26 May 2006 2.31
I come out of the flat where I have been staying very early in the morning, carefully not to wake up anyone. I don’t want to risk arriving in Hebron after dark because I don’t even know how to get to my destination, and this time, too, I am travelling on my own. The first stop will be of course Ramallah – first taxi change to get from there to Qalandia. I was assured yesterday that I will pass through that checkpoint with no problem. From there I will get another taxi to Jerusalem and then another one from Jerusalem to Hebron.
But the taxi that takes us to Qalandia stops in the middle of a deserted road where there are only taxis and very few people. In the distance we see a wire fence, cutting off what seems to be what is left of the road. None of this looks familiar to me, and I have passed through this checkpoint several times…
Facing that wire fence there are a very elderly man and a not-so-elderly woman; they seem to be standing there waiting for something. Near me there are small television crews – two people seem to be enough, and their cameras are tiny compared to the professional cameras available to students in some universities in London.
After filming a group of men who are reading a piece of paper stuck to the wall, written in Hebrew, one of the camera crews walk towards the couple. Me too.
The tv guys ask some questions to the man and he shows them some paperwork he carries inside some envelopes. When he finishes talking and they switch off their camera, I ask the one with the microphone what is going on. He tells me that the checkpoint is closed today because some one attacked a soldier yesterday, and that this old gentleman is very ill, that he has an appointment to go to the hospital and those papers are from his doctor and from the hospital proving it all. He hopes that, on compassion grounds, at least he will be allowed to go through. But it does not seem that he will be allowed at all. I ask the one with the microphone again what will happen if he is not allowed to go through, if we are not allowed to go through. “Turn around, go on another road.” “And how many hours will it take us to get to Jerusalem?” He moves his head, grins and answers: “Hmmm… maybe two, three hours”. From Qalandia to the bus station in Jerusalem it usually takes half an hour, some times less. But then I will still have the rest of my trip ahead, to Hebron. Two to three hours was what was going to take me to get all the way to Hebron.
But the man doesn’t lose hope and calls a soldier he sees in the distance, to talk to him. The soldier comes, making sure another one comes with him, and both come slowly – they have the whole day and a lot of contempt. The soldiers coming towards us look just like all of them, with their green uniforms, and their arms leaned on their huge machine-guns. For about five minutes the man talks to them, he shows them his papers, which they don’t even look at or touch. He is trembling. His hands are trembling a lot, and he puts away his papers and he doesn’t know where to put his hands, and he leans them on the spiked wire, and he cries in desperation at the thought that he won’t make it to his appointment at the hospital, and he writhes in pain, and he sits on the road… How is he going to start now a two or three hour journey, in his condition? He needs to go to hospital, can they now allow him to get through with a taxi?
The soldiers’ voices have grown more and more severe, and now they are almost shouting at him, and I can’t believe my eyes and ears – even though I do not understand a word.
Suddenly the soldiers stop looking at the man who is writhing and they look at me, and then at something behind me, and they shout. I look behind me in the direction they are looking and I realise that more and more men have been approaching this spot and there are now about thirty men behind the first group that approached the wire.
The soldiers make gestures with their hands telling them to go away, to retreat.
Bit by bit they all go away, looking for taxis that will take them to Jerusalem. When all the men who were behind me have left and next to the wire there is only the trembling man, the woman, the TV crew and me left, the soldiers shout at me that I should leave too and I leave. Then the woman that was with the trembling man leaves as well, and we leave him there, trembling and crying, while the tv crew seem to try to convince him that he is not going to manage to go through Qalandia, that he will have to go round the long way like the rest of us, or die right there.
Several taxi drivers ask me where I’m going and I say I am going to Jerusalem and then to Hebron. They direct me to a taxi they say is not going to Hebron but is going nearby.
Once the taxi gets full we depart and after an hour into the journey, in a completely deserted road, we get a puncture. The driver asks us to get off so he can change the wheel and it turns out that the spare wheel is not in good enough condition. We all look at each other, but no one gets angry. The driver makes a few phone calls on his mobile and, in about half an hour, another van-taxi turns up to pick us up. Not a single car has passed by in all this time.
Like in all journeys where we share the means of transport, it is only when there is a setback that people talk to each other, whereas before we wouldn’t even look at each other. So our cultures are not that different in this respect.
The women talk among themselves in Arabic. One of them strikes up a conversation with me in English and she sets off to tell me her whole life. She is travelling with her son, who must be about six or eight years old, and she is going to Jerusalem, where her mother lives and where she was born. When she got married, she had to go and live in Ramallah, where her husband lived, among other things because he did not have – and does not have now – the necessary permit to “enter Israel”, that’s to say he can’t go to Jerusalem.
So she has to travel on her own with her son to visit her mother, in taxis, thanks to the checkpoints, and some times has to spend the whole day travelling, like today, when they decide to cut roads and make every one go round in longer journeys.
We finally arrive at a place so full of people and cars that it looks like a market, but without stalls. There are militarily vehicles everywhere, and some soldiers on foot too.
The woman who has spoken to me grabs my hand assuring me that she’s going to find me a taxi that will take me straight to Hebron from here. Some taxi drivers shout something that sounds like “Al Khalil” or “Al Halil” – which is how they say Hebron in Arabic. The woman tell me that the name of the city means “friend” both in Arabic and in Hebrew.
The woman talks to a few of the taxi drivers and finally leaves me with one who, she assures me, will leave me very close to the address where I need to go.
The woman and I say goodbye and the taxi driver tells me to put my things at the back of the taxi and to get myself also inside. I get inside but it is so hot it feels like an oven so I get out again. There are fewer women than usual; there is usually not a big difference in the number of women and men travelling, but today there is. The man tells me for a second time to get in the car. I imagine it is not seen as correct for a woman to stand still, observing. I grab my camera and I use it as an excuse to stay outside. The men continue to look at me and the soldiers order me not to take pictures.
When the taxi finally gets full, we set off leaving the hubbub behind. About two hours later we arrive in the centre of Hebron. During that time, we have gone through a couple of “itinerant” checkpoints, the ones that consist of five soldiers, a crossed jeep cutting the traffic, and a few stones planted on the road. We don’t need to get off at these checkpoints. The soldiers just look through the window and some times they don’t even ask for our papers.
Once in the centre of Hebron, what I have to look for is the checkpoint “inside” the city. It is the first time I hear about this and I can’t imagine it.
The taxi leaves us in a chaotic square full of yellow taxis, shops, people pulling carts full of fruit and vegetables, and noise. A “lot” of noise. This is the most lively and colourful place I have seen ever since I arrived in Palestine. People talk, shout, the taxi drivers also shout and horn at each other, arguing for the few space inches they have available. The shops, selling either clothes or food, expel bright, happy, shameless colours. The noise is deafening. Fig. 24.
I start asking people for directions to the street I have to go to.
This part of Hebron, and the Old City, is in theory under the “Palestinian Authority”. The part where the settlers live, where I am going, is under Israeli authority.
At the entrance of the streets that lead or are near to the “Israeli section” there are some huge rocks that stop vehicles getting in. They are as tall as my waist, and perfectly square and white. There are three or four in each street, leaving between them enough space just for a person on foot. Fig 25
In some cases, in the rest of the street behind those rocks, there are shops open, but fewer of them, and smaller than on this side. But most streets are empty and silent, with all its green doors closed. Fig 26
Taxis are used to transport people. Most of them are small cars; there are hardly a few vans. For the transport of goods, wooden carts are used, pulled by men. It is the only way they have to fit between the rocks.
The street I am looking for also has that kind of rocks at the entrance. All shops on the other side of the big square stones are closed, and only the green shut doors are left.
As soon as I get through these stones I get the feeling that I am entering a territory where I am not welcome. The street is, or seems, very short. It gets cut short by an iron structure that looks like a caravan, or a prefabricated little house, blocking the whole street from side to side, and whatever is on the other side can not be seen. The street is deserted, and that thing that is blocking the sight is the checkpoint. But there is no body to be seen. Fig 27
In order to get into this urban checkpoint I have to get on some platforms that make a lot of noise because, being made of some metal, they are not too well fixed to what I guess is the wood that keeps them elevated from the street, and they are like suspended in the air, storming with each step I make. Then there are two very high steps that some one elderly would find very difficult to climb.
And then I have to open a metallic door and then climb up and get in at the same time.
The interior of this “caravan” is dark and claustrophobic, like a broken lift, and I can’t see anyone. Behind me lies the door I have just opened, and it closes behind me on its own accord, and in front of me there is another door that will also need to open on its own accord, because it doesn’t have a knob. So I am now trapped between these two locked doors.
On my left there is a kind of bad mirror and suddenly some one shouts at me from behind it and I realise it is not a mirror, but a smoked glass, and that at the other side there is a soldier looking at me, pointing at my back pack. I ask him if he speaks English and he orders me to open my bag with a hand gesture, without talking. I tell him it is only clothes. He makes another gesture ordering me to open my bag. I open it and I show him the top of it. He makes another gesture to get everything out of my bag, but there is no counter to put my things on it, so I start to get my things out one by one and putting them on the floor. At about half my bag he looks like he is tired of it and he lets me know so, again with a gesture of his hand. I gather my things from the floor and I ask “what now?” The soldier doesn’t look at me but at least the door gets open.
