Irja. The time has come for all of us to become familiar with this word. There is no checkpoint soldier who doesn’t know it, there is no Palestinian who hasