Yellow Plates, Dirt Roads: No Freedom to Move for the Palestinians. January
You think that you’re in a traffic jam, when suddenly everyone in the taxi you’re in begins to get out of the over-crowded car. You recognize you’ve arrived because there are no more buildings, and instead a long line of cars, a collection of parked taxis and vans whose drivers are screaming out names of near-by towns, urging each passerby to get in to their cab. At first sight it looks like remnant of a war-torn place, with barricades, large stones and sand bags surrounded by a muddy dump. It is the Qalandia checkpoint in the West Bank, one that separates Jerusalem to the South and Ramallah to the North. Although it’s not the only checkpoint along the Jerusalem-Ramallah Road, Qalandia is one of the busiest, and perhaps best represents the Panoptical hold the Israeli military has over the open-air prison of the non-contiguous Palestinian Territories.
Little boys run around trying to sell gum, or beg peopleto carry their baggage in order to make a shekel (the equivalent of 20 US cents). Older men line up along one of the barricades selling cheap clothing and woolen socks. No one buys anything, although the prices yelled out are cheaper than one would find in most other Palestinian towns – in fact most people quickly walk through and don’t look up; others, unphased by this twice-a-day hassle, chat on their cell phones or with each other as if walking through downtown itself. Everyone is quick, their ID’s ready in hand; and if you happen to be with other people, they won’t be willing to wait for you – as the situation or the mood of the soldiers can change any second. A tad of rain turns the whole area into a muddy disposal site, garbage flowing to the surface of brown pools, making it inevitable that one’s shoes turn beige and one’s pants collect freckles of mud on the back. It’s a futile exercise of hop-scotch trying to avoid puddles of water and garbage.
To the right and left of you – no matter where you stand – you are surrounded by barbed-wire fences, steel and concrete barricades and soldiers, their military jeeps parked all around. On top of this barricade is a huge Israeli flag flapping in the wind, which on a clear day can be seen from far away. Qalandia sits on top of a hill, looking down to the continuation of the road to the North and South of the checkpoint. There are about hundred concrete cubes set-up all around the checkpoint, each a cubic meter in size, often with yellow or blue neon markings painted on such as x’s and arrows. They demarcate the paths people – Palestinians that is – are supposed to walk along. This is one of the few places where one witnesses Palestinians actually obeying the rules of “first-come first-serve,” of standing in lines submissively with no one attempting to cut the line. The zig-zag path leads you through. You don’t know which way to go as the markings are contradictory, so you follow the crowd.
The first soldier you encounter is to the front of the line, where it slows down, before the questioning and showing of ID’s. Standing sternly, with weapon aimed at the line of people, this soldier will tell the crowd of people in Hebrew to move back; licking her pink-painted lips, her fake blonde curly hair sticking out under her helmet, she makes sweeping moves with her weapon as if it were a broom. After being pushed back like a herd of sheep and waiting for the interrogation of those ahead of you to end, you reach a soldier, huddled behind sacks of sand a make-shift desk. Wearing his all olive-green outfit and helmet, his M16 in hand subtly pointed at your chest, he checks your papers. He glances at your face, your ID, then back at your face. At night he’ll use a flashlight and hold your ID up to the light as if to check if it’s fake. Other times he’ll search through your bags, inspecting the vegetables, fruits, clothes and blankets mothers are bringing back home with them.
There are always at least two other soldiers checking ID’s and a few more gathered on the side sending Palestinians back where they came from. The soldiers claim that for “security reasons,” in this case, three Palestinian men in the 40’s should return to Ramallah and find themselves a place to sleep and try passing again tomorrow. The three men have a permit to enter into the larger Jerusalem area – and the city itself – but for “security reasons” the soldier won’t let them pass; he need not give any more elaboration on what these security measures are. It seems at the whim of the soldiers, if they don’t like your face, your looks, or think you’ve shopped too much in Ramallah and are carrying one blanket too many, they have the right to send you back, and call such a decision a “security” measure. It seems dubious since the following day Ramallah was under curfew. Those three men were never allowed to pass, and it seems they will have a hard time not just getting out of Ramallah, but even moving within it, now that it’s been completely sealed off, and movement within has been forbidden.
There is a fence all along and all around the checkpoint. One is not allowed to pass over the fence into an empty no-man’s land in the direction of nothing but mud and waste and a few burned-out left-over cars. If one does, as a kid did a few days ago, first he gets whistled at by the soldiers, then yelled at, and eventually shot at. To the immediate West of the checkpoint is an Israeli military landing-strip, to the immediate East there used to be a large hill. The mountain has been torn down by Israeli bulldozers in order to flatten the area around the checkpoint so that no Palestinians could sneak their way around. Now this flattened piece of land is an empty no-man’s land with garbage flying around in the wind, making its way into the openings of the fence, and giving the soldiers a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the surrounding area.
