Hesitant Observer. March 5, 2003.
Hanging out a checkpoint. I was doing that for many reasons: to see the internalized ordinariness of something as surreal as a checkpoint. I’ve also been working on making a film about this specific checkpoint. Checkpoints are interesting, in what they represent - the obvious, physical presence of the Israeli military in the Palestinian areas, the cantonization of these areas, the new social and economic centers of Palestinian lives where people trying to get from A to B must all pass. They’re also the places where foreign observers come to ensure that Palestinians aren’t any more humiliated than necessary by the soldiers. These observers stand on the outside, watching the Palestinians stand in line, with their IDs in hand waiting to be let through, and often turned back. They don’t interfere, they just stand there for a few hours. They don’t go through the lines to feel the intimidation of having to be scrutinized by soldiers. They don’t argue with the soldiers who decide for no logical reason to turn someone back. They don’t attempt to tear the checkpoints down. They just stand there for a few hours and return to their comfy homes and feel like they’ve somehow participated in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, human rights and freedom.
I wanted to film all of this, putting myself in an even more abstract and distant position behind a camera. I wanted to catch the immensity of the place, the overwhelming amount of concrete and barbed-wire, the loud hustle and bustle of the taxis, the long stand-still lines of cars and trucks waiting their turn, the expressionless faces of the soldiers, the military Jeeps buzzing through with their sirens on full volume, the screams of the street-side merchants, selling fresh over-salted cheese, cheap batteries, live chickens, contraband cigarettes and cell phones. And I wanted to film the fences, the newly bulldozed homes that are flattened in order to make way for larger fences and concrete walls. A new line of two fences a few meters apart has gone up in the past week on the Northern side of the checkpoint. The stone remains of houses and uprooted trees still visible below the growing garbage piles.
The soldiers pass through all the time, sometimes in their Jeeps, sometimes on foot. I saw three of them head over to the new fence on the side where the town ends. I thought they were out on a usual patrol walk. But about fifty meters away on the hill of piles of houses and garbage was a group of kids, one of them running away waving a large Palestinian flag. The three soldiers stood around the fence area for a while, aiming their rifles at the kids. The kids would run and hide below the hill and around the nearby houses. From below some would hurl rocks at the direction of the soldiers, still to far to get an aim. After ten minutes the soldiers suddenly started running, two on the hill and one below on the street, their rifles aimed in front of them, looking ready for military battle. The kids ran off and hid.
I stood on the other side of the street, taking cover below the awning of a store, standing with other watchers - the store owners, kids hanging out after school, taxi cab drivers. I was reluctant to get any closer, thinking that the reflection of the sun on my camera might be mistaken as a gun; or knowing that often times journalists too get shot in such situations. As the soldiers moved closer into the town (it’s actually a refugee camp, but feels and looks like a town), I inched closer and closer. I was trying to catch this “exchange” on film, but couldn’t get a good shot of the kids and only the backs of the soldiers. I moved closer and stood by a corner. Shots were fired in the direction of the kids. Suddenly a huge cloud of white filled the dusty sky. I can’t remember what I felt first, the sting in my eyes or the strange taste in my mouth and nose. Tear gas. I rubbed my eyes, lifted my scarf up around my nose and mouth. It took me a couple of minutes to feel normal again, but with a bit of a headache. The kids would run back and forth within view of the soldiers, armed with their famous rocks and slingshots. The soldiers kept firing - tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, you never know.
