by the Hawara checkpoint. He tries to explain to one of the officers that the man's only wish is to return to his home in Beita. There's no one to talk to. West of there, at the Beit Fouriq checkpoint, someone is carrying half a house on his back, in the hope that the soldiers will let him through. Cowed, buckling under the load he's carrying, he stands in the cutting wind and waits for the soldier to give him a signal.
The Beit Fouriq checkpoint is almost deserted. This soil is saturated with the blood of Rula Ishtaya, from Salem, who last September gave birth here to a baby who died before he could be brought to a hospital, because the soldiers wouldn't let her through. A boy waits mutely with his father, holding a new slate and chalk they bought in Nablus, his teeth chattering from the cold. Is the purchase of a slate for a boy sufficient reason to let them pass? Yoav Shamir's excellent new documentary film, "Checkpoints," shows plenty of similar sights. Eighty harsh minutes of checkpoints. In rain and sun, played out in front of the camera, shamelessly.
A creaking water tanker pulls up to the checkpoint and the soldiers let it through. Hardly any vehicles are allowed to go by the checkpoint, apart from water tankers. It's hard to move the water on foot. And who is forced to open the barrier and then close it after the truck has gone through? The local residents. It's a widespread practice: the local residents become their own jailers. Next to the checkpoint an Israeli bulldozer wounds the earth. Maybe it's the start of a new checkpoint. By the side of the road are the trenches dug by our forces. Another method of caging people.
Five young people sit on the muddy ground at the Beit Iva checkpoint, another of the barriers around Nablus. It will soon be 4 P.M. Omar Sharaya has been here since 10 A.M. He visited his brother in Tul Karm and now wants to return to his home in Nablus. He's 31 and has five children at home. He's been waiting for six hours. The soldier has his ID card. Let him wait. Amjad and Majad Hamashri, two brothers from Tul Karm, aged 20 and 18. They want to visit their sister in Nablus. She's a student at An-Najah University in the city and has fallen ill and needs money for medicines, they say. Without a story about an illness there's no way to visit your sister. They got to the checkpoint at 12 noon. Four hours on the ground. Wahid Abu Asabi, a first-year engineering student at An-Najah, wants to get to his house in Silat a-Dahar. The soldier has his papers. Four hours. Whenever he gets up to try and speak to the soldier, the soldier shouts, "Stay where you are, stay where you are!" Stay in the mud.
Mohammed Tayim has a kidney ailment. He's 23. He has a doctor's letter attesting to his illness, but the soldiers refused to even open the document. "I don't feel like letting him through. Everyone here is sick," the soldier told them. Tayim is on the way to have x-rays taken. In the meantime, he's sitting on the wet ground in the biting cold. He's been here since 10:30 in the morning. It'll soon be six hours. MKs Bronfman and Avital are furious. They want to talk to the officer.
"He sat there curled up, freezing cold, and the soldiers didn't care whether he was sick or not," Avital said the next day, after her first visit to the inner checkpoints. She was shocked, she says. "On the way back, I could hardly keep from crying. Since the trip I have been asking myself how we got to be like this. It shocks me more than I can say in words. It gave me stomachaches and made me very sad. I asked myself what it would be like if I lived in one of the houses there, how I would conduct my life."
"It's none of your business," the soldier told Bronfman and Avital. "I have my own considerations." Bronfman asked to speak to the officer. The officer said the Shin Bet was busy. Half an hour later, with the intervention of two MKs, Mohammed Tayim, the young man with the kidney ailment, was allowed to go, to make his way between Tul Karm and Nablus. A wagoner was allowed to go through, but without his cart and mule. "Are there some asses that are allowed through and others that aren't?" Zahalka asked. There's the occasional laugh at the checkpoints, too.