Every Palestinian person – male or female, young or old – has a story of his or her experience at a checkpoint, a story of hardship of different kinds. The easy ones to digest are those in which a person gets turned back, is made to wait for 14 hours under the rain with no shelter, no food, and no access to a bathroom. There are others which even cause the listener a little embarrassment: the passerby is asked to take off his clothes, strip naked, give up his ID – for unspecified “security reasons.” Of course nothing is quite as disturbing as the new system, called either the “lottery” or the “toss game.” A person arrives at a checkpoint and is made to pick a small piece of white paper from a cup or a pot. There are sometimes four pieces of paper, sometimes eight, the number varies – and so does the writing on the little pieces of paper. But the game is the same for all who are selected to play: whatever words befall you on the piece of paper chosen is the price to be paid in order to pass the checkpoint. Of the people that have had the chance to play – and survive – this game, the little pieces of paper read various things. Some of the “prizes” currently in use are: handcuffed and beaten for 8 minutes (number of minutes varies); broken arm; beating with machine gun on the back; broken right leg, broken left leg or both legs; wallet emptied and money stolen; broken right hand, broken left hand, both hands; broken tooth; broken nose; shot with a bullet (any body part seems fair game since it’s not specified on the piece of paper); beaten on the feet and made to walk; stripped naked and dumped in cold industrial waste water. Those who attempt to pass with their cars get another selection of lottery picks, besides some of the ones mentioned above: broken car glass, blowing tires, taking car keys away, confiscating vehicles all-together. Most of the people who have survived the lottery game have ended up in the hospital with multiple bruises, fractures and breaks; others were made to walk home naked carrying their newly pliant limbs in arm; others still were left behind unconscious.
Such is the fate of one trying to pass a checkpoint. Many Palestinians feel checkpoints are more than a nuisance and hardly help the Israelis in their “security measures,” but instead serve as a daily reminder of the constant humiliation, the lack of freedom of movement and human rights that Palestinians are subjugated to. These measures go unnoticed by the majority of Israelis, since they are neither required to pass through checkpoints, nor do they read about them in the Israeli news. They also seem to go unnoticed by the rest of the world, for most don’t know what checkpoints look like, what it feels like to go through them, or indeed what their real purpose – besides humiliating and frustrating Palestinians, and reminding them of their lesser status – really are. It’s forbidden to film or photograph a checkpoint. And few Israelis or non-Palestinians realize what checkpoints symbolize: the lack of freedom of movement, the “bantustanization” of Palestinian Territories, the ability of arrogant pimple-faced teenage soldiers to disgrace tens of thousands of Palestinians without any reason or repercussion.
Once you’ve passed a checkpoint, it certainly does not mean that any of this is over with, for checkpoints litter the landscape all over the Palestinian Territories, sometimes as few as a couple of kilometers away from each other. You must stop at every one, and go through the same procedure every time. Even once out of the urban areas into the olive-spotted hills of the Holy Land, you may be driving around a curve or reach the top of a hill only to find yourself confronted with a tank facing you, a collection of armored vehicles and a watch-tower with only peeping holes at the top. You don’t really know what to do once you’ve arrived, since often times you don’t even see a soldier in sight – they may be in the watch-tower, or they be ambushed on top of a nearby hill or up a tree. They jump out at you with weapon aimed at your head, and during the questioning process never lower their M16’s. If they feel like it, they’ll make you get out of your car, and it matters not if it’s raining: you and your documents can get soaked, it’ll be your fault and your problem to deal with. And if they don’t want you to pass – even if you have permission and the correct paperwork in hand – they’ll tell you that you can’t because of “the law,” without elaborating what law this is, whose law it is and since when it’s been changed – since you were able to pass yesterday, last week or last month for example. It’s a psychological hold on the Palestinians to be continuously on guard, paranoid and fearful – even when they happen to be driving in a yellow-plated car.
Yellow plated cars are for Israelis or residents of Jerusalem (which includes Arab Palestinians). The rest of the West Bank residents drive cars with white and green plates. Without fail, every car or truck I’ve seen with white plates held up at a checkpoint to the North of Ramallah has been made to go back from whence it came, has had its produce dumped (tomatoes, oranges, cabbages and persimmons) and then made to return, or its driver arrested. It has however, since the beginning of the Intifada, become forbidden for any Palestinian who is not from Jerusalem to ride in a yellow-plated car. So even if you want to hire a taxi from the other side of town, even if you’ve somehow managed to be lucky enough to find a job in the outskirts of Jerusalem or in the city itself and therefore have a permit, and are attempting to go back home or visit your family, you’ll be arrested if caught riding in a yellow-plated car.
When the curfews are lifted, some in the rural areas have no choice but to get from town to town by driving or walking on unpaved dirt roads through the mountains. It’s amazing that a car can make it through as the potholes have a two-meter circumference and a depth of a meter, the puddles of water veiling the depth of the disaster awaiting the car. Few people dare to travel these roads, for even here one does not know what awaits him. Israeli military Jeeps, armored vehicles and tanks could well surprise you. News travels fast that tanks are surrounding a town and are making their way to the next town; you can hear the rumble of the tanks in the distance but can barely tell from which direction the sound is coming. If there is any on-coming traffic, you signal to each other, roll your windows down and ask what the situation is like up ahead. “Did you see the tank? How far was it? How fast was it going and in which direction?…” The other driver may ask you the same questions, since there’s always more than one threat ahead – no matter which direction you’re heading. “God be with you” he says as he rolls up his window and you each continue your path into the unknown.
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