Winter in Qalandia | Lia Nirgad
(English Translation by Yael Lotan)
Copyright © 2003 by Lia Nirgad and Xargol Books. It is forbidden to copy, duplicate, photograph, record, translate, store in a data base, or distribute this/these works or any part of them in any form or by any electrical, digital, optical or mechanical means without written permission from the copyright holder.
Once a week put on my warmest clothes, get into the car and drive to Qalandiya. You take the road to Jerusalem - here's no need to enter the city anymore, amazing roads bypass it, encircle it - you turn left and then right, then left again and again, always left, till you reach the checkpoint at a-Ram, last stop before no-man's land. Ten more minutes, by car or pickup, and you come to Qalandiya.
Once a week I go to see the occupation. To press the sore. I pin a badge on my coat, black and red letters with an open, watchful eye: Makhsom Watch. The checkpoint Vigil. Women, mostly middle-aged, show up for regular shifts according to a weekly schedule - morning and evening, summer and winter - some have been doing this for years. We stand there, observe, explain, urge, and write a report at the end of every shift.
Report on the occupation.
I joined them in the autumn of 2003.
It was then that I first came to Qalandiya.
This is what I saw.
Qalandiya, a-Ram, 27.11.2003
"I'm gonna bust your ass!"
It's dark already, the traffic on the southern side of the checkpoint is light, people in festive clothes carry dishes with food and presents, hurrying to the Eid al-Fitr dinner in Ramallah.
The whole thing flares up in a minute. "Don't talk to him like that!" we yell at the soldier. "You can't talk to him like that!"
Two women shouting in Hebrew, a young soldier with red cheeks and glasses, also yelling in Hebrew, and around us, in the narrow twisting passage between the concrete cubes, a group of Palestinian women with one angry man in the middle, and children, and other people not directly connected, but they're all crowded in there and they listen. None of them ever yells back at soldiers.
"I talked to his wife nicely, I asked her for the documents," the soldier shouts. "In Arabic, I said it in Arabic," he adds, as if wishing to prove something.
"So he doesn't want you to talk to his wife. He wants you to talk to him. It's his right. It's his dignity."
"His right? His right?!" the soldier shouts, then he begins to shriek: "I've fucking had it! I've had it with their fucking honour! Who are they anyway?"
Then he shifts to a lower gear. He needs to explain something: "I talked to her nicely. In Arabic. Suddenly he started to yell."
The Palestinian man who has been silent up to now shouts at him again. You can't hear what he's saying, there's no time to take it in, because all of a sudden the soldier rushes out of the little concrete box behind which he was standing, a surreal check-in counter at the Qalandiya crossroad, he leaps onto one of the concrete cubes which control human traffic in this place, stands on top of it, pressing his rifle across his body with both hands: "This is my checkpoint! This is my checkpoint!" he yells repeatedly.
The Palestinian women grab their man, pull him away, and the group continues on its way to Ramallah. We go on scolding the soldier, who has returned to his niche, and a smiling boy, twelve years old, perhaps, pats him on the shoulder and tells us, "He's OK, he's OK."
The shouting in Hebrew goes on. An internal, almost a family squabble that could take place in any public square, in any house in Israel, but is now going on here, at the checkpoint.
"You know what this reminds me of?" says Tammy quietly. "When my grandfather was in Germany..."
It's dark out, and very cold, and at Qalandiya checkpoint one soldier now goes out of his mind, his head is shaking from side to side, his cheeks are flaming, spit flies from his mouth, blurring the consonants: "You're comparing me to a German soldier? You're comparing me, whose whole family perished in the Holocaust, to a German soldier? I'm a good soldier! I'm a good soldier!"
Enough. This has got to stop. The soldier looks like he's about to have a stroke. But we can't simply leave him in this state, who knows what he might do, we must help him to calm down. We try to resume the conversation, voices still raised, but now at the stage of "Shall I tell you what I meant? Will you just listen for a moment?" And, yes, he listens for a moment. Meanwhile his officer has arrived and is standing quietly behind him. We go over some of the events, for the officer's benefit, then start leaving on our way home, weaving through the cars and trucks, looking for a ride to a-Ram.
We are barely twenty meters away from the roadblock when the smiling boy comes up to us and says, "That soldier is no good, makes a lot of problems."