I get out again to the sun and I find a street similar to the previous one – in reality, it surely is the same one, only as it is cut short by this “thing”, one can almost not realise. The atmosphere is completely different. There is a silence worse than sepulchral, like death, almost supernatural. In the distance, behind me, I can only hear the horns of the taxis, but they sound more like an echo than as if they were where they are, less than a hundred metres away.
To my left there is another soldier looking at me from top to toe and in front of me I recognise D., whom I met in Nablus and who is now already coming to welcome me, and I feel a joy that almost makes me jump. But the depressing atmosphere that invades everything is more powerful and I just shake his hand smiling.
He tells me that he is patrolling the street, like I will be during the next week, like we will have to do daily, while the kids are in the school, but specially as they come and go. Part of the patrolling consists of observing the checkpoint, and that way we see every one who comes and goes, and how long they retain each person. That’s why he has seen me before I got through the checkpoint – but I will learn all this later; I am now bombarding him with questions and tell him about my trip, which has taken me five hours.
He also tells me that I can stay with him if I want, but it is better if I go to the flat where we are staying to leave my things and receive some quick training at least.
For that I have to climb the most steep road I have ever seen, and then to a fourth floor. There I meet K. and I re-meet other people that I have met in other places. K. explains the geography and circumstances of Tel Rumeida, and the neighbouring settlements that are making the life of their Palestinian neighbours hell. So much so that most houses are empty; the only remaining inhabitants are people who really have nowhere to run away to and of course no possibility to sell their homes, because no one would want to buy them. And they do not resist. There are no demonstrations here, K. says, only silence, and an insane discretion, lest the settlers get angry. So taking pictures of them is out of the question, because they don’t like it. Talking to them is out of the question too. It is too risky, they are too violent.
I ask K. about the checkpoint and he explains that it is unique in Palestine for now, but they will probably install more. He says that inside what looks like a coffin there are some electric radiations that are very bad for people in general, but for unborn children it they are specially dangerous. There are many pregnant Palestinian women and every one is worried, but of course this is not a worry for the pertinent authorities. Some times the pregnant women ask to be allowed to pass through a small corridor outside the checkpoint to avoid damaging their children but it all depends on how the soldier of the day feels like.
In the street, up the steep hill, there are two “posts”, one on each side of the street, and with one or two soldiers each. And a bit further away, towards the left as we get out the doorway of the house where we are staying, there are another two. Right on the other side of them, further up, there is another settlement, which in reality consists of about ten prefabricated houses planted on a street that some international treaty had established, previously to its construction, as an access road for the neighbouring Palestinians. K. explains that we are not supposed to go anywhere near there unless to challenge the soldiers when they don’t allow Palestinians to use that street.
K. is happy that I am staying here for a week. He explains that the worse days are Saturdays, the Jewish festivity, because the settlers get a specially sadistic delight in attacking the Palestinians on Saturdays.
The street where I have met D. is very much a pass-through street, both for the children and teachers, to go to school, and for the settlers, to go from one settlement to another to visit each other. On weekdays the Israeli settlers drive their cars, and they drive like mad, and it would seem they just want to kill all walking human being. The Palestinians have it forbidden to use any vehicle in these streets. On Saturdays the Israeli settlers also walk, which is even more dangerous because a simple glance can infuriate them, and they have firearms. At least when they drive they do it too fast to aim and shoot.
I leave my things where it looks like I will sleep tonight and I help out in the “patrol”, which simply consists of walking with the children at the end of the school day. Most of them are girls because this school used to be a girls only school.
When we get back home we have dinner that we cook ourselves. They tell me about the “women in black” and the “women in green”. The Women in Black started as small support actions in checkpoints, the military controls where Palestinians are retained for hours before they can continue their journeys. The women would go and talk to the Palestinians in the queue, then offer them drinks, maybe some food too.
As a response the Women in Green turned up, to support the Israeli soldiers, offering them the same in their posts alongside the illegally occupied territories.
I am invited to read a report of the most important “events” in the last few months. This is a small extract of this report:
“A group from the international Women in Black (i.e. Foreigners) came to Tel Rumeida with a small group of Palestinians. The group was near one of the settlements when they were stoned by a group of settlers, who used both stones and potatoes. Members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (other foreigners) witnessed the violence from Qurtaba school.
“One of the Palestinian witnesses asked the soldiers who were watching the violence if they were going to do something, to which they replied, ‘They’re not Jews’, implying that the safety of the internationals was not his concern.