When this started, one of the street merchants was urging me to stand on top of one of the concrete blocks to get a better view and shot. I smiled at him and said “no that’s ok, I don’t want to get shot.” “Oh they won’t shoot you” he replied, “just get up there and film.” Eventually I filmed from above. Later when he saw me again he said I should go much closer, and either stand behind the soldiers, or better yet behind the kids. “Shall I take you?” he offered. I was reluctant, he didn’t push, and besides things seemed to calm down. I went back to filming scenes at the checkpoint. But I could hear the shots in the distance. More and more people were standing facing the exchange of fire and rocks. I went back. There were now two Jeeps standing by the first house below the hill, and about ten soldiers around. The man saw me again and said I should go to the camp’s entrance and film from there. I shouldn’t worry about getting shot, it would be ok. He hailed down a cab, told the driver to drop me off at the entrance and not accept any money from me, and he gently shoved me in the cab. “Ok,” I thought, “what the heck. This is no longer filming the checkpoint, but the familiar scenes of clashes that we see on TV.” The cab zoomed by the military Jeeps on the other side of the street. One of passengers, when passing by the kids hiding in buildings and bombed out areas, was clearly upset. Talking to no one in particular but to everyone in the cab, he said “what are they doing? Don’t they know that their stones aren’t going to help?” Someone responded “Let them have their fun.” To this the first passenger got even more upset, “but they’ll get killed. Or we’ll get killed with one of their bullets hitting us instead of them,” saying this as he actually ducked into my lap. A little bit of silence and someone from the back said “what have we got to lose?” With that, I got out of the cab and quickly crossed to the side of the street where the Jeeps were parked and the soldiers standing.
I reached a store, where a group of six young men was standing watching what was going on. One of them was yelling at his brother to come back; another was yelling at car that didn’t notice the Jeeps further down urging him to go in reverse. Kids were hiding out on both sides of the street, behind buildings, piles of garbage (and stones), sometimes running across. Every time a kid or a group of them ran across shots were fired. I stood there and filmed, surprised that I wasn’t phased to hide myself when the shock of shooting shook me. One of the men told me to stand behind the metal grill and film from behind it. More tear gas and suddenly many more gun shots. When the tear gas cleared up, I noticed that there were now two more Jeeps. On the other side of the street, by the camp entrance, was a group of kids and young men, perhaps numbering thirty, standing and watching. One kid was sitting in a thrown-away couch on the side of the street, as if completely oblivious to what was going on around him. I crossed the street again and stood with the crowd. Kids were running back and forth to stand by the entrance, urge one of their friends to come along, and run back behind a pile of rocks closer to the soldiers. Every time the soldiers would fire shots, the kids would duck or take cover, then whistle and scream and stand up again in full view of the soldiers, as if teasing them that their shots had missed.
This continued for an hour, a very slow pace of gun shots, tear gas and stones thrown. A couple of ambulances passed by, one waiting by the checkpoint and one by the camp entrance. Some of the kids wanted me to film them with their rocks in hand, others urged me not to get them on film. They were all boys, ranging from the less than 1-meter high ones of 5 years old to the 20-somethings. But all of those that were throwing rocks and running closer to the soldiers’ outpost were the younger kind. I was surprised at how little fear they had, and was equally surprised that this was some form of much needed entertainment in their lives. The slow paced exchange continued and I decided to head back to the checkpoint. I couldn’t walk down the main street, where the checkpoint was no more than a kilometer away, so I made my way through the camp and ended up at the corner where I had earlier stood and filmed. In the ten minutes that it took me to get there, things had managed to flare up. I ran into the man who had shoved me into the taxi. “You should have been yesterday. It was really on fire then” he said. “Today it’s still calm. But wait a little while and it will get worse.” He was right, but this time I was hesitant to be anything more than a distant observer. Standing back in the safe space of being behind the soldiers, I was glad that I had decided to return.
The two Jeeps that had arrived later inched closer to the camp entrance. Some of the soldiers went to stand in the spot by the store where I had been filming, with a full view of the hiding areas of the kids. They released more tear gas and many more gun shots. It wasn’t long before the ambulance’s siren got louder and closer, carrying one of the kids to the hospital on the other side of the checkpoint. The man found me again and told me to hurry back through the checkpoint because the military would probably shut it down. When I asked him why, he said “because the shooting has just begun. It will get worse. So they will close the checkpoint until they finish their business here.” I rushed back to the checkpoint, a huge crowd of people already standing in line. Jeeps were going back and forth, soldiers were coming out of their hiding spots towards the camp. The ambulance was held up at the checkpoint. After the half hour had passed for my turn to come, the gun shots had gotten more frequent, the tear gas could be smelt in the air, and the ambulance was still waiting.
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