* * *
Our shift began some hours earlier at the a-Ram checkpoint. Usually nothing much happens here, mostly there isn't even a waiting line. Almost everyone who wants to cross here has a blue Israeli identity card and lives in one of the neighbourhoods north of the roadblock. But today a whole family is held up - father, mother and two toddlers. The border policemen explains that the father is on the Shin Bet list, his name is being checked, and stresses that the wife may pass. It's not their fault that she chose to stay with her husband.
"Come on," we say to the border policeman, "would you leave your wife here and go?" He shrugs. He sees no point in getting into arguments, least of all with us.
We're women from a different planet.
But inside the booth there's a regular policeman, a blue uniform, and he does respond, shouting cheerfully, "You bet I would! I'd leave my wife here like a shot!" Even we, who came here so grave and grim, can't help laughing. Just for a moment a human being peeped out of the uniform. But what came out was not what we expected - there seem to be other things he needs to voice
The laughter stops right away. We're not here to kid around with soldiers and cops.
We give the Palestinian man the number of the Human Rights Centre, and climb into the pickup for Qalandiya. We get off at the intersection, a few yards from the checkpoint, into a melee of trucks, pickups, cars and pedestrians. Traffic crawls along the worn asphalt roads, south to a-Ram and Jerusalem, north to Ramallah, east on the bypass road to Hebron and Bethlehem. Qalandiya itself is some two hundred meters north of the intersection, and in the middle of it all, right across what used to be the highway, sprawls the checkpoint.
You could think of the checkpoint as a rectangle of ten by eighty meters, its southern end near the intersection, the northern end closer to the Qalandiya refugee camp. The pedestrian walkway is on the eastern side, the motor vehicle lane on the western. The area between the two is fenced, only military jeeps are allowed to enter it.
Today the southern end of the checkpoint is manned by a single bespectacled soldier. Now and then he glances at people's documents. Nobody cares much about those going into the occupied territories. The soldier is jumpy, he says we are not allowed to go there. We assure him that yes, we are allowed, it's all right.
This is the soldier we'll meet a few hours later. By then he'll be much more irritable.
We advance fifty yards and reach the northern part of the checkpoint. This is where most of the pressure builds up. Here come people from Ramallah and Qalandiya who want to get to a-Ram or Bait-Hanina - basically going from one neighbourhoos to another; or residents of nearby Hizmeh or Mikhmas, back from a visit to the doctor in the city; or people who only want to get to the intersection to catch a pickup going east, into the West Bank.
Here, at the northern checkpoint, soldiers, officers, volunteers are all busy sorting human-beings - pointing them right, left, back, forward, northward, southward... - but call it what you like, basically there are only two possibilities: go where you wish to go, or go back to where you came from.
We take up our usual position at the exit from the checkpoint and look to see who's in the line today. What's the setup. Because you can say all sorts of things about the checkpoint, but one thing is certain - it changes all the time.
You can't enter the same checkpoint twice.
Allon is here today. Perhaps I should say Lance Corporal Allon, since he's a soldier, and his rank matters. That's how it is at the checkpoint. By the time he makes sergeant he'll be able to command the entire setup, including traffic lanes, humanitarian cases, life-and-death decisions from morning till night. Allon is still only a Lance Corporal, but already has an air of authority. You can talk with Allon. He will stop to look again at a document, to listen to another explanation, another plea, another story. Every person who passes here needs a special permit, unless it's a small child, or a really old man, or a woman over fifty. People don't always get this permit in time, they don't always bother, and anyway the permits are only valid for a month, so there's always someone stuck without. But Allon listens to the people in front of him, and often lets them pass even without the essential permit.
Today is a holiday. Small girls in pretty frocks, their hair neatly parted and fastened with bright hairpins, walk through the roadblock without looking around, holding mommy's hand.
Sima has brought candy, and a large straw basket. She pours the candy into the basket and hands it out to the children and adults. She wants to give some to the soldiers.
"You don't have to treat the soldiers," I tell her.
"Why not? They're human beings," says Sima. But the soldiers don't want her candy. The children do - most of them take one, the little ones take a handful. Candy is candy is candy. A short, skinny soldier begins to yell at the children, telling them to pick up the wrappers. Everything here is crumbling and falling apart, the asphalt is almost gone, the ground is rocky, winter's mud is on the way - but he wants a tidy checkpoint.
"Id Mubarak" - blessed holiday - Sima greets everyone who takes a candy. She enjoys handing out sweets and greetings. But then the candy is gone, and another woman is crying, another soldier shouts, another person explains that his father is old, and once again they summon the senior officer in the place, a 19-year old second lieutenant who is the final authority at the checkpoint, and it makes Sima feel sick.
