Collective Punishment on the West Bank
Although it is cliché to say so, her beauty and serenity evoke an aging Virgin Mary, especially in this setting. She sits on her donkey expression unchanged as she bounces along among the olive trees through the rocky valley pass eyes glancing outward, watchful and placid.
Her donkey has an open sore on its behind and she has a grotesquely bulbous and purple arm irritated to elephantine proportions by the holes made to clean her blood three times a week.
It is this arm that she offers to the soldier as proof of her right to pass. The man she travels with, also a dialysis patient, on a healthier donkey with less corroded looking track marks, speaks English,"Please", he says looking up at the two boys lounging on the hill, guns cocked, "Dialysis, we are dialysis."
Nidal has no common language with these people. She offers the arm and a slight faraway smile.
The soldiers let them pass with very little trouble. Around the corner, invisible from the informal checkpoint, sat the 25 people who had already been detained by 5:30 this morning, quietly beneath the olive trees not lucky enough to have a life threatening illness and luck with the soldiers. Their huweas (identification cards) have been taken tying them invisibly to this spot.
This is the road between the incredibly beautiful village of Assyra and the equally spectacular urban center of Nablus. In this spot the solders asked me why I carried a tri-pod. To take pictures, I said, it is very beautiful here.
"Why here? Why don’t you take pictures in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?"
(The response of go visit beautiful Tel Aviv is so widespread and rote that it must be part of basic training. It is as if they are so enamoured of the smoggy skies and modern art/ Stalinist architecture of Tel Aviv that they really cannot see the spectacular rugged mountains and gnarled 1000 year olive trees all around.)
As if, as one detained man told me, "Soldiers have 3 eyes. The 2 eyes on their face and the eye on their gun. And they wear dark glasses over their real eyes."
So we arrive after the journey that would be 10 minutes on a road that has been closed for 3 years, after about an hour. Car to donkey to checkpoint to car to hospital. At the hospital the patients exchange stories of the journey while waiting for their tubes to be inserted. They come from villages in every direction through some of the most notoriously difficult permanent checkpoints in Palestine; Beit Iba, Beit Farik, and the dreaded Huwara. All of them left before sunrise to arrive here, their conversation is dominated with how the roads were, and the soldiers, at Beit Farik’. It is as if they are farmers discussing the weather.
During the course of the dialysis treatment it filters out that all of the checkpoints have been completely closed. This is not too surprising as the previous day the army invaded Askar refugee camp, killing 4 people and dealing the hudna its final blow after a long series a provocations. Displaying a cynical foreknowledge of the possible results of this act the Israelis were sealing off the west bank in anticipation of the retaliation that they courted.
The patients clamoured around the ambulances as they drove by, squeezing in beyond what space would allow, knowing that this was their only hope of getting home today.
Nidal and Mofid do not join the crush. Ambulances cannot enter Assyra on the best of days.
This is because one of the tallest mountains in Palestine overlooks the village. From its peak, say long time residents who can remember flying kites up there as children, you can see cars driving in cities in Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Now at the top of the mountain one can see a series of towers and wires. It is an army base, almost entirely underground, the second most important in the territories. This is why people who live in Assyra are told to travel hours out of the way to Beit Iba or Beit Farik where they have little chance of taking a car through and why they are told by 20 year olds with guns, "this is our road, for you there is no road here."
The same soldiers are there after we walk back over the mountains. Because of the stringent security Nidal’s sons are afraid to run the donkeys across as this practice (taking people and parcels around the soldiers through the mountain or valley) is the sole source of income for her family of ten. Anyway, they say, we always feel stronger after dialysis although Mofid is agonizingly slow on his cane.
Again the soldiers let them through with remarkable ease so again the 60 people, this time on the far side of the roadblock were a shock anew. This has nothing to do with the `increased security measures’ unique to this day. Rather, as the soldier explained to me, "they must learn to go through Beit Iba."
"But Beit Iba is all the way around the mountains, it takes hours more each way, these people work and go to school in Nablus, you can’t expect them to go that way."
"If they know that every time they pass this way they will be held for 6 hours they will learn to stop coming this way." As if these were Pavlovs dogs to be trained by repetitive punishment (although as any dog trainer will tell you, this approach does not really work.)
"Anyway," I continued to argue. "Beit Iba is closed today, so is Beit Farik and Huwara."
"Then they should stay in their houses, they should have known the checkpoints would be closed today."
I sat for 3 hours listening to where people were trying to go this day, to work, to university, to physical therapy, shopping. We all watched as new groups arrived, approach the soldiers, see their huweas disappear into camoflage pockets and come join the group under the trees. Intervention with soldiers led to the release of a few medical cases including an old woman with eye cancer returning to the village from chemotherapy in Nablus and a baby with a broken arm, but most remained.
And the logic of this, the uniquely twisted logic, was revealed through interaction with the soldiers. It was not merely the daily project of attempting to teach people that the quickest way between two points is not a straight line, and that in fact there is no quick path between two points for Palestinians. No on this day they revealed that they had good reason to believe that there would be a `terrorist’ attack. Why do you think this, I pressed in various forms. Well because we killed 4 Palestinians this week of course, because we broke the ceasefire.
And suddenly the lethal absurdity that is collective punishment reveals itself. The dance that becomes pre emptive . Punishment of a population for acts which you yourself have committed. The army recognises its guilt and embraces it.
Sitting in Jerusalem, after hearing the loud explosion from a huge bomb that everyone knew was coming from the moment that the army gave its latest series of extra judicial asasination orders I know why those people are dead. And as I watched the police and soldiers roll up to Damascus gate and grab every Palestinian man on the street, in the stores, in their cars and beat them and lead them away in a slow march at gunpoint I knew then also. Israel knows that it is guilty as surely as Nidal knows that she is not and this is why it can never let this end.
JULIANA FREDMAN is a film maker working on a documentary about Health care under occupation in the West Bank. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org