“At 3:00 in the afternoon, children alerted us that settler children were stoning Palestinians at the top of the hill. When we (members of ISM, CPT, and the TR Project) arrived, we saw the five settler children, aged five to fifteen, inside the netted station of the captain. Such obviously biased behaviour is illegal and is a clear example of the type of obstacles Palestinians have to overcome when trying to assert their rights.
“We waited at the top of the hill and soon after, the settler children began throwing stones our direction, hitting a local 14-year-old Palestinian girl. We spent the next 10 minutes arguing with the soldiers to do something while the settler children taunted us and the Palestinians who were present. Finally, one soldier “reprimanded” the stone-thrower for five seconds, let him back into his station, and then sent the Palestinians and us out of the area. We all went to the top of the hill and waited for the arrival of the police.
“Five minutes later, two of the settler children left the soldier’s station and walked up the hill to the settlement. On the way, they continued to throw stones at us. The soldiers near the settlement did not respond, so we again went to argue with them that something should be done about the settlers’ violence. A captain immediately emerged, saying the area was a closed military zone and telling us to leave. During the ensuing argument, the settler children continued to throw stones, taunted us, and tried to take our cameras. One of the Palestinian children was hit on the arm by a stone and identified the stone-thrower, a boy about 14 years old.
“The police arrived more than 40 minutes after they were called, though they are stationed less than 2 kilometres away. They said that they could not arrest anyone younger than 12 and said that with these younger children, their only form of recourse is to speak with their parents about their children’s behaviour.
“When two members of the TR (Tel Rumeida) Project were leaving, one of the soldiers on duty alternatively called us ‘dirty pussies’, made a joke about his penis, and yelled, ‘you have big boobs’.
“At 7:30 in the evening, Palestinian children reported that two bikes and three carts were stolen from them by the settler children. Though soldiers were present and watching the incident, they did nothing. In fact, one of the children reported a soldier – the same Druze soldier who let the settler children in his station earlier that afternoon – only responded when the Palestinian child tried to stop the settler from taking his cart. At this, the soldier grabbed the Palestinian child by the neck, letting the settler take his cart.
“When we arrived, the Palestinian boys were sitting in the street waiting for the police to arrive. While waiting, a settler woman arrived. We recognized her as Miriam Levinger, the co-founder of Kiryat Arba, the first settlement in the West Bank. The first words out of her mouth were, ‘Do you deny that I am a descendent of Abraham?’ The conversation continued along much of the same vein, with Miriam yelling at us, calling us anti-semites, and talking about Muslim terrorism. The encounter ended with Miriam screaming in Arabic, ‘Your father’s a donkey, you’re a donkey, your mother’s a donkey…!’
“The police finally arrived more than 30 minutes after we arrived and told the children to be in the street the following morning at 8:30 and they would return their bikes and carts.
“A community leader went with the police to make a complaint and waited more than five hours at the police station.
[The following day]
“The police were not in the street as promised.
“A community leader [and three internationals] went to the Kiryat Arba police station with four of the boys who had their carts and bikes stolen. The boys were 11 to 14 years old. Though the children had an appointment at 2:00pm with an investigator named Amitay, we waited outside the back gate for more than an hour. We all made multiple phone calls into the police compound, using the phone at the back gate and the main police phone number. The police inside the compound alternatively promised to open the gate, hung up, refused to answer, yelled, laughed, and taunted us.
“Finally, Amitay arrived at 3:15 and refused to let the internationals inside. After some arguing, he agreed that one could accompany the boys. However, he refused to let all four boys enter. The three who had their carts stolen were allowed to enter, but the one whose bike was stolen was not allowed in. I went inside with the kids.
“Once inside, Amitay explained that he was late because he had gone to Tel Rumeida to take the statement of various soldiers concerning the robbery and while there, the settlers punctured the tires to his police vehicle. This is the second incident of Tel Rumeida residents attacking police vehicles in less than a week.
“The boys began making their testimony at 3:45. Amitay refused to take the photographs of one of the settlers who was involved in the robbery and did not allow the boys to identify the settlers from police photos. He also yelled at the kids and made them wait to leave more than five minutes while he pretended to get the key and instead chatted with his friends. When I entered the room and stood staring at him, he yelled, “My first mistake was letting you come in here!” I told him to just get the key and let us out.
“The kids were exhausted by the event.”
These and more “events” I read in the document that K. lends me. I reach a point where I need to stop, unable to swallow more humiliations. I stay there gazing at space until K. asks, “What do you think of that?” I don’t find an English word to describe what I feel. I think of a Spanish one and then translate: “sickening”. “Yes, that’s a good word to describe it”.