She's about fifty, with large, innocent eyes, and she doesn't like what she sees. "Look at them, look at the way they talk. This isn't my army, they're not my soldiers."
Half an hour ago she didn't speak like this.
"They're so ugly with those rifles," she says. "Just look at them."
I can see them.
It's not that anything unusual is happening, but after the sweet moments of holiday greetings and candy it's probably even harder to stand here empty-handed.
"Don't drive me nuts! 'Don't drive me nuts!" says the skinny soldier to a slender man in a worn blue jacket. "I told you, you can't pass. Go back to New Jersey!" "New Jersey" is a barrier made of red and white plastic fencing of the kind used for road works. Behind it stand the rejected, those who waited for an hour and failed to pass through the rigid selection operated high-handedly by one of the volunteers. He's an older man dressed in a military bullet-proof vest and uniform. He signals to the soldiers at the checkpoint exit if a person is to be turned back, or may proceed south to the intersection and his destination.
The soldiers stand on a worn, dusty strip of asphalt, some four meters wide and twenty long. Those who've successfully passed the selection turn right to the Qalandiya intersection, the rejected turn left, to the "New Jersey" barrier, and in the midst of it all there is the brisk, continuous traffic of people going in the opposite direction, from the intersection towards Ramallah. These are the people lucky enough to be able to go where they want to - a momentary privilege to be relished, and they march away in a firm, businesslike way. The soldiers have to watch in all directions, people are constatnly managing to evade them - a few men, but mostly women. They start walking towards "New Jersey", their heads lowered, then halfway through they stop, turn around, and after a few minutes walk slowly back. Then, catching a moment when the soldiers are busy with something else, they slip among those coming from the south, who sometimes deliberately clog the entrance to the checkpoint, perhaps out of curiosity, or perhaps deliberately, to make things harder for the soldiers.
"Move back," says the second lieutenant to a very tall young man with a light brown mustache, dressed in a woollen suit and tie. The officer is even younger, his greenish eyes sparkle in his dark face, which seem to hold back a smile, his body as slender as a reed, as slender as an adolescent's. He seems to wrap himself up in a mantle of quietness. He uses few words, not only with the Palestinians, but also with the soldiers - who are not much unlike him except for that delicate quietness - and even with the Jewish women standing here at the checkpoint. He keeps his name, for instance, to himself.
"Step back," he urges the Palestinian man.
"I'm waiting for my wife," the man answers in Hebrew.
"Wait for her over there," says the officer, urging him to move back a few feet, to stand in his suit on a little mound.
"She won't see me."
"She'll see you."
"How will she see me in all this mess?"
"Use a mobile phone."
"She doesn't have a mobile."
But the man in the suit moves to the indicated mound, he has been standing there on the slope for two hours, his wife still hasn't showed up, she doesn't know her way about here, she speaks no Hebrew, he's worried about her, but has no way of getting in touch with her. He stands and waits.
"What does she look like?" I ask. "I'll look for her in the line."
He's at a loss for an answer.
"Fat, thin, with a headscarf, without?"
"Fat," he smiles, we both smile. "With a headscarf."
There are a lot of women in headscarves in the line, but none of the young ones can be described as fat.
I go back to him: "She's not there."
A woman is standing behind the "New Jersey" barrier with six small children. Children don't have to stand in line, and the soldiers explain to her, properly, as per regulations, that the kids can pass. She, on the other hand, must stand in line. But how can the children pass, where will they wait in all this commotion, what child would let go of Mommy's hand in such a place?
"Rookh! Rookh!" (Go away!) one of the soldiers shouts at her. They've learned this word, and manage to invest it with infinite loathing. But they haven't yet learned to decline the verb correctly.
We call Allon. He will now have to deal not only with the pleading woman, but with us. But the real challenge is the other soldier, who has already refused her. He's only a private, and Allon can certainly overrule his decision, but it's with this soldier he'll have to go back to the base, and with him he'll and pass the coming days and weeks. So Allon starts by trying to pacify the soldier, nods at him understandingly, meanwhile he examines the woman's orange identity card. He puts a hand on the corporal's shoulder and with his other hand signals to the woman to go through. But he does it impatiently, trying to show solidarity with the soldier at least on this level.
The soldiers are tense, irritable, annoyed with Allon. They're even madder at the officer. The Palestinians already know they can turn to him, so what's the point, he keeps overruling them. The officer listens to them quietly, then vanishes. A little later he turns up on the lookout post on the hill, from which the soldiers observe the gravel quarry in order to catch anyone who tries to sneak around the checkpoint. The officer stands there, he's detaching, resting, mending the tears in his mantle of quiet.
Now the soldiers are in command of the scene, and they have accounts to settle. There is a woman here who tried to slip away from them. She won't pass, obviously, moreover, she won't get her document back, let her wait. She's being punished. There's a special box for confiscated documents, for I.D.'s to be handed over to Shin Bet, the I.D.'s of suspects who must be examined. But there is also another place - the pocket of the uniform pants/fatigues. Every soldier has pants, all the pants have pockets, and sometimes a soldier decides to keep a document in this pocket without telling anyone about it. Sometimes a soldier finishes his shift, and when the jeep arrives and he can finally leave this place, he truly forgets the document in his pocket, and two hours later, when a senior officer arrives and the unfortunate Palestinian tries to find out what happened to his papers, the question arises: perhaps it has made its way to the base, stuffed inside the pocket, perhaps it is lying on the floor by now, still in that pocket, and the soldier is asleep already - and how could anyone find his identity under such circumstances.
The officer stands at the lookout post, wrapped in his silence. The soldiers are tired. "Stop bugging me, stop bugging me!" they keep saying to the pleading Palestinians, as if genuinely asking for understanding, for consideration - enough, stop bugging us! But the Palestinians know very well, that if you bug them them enough they do let you pass, sometimes. Sometimes a newly arrived soldier will say, Right, yallah, rookh! Just get out of my face!
"Soorda! Soorda!" one of the soldiers shouts repeatedly at three tired men from Hebron. He tells them they'll be able to go on home through Soorda. A few shekels for a pickup to take them there, another hour or two on the road, but Soorda is open, in Soorda they will be let through, they don't check documents there. Thus the security risk is sent on its turtuous way, presumably by the time it gets to Soorda it will no longer be a risk, since there one can get through.
"What's the idea? Why can they go through Soorda but not here?" we ask the soldiers. They don't understand - what's with all these questions, why are we bugging them with questions? But most of them can't resist trying to answer. There are several stock phrases: "These are our orders," "They can't pass here," "My job is to make sure they don't get through in Qalandiya."
And then the punchline, the one no one can argue with: "He will not pass in Qalandiya today and that's it. Period!"
But among themselves the soldiers speak differently. Sometimes you overhear one of them saying that the checkpoint serves no security purpose, that anyone who really wants to get through can do so by indirect routes. But when they notice the Leftist aunties listening to them they signal to each other to shut up. There was a moment, there were some words exchanged. No more.
"Look at her, she doesn't understand a word I'm saying, been stuck in my face for hours," says one red-headed soldier.
The woman is about thirty-five, she's holding her head up high, she's not moving, she's not communicating, because today there's no one at the checkpoint who speaks Arabic. She points to a-Ram, where she lives. She went to Ramallah for an hour, and now she wants to go home, it's a holiday, she's in a hurry, she hasn't got a tasreekh.
The woman pleads, the soldiers get mad, something about her stiff posture infuriates them.
Finally the officer lets her pass.
That's how it is - you can decide one way or another, and it's all up to the soldiers. The soldiers hold the key.
They stand here for hours, days, weeks.
No wonder they feel the checkpoint is theirs.
Qalandiya, January 1st 2004
It's New Year's Day in Qalandiya, and a little girl in a red suede outfit, trimmed with white synthetic fur, no longer wants to celebrate. "Hallas!" she cries, "Hallas!" Her eyes are red, tearful, wide-open. She's about seven years old, clutching her mother's hand, trying to pull her back, away from the checkpoint, away from the soldiers they've been facing for the past forty minutes.
The mother, a good-looking woman with hard features, is dressed in an all-black traditional gown and wears some makeup. The two young girls with her may or may not be her daughters. She looks young, but it isn't easy to tell people's ages in this place.
"Hallas, hallas," the little girl is twitching with anguish, with horror. She wants her mother to give up and go back, go back to some place that's real, she doesn't want to be here, in this lawless enclosure. But Mom refuses to give up. They live in Mikhmas, a few minutes south of the checkpoint. At first she tried to placate the volunteer who refused to let her through, tried to smile, lower her eyes and voice, plead. But with every passing minute she started losing her temper, grew desperate, stopped trying to be nice. The little girl began to cry when her mother started cursing Salman, the lieutenant in charge of the checkpoint today, cursed him and all the other soldiers, wishing them all deep in the ground.
"Did you see that? Did you see that?" says a little soldier standing there, a short soldier with a baby face, blue eyes and pink skin. "Did you see how she slapped the kid, to make her cry?"
I didn't see it, I don't know if she slapped her, but I did see the mother scolding the child, pulling her in the opposite direction, to stand up to the soldiers. Not to give in.
You can almost see Mikhmas from here, but the soldiers sendthe mother to Soorda.
"Soorda, Soorda!" How often have we heard the soldiers sending tired people to Soorda, at any hour, in any weather,. We know by now that from Soorda they can get to the place they could easily reach from here if they were allowed through the checkpoint. But to pass through the checkpoint you need a tasrikh, while Soorda requires only time and money. Twenty-five shekels for the pickup and an hour and a half on the road.
We decided to test it ourselves today.
We came to the roadblock earlier than usual, having agreed to meet Ali at two - he's the taxi-driver who knows the women of Makhsom-Watch and drives them around the area. Quite a gig.
We meet him right on time beyond the northern barrier - the full complement: Limor, Batya, Tammy and me. Ali speaks excellent Hebrew, he used to operate a bulldozer in Haifa for years.
We go through the Qalandiya camp, then through al-Bireh. It's odd, seeing these places up close on a quiet day. A lot of new buildings - it's obvious that at some stage there was optimism in the air here, there was money flowing. Now it all looks frozen. But this quiet, so very civilian sight, cheers us up. After all, we too, like the soldiers, see the Palestinians mainly through the passages of the checkpoint, see them in their most humiliating and wretched scene. It's good to see them elsewhere, and when you're here you can believe, you can look forward to the moment when the immense solidity of life will put an end to the horrendous festival of death.
Ali explains left and right, he's very experienced, has matter-of-fact answers to every question. He points to Psagot and tells us that only four or five families remain in that settlement. He knows people who work there, tend the gardens, clear the trash, and they say that at night the lights come on in the houses but there's nobody there. This ghostly image recurs later when we drive through a handsome but empty suburb. Before I can ask, Ali explains that the locals are in America. It's a prosperous neighborhood, but most of the residents left long ago, only some of the old folks stayed to look after the houses. The young ones have made their lives elsewhere, and send money.
We reach Ramallah. A big town. A city. Limor recalls Amman, I remember Jerusalem. We all remember Arafat and ask to see the Muqataa. The walls surrounding it have been rebuilt, but inside it's all mounds of rubble. The Palestinian government precinct. Another compound. Inside sits the man who for much of his lifetime managed to evade the long arms of the IDF, the Shin Bet, the Mossad and who-knows-who-else, only to wind up here, holed up in his capital.
After Ramallah the road begins to twist downward among beautiful hills, suddenly you see the sky, you see green, slightly faded, but green nevertheless. It's good to know that the people here have such spaces. The road descends toward Soorda. There's nothing here. Till recently the road was barred with banked up earth, but now its been cleared, it's finally possible to drive through. So, things have indeed been easing up a bit, as the IDF spokesperson keeps saying.
We decide to do the whole tour, the circuitous way on which the soldiers send the Qalandiya rejects. The road goes on and on, a beautiful route through small villages, past an abandoned housing estate in the middle of a valley, built at some point for engineers, but never inhabited. All this dispute, all this struggle, and here are all these opens spaces, abandoned houses, - there is room for everyone.
We drive past the settlement of Ofrah - a huge fenced-in area. What sort of people chose to live their lives here, on the bare mountain, on stolen land, what king of people choose to bring up their children amid all this hatred and resentment, on an island surrounded by barbed wire.
The road is first-rate, new - it serves not only Ofrah but also Bet-El, the settlement and the army's Disctrict Coordinating Office. Amazingly, the Palestinians are allowed to use the road as well. "In the end you'll get to have all these roads," I tell Ali.
When we reach Bet-El he tell us that this stretch as well, between Ramallah and this place, could have been covered in five minutes if the direct road hadn't been blocked. I ask if he has a map. He doesn't - what's the point, here road maps exist not only in space but also in time - they keep changing, the space is constantly re-organized, distances re-defined. Neighbours stop being neighbours.
There is so much land here. I can imagine Ariel Sharon driving around, bursting with greed for it, why should he give it up. I can understand his desire, but I cannot understand the blindness. After all, there are people here, on this land. It is not always possible to understand the Other - Sharon, for example, I cannot understand.
The road goes on, and all of a sudden we're at the Qalandiya intersection. Limor, a lawyer, freaks out. "We must petition the High Court of Justice!" The madness of it all strikes her more forcibly than ever. Another few steps and we're at the southern end of the checkpoint - having spent an hour in a fast taxi - much quicker than a loaded pickup - to cover a distance that could be crossed in three minutes by foot.
After this, it isn't easy to start the shift.
The peddlers at the southern side of the checkpoint have been cleared out. Another turn of the screw squeezing the people here. Later we'll hear that the peddlers on the north side are also in trouble. They were ordered to move, to stand near the fence between the quarry and the checkpoint, but they don't want to. It's only a few meters away, but here they stand along the path followed by the people, they want to remain here, where their merchandise catches the eye. They ask us to look into it, and we ask Salman, who says the peddlers are in the way of the military jeeps - if military jeeps should suddenly need to pass here. But all this happens later, when we go to buy falafel. This time it isn't just Limor - Batya and I also want some, the falafel here is first-rate and our little tour has given us an appetite.
Meantime we stand in the usual spot, a couple of meters from the north end exit. The company from the armored corps has left, a new company has taken over the checkpoint, the "Kamah" company of the Military Police. I have been looking forward to the changeover, wanting to see how the soldiers change over time. They say that the longer they man a checkpoint the harder they get. But these soldiers, in their first week, are already so hard - how much worse will it get?
They're very young, even younger than the previous lot. There are also two girl soldiers, dressed in the same green fleece jackets, with the same weapons held across their chests, hands on the trigger-guard, battle-ready. Seeing women in this place is painful, it seems that a woman must undergo more of an inner deterioration before she can face human beings with such a hard heart. It should be easy enough for a female soldier to avoid being posted here; so if she is here, she probably doesn't really mind. Her heart must be especially obtuse if she can stand here for hours, confronting pleading women and crying children. Or perhaps we've been brainwashed with a mixture of Victorian and feminist lies about women's tender hearts.
The two women are blonde, tough, there's nothing tender about their faces.
Two tough blonde women soldiers. This brings bad things to mind.
I observe them individually - one is very short, has a sharp nose and blue eyes, curly hair in a ponytail, thin lips. The other is plump with a big nose, thick lips, here eyes are the color of her uniform, her straight hair gathered under her fleece cap, springing out through an opening in the middle.
A few minutes after we got here we hear the curly one saying to a soldier beside her, "So is it OK to shoot from here?" as she aimed her rifle at the line of people. I never discovered what it was about, perhaps an earlier incident, or some future scenario. The soldier answered, "This is OK, just take care you don't aim at me.". They went on checking angles. "Here the fence is in the way, and here the column. But from this angle I could take him down easy." And then they both grinned.
It's a hard day today, a hard day in Qalandiya, a hard day for me. This is the day when something snaps inside me, today the familiar statement "I'll talk to you, not to her" Is repeated,but this time it's me they won't talk to. At one point they accuse me of blowing the Palestinians.
I don't blow them.
We chat for a while with Salman. Tammy has known him since the summer. She says he likes to talk, and it seems she knows exactly how to talk to him. It later appears that I haven't learnt the trick yet. We ask him about Soorda, about the meaning of this meaningless circuit. Salman has two points to makefirst, with regard to people who live nearby, in a-Ram, Hizmeh, Mikhmas, he has already talked to his superiors, asking for a change in the regulations, so that these people will be able to get home from Ramallah without having to traipse to the IDF base in Bet-El for a permit. Secondly, he says, contrary to our impression, there is nothing absurd about it - a terrorist who could be caught in Qalandiya would will also be caught on the other route.
"But there are no roadblocks there, no soldiers, anyone can pass," we reply.
Salman smiles condescendingly: "There are more people there than you imagine. Don't worry, anyone who takes the roundabout route will be seen." Ah well, anyone standing at the checkpoint for an hour realizes it's got nothing whatever to do with security.
The volunteer calls out to the short soldier: "This one passes, that one doesn't." "This one" is an older woman with a furrowed face, carrying a box filled with heavy bags on her head. "That one" is younger, though not really young, dressed in a long gown with a red-and-white checked sweater over it. The older one can go through because she's old, the younger one can't because she hasn't got a permit. I call Salman. Let's see what we can do here today. We need to re-learn the territory, these soldiers are clearly different.
Salman talks with the older woman, who explains she's ill and can't go on her own. She fishes in the breast pocket of her gown, pulls out a small wallet, opens it, she hasn't got a doctor's certificate, but she shows him her medications, crushed packets, strips of pills without a packet, lots of medicines, which she pulls out one after another, careful not to drop them. Salman calls the thick-lipped soldier, he tells her to take the younger woman to the booth on the other side of the checkpoint and check her there. About fifteen minutes later the woman emerges, adjusting her sweater. Evidently she had no explosives on her person. Salman lets the two women pass. The volunteer sees them walking away. He's alert, this volunteer, and shouts to the soldier on the lookout: "I said that one couldn't go through." He's told that she can, a different decision has been made. No problem, he goes on checking the people in line.
I chat a little with the short soldier standing nearby, trying to get to know him. "Is this your first time out here?"
"Nah, the millionth time."
I'm surprised, he looks so young, he looks like a fresh recruit. "How long have you been in the army?"
"Four months. But when you do shifts of eight-on eight-off, you get to be here quite a lot."
He explains that eight and eight is not what it sounds like, after the shift here you don't get to sleep the next eight hours. It takes time to get to the base, shower, relax. He isn't getting enough sleep.
Now there are two women in front of him, one has a blue I.D., the other a green, Palestinian one. The one with the blue document is explaining something in English. They all seem to communicate pretty well in the foreign language. The soldier speaks Hebrew with a slight Russian accent, but his English sounds American. He's pProbably put in a lot of MTV hours.
"She has a baby at home," says the one with the blue document. "Let her pass."
She speaks confidently and smiles. I add a few words too, talk to him about Soorda, tell him what Salman said - the regulations may soon be changed.
"When they're changed, I'll let them through," says the soldier. But he lets them pass anyway. Perhaps the exchange in English gave him a sense of a common language. I congratulate him on the decision, remind him that he can decide for himself, it's his right as a human being.
"I'm not a human being, I'm a soldier."
"Good heavens, you mustn't think that, don't ever think that."
"When I'm here, I'm a soldier."
"But even here you have a heart - see, you let them through."
"You'll see in a minute that my heart is made of stainless steel," he says quickly.
A moment later the volunteer tells him to send back a middle-aged couple. The little soldier urges them on, chivvies them, the man walks slowly, carrying a cardboard box wrapped in a black plastic bag, possibly bourekas or baclava, he's taking care to hold it horizontally.
"Stainless steel," I hiss at the soldier, totally pissed off.
"I have no heart at all," he says.
So it goes, on and on. I lost my patience when the little girl cried, and the thick-lipped soldier came up to remove her and her mother, and pushed them back, and I yelled at her, and Salman came over and yelled at me to move aside, I was being a nuisance.
I know I should keep calm, but it's not always easy.
A skinny guy, unshaved, with a colored strip of cloth on his head, stops beside us and start to speak to us in English. He's Italian, it turns out he belongs to the growing species of conflict-tourists - he's here to see what's going on, he finds it interesting, he's also been to Bosnia, that was interesting as well. "This place is crazy," he tells us, "the soldiers are crazy, the religious people are crazy." He looks at me and adds, "Even the peace activists are crazy."
"That's right," I reply impatiently. Three amiable Europeans have already spoken to us today, one of them from Germany. "What can the Europeans do?" she asked in heavily-accented English.
"Send money," I replied irritably. "To the Palestinians, the peace organizations - everything costs money." The Europeans' comfortable curiosity gets my goat. Everything gets my goat today.
A toddler of about two, wearing a brightly colored woollen cap, slips away from his parents who have already passed through and wanders back among the soldiers' legs.I warn the short soldier: "Watch out, he could be a terrorist."
"Could be," he says.
A group of laborers who want to get through are sent back. "Tell them how to go to Soorda," Salman says to the soldier. This time it's Batya who loses her temper. Each of us has her something that especially annoys her. Tammy can't bear seeing the babies, Batya is especially moved by the sight of these weary laborers, they look so exhausted. Kindly, patiently, she tries to explain to the soldier that the diversion to Soorda is no trivial matter. He isn't interested. He urges the laborers on, and they trudge away heavily, wearily.
"What's the point of sending them to Soorda when they can go through here?" Batya keeps asking.
"They need a tasrikh to pass through Qalandiya," the soldier insists.
"But they'll get to the other side of the checkpoint anyway, so what's the difference?"
The thick-lipped soldier is annoyed. "So maybe we should simply cancel Qalandiya and that's it!" she challenges, crudely ironic.
"Exactly," I reply.
"So I can just go home to sleep, right?"
"Absolutely, why don't you go home to sleep?" I don't mean to provoke her, I only want to remind her that it's true, that she really can go home if she wants to. Only I'm not sure she does.
Naturally, she interpreted this her own way, and when Salman shows up she snitches: "She told me to go home to sleep!"
It's dark. Dark , dark, dark. A man of about fifty tries to get his cousin across, she's a young woman, in a costly Muslim dress, who wants to visit her sister on the other side of the checkpoint. The sister has a blue, Israeli ID, the girl doesn't. He also has a blue ID - it says he's a resident of Eilat. He speaks fluent, slightly rough Hebrew, he knows us, knows our language. "Is it her fault she's Palestinian?" he asks-proclaims. "Is it your fault you're a Jew?" He talks to us at length, argues with the soldiers, waits for the officer, doesn't give an inch. His young cousin has already retreated, gone to the "New Jersey" barrier, but he stands his ground, getting angrier and angrier. "It's not your fault," he says to the soldiers, "it's Sharon's fault. Sharon the gangster, who stole a million and a half dollars." The soldiers can't believe their ears - Israelis may say our Prime Minister is a thief, but they're shocked when a Palestinian says it. Batya is afraid he will provoke the soldiers even more, she can't understand why he's getting into all this trouble. I think he just wants to get something off his chest, he's given up on the checkpoint, but wants his voice to be heard.
Salman arrives, he takes him aside and a few minutes later the man returns. That's it. Nothing once can do. He talked to me nicely, in Arabic, says we can't pass. What a metamorphosis - a few minutes' talk with the officer and the man has cooled off. Perhaps he wanted to hear the verdict from someone who's not an 18-year old recruit. Maybe this too is a matter of honour.
The man has left. A man with no a name. He did show me his identity card, to prove that he resided in Eilat, but I didn't look at the name and didn't ask. I never ask for their names, why should I, what right to I have to ask for their names. I answer their questions, try to help, but I don't question them. As it is, I feel like crying when they start showing us their ragged papers, trying to convince us too.
The shift is over, we walk to Batya's car, this time we've parked on the steep hill overlooking Qalandiya. We leave Tammy and Limor at the a-Ram roadblock - they're going back to Tel Aviv, while I take a ride with Batya to Jerusalem, where I'm to visit John and Susan.
John is American, he's been engaged for years conflict-resolution all over the world, trying to help people to find the common ground Susan is a South African who works with him and has been married to him for some years, but unlike him she grew up and struggled in her own conflicted country. During the transition in South Africa she worked with the police, violent racists who were clutching fiercely at the remnants of their white power. But Susan believes in humanity, in compassion, at all sounds kind of Christian, Anglo-Saxon and irrelevant, but she does have credentials- South Africa isn't Europe.
On the way Batya talks to me about our day at the checkpoint. She doesn't actually scold me, but obviously she thinks I went overboard, it's not good to talk to the soldiers the way I did. It only alienates them more. I argue with her, I know she's got a point, but still I argue, telling her that we must be firm in this encounter, we must insist on clear definitions. And we must express our anger - someone at the checkpoint must express the anger. Who else will do it - the Palestinians?
I speak confidently, eloquently, but then part from Batya with a hint of apology: "All right, so this time Tammy was the darling of the roadblock and I was the troublemaker. So we switched roles. That's the way it works."
John and Susan live in the Musrara neighborhood, in a beautiful stone house, whose thick walls are lit up from without. I enter with my dusty backpack, I have a change of clothes with me. As soon as Danny arrives from Tel Aviv we're supposed to go out to dinner. I told them yesterday that I'd get there ahead of time and shower, but first I sit with them, drinking glass after glass of water. And I ask Susan to tell me about her work with the police.
She and John sit across from me, they're fifteen and twenty years older than I, and they speak to me very sweetly but firmly, making me feel a bit like a child talking to her parents. They insist that I must find another way of relating to the soldiers, that I must acknowledge their humanity. Humanity is a central concept for them.
I argue with them. I say humanity is something you earn. Any person with a spark of humanity will also find a spark of resistance within him. And he lacks the inner, cultural or social ability to resist, then I'd expect him to catch something psychosomatic from sheer distress.
John and Susan speak patiently, compassionately, of course. I'm one of the nicer natives they've met in this place. I feel I'm being cultivated. They give me advice, clean towels, wine, good food. I return home late, feeling much better.
But the next morning I get up, and cry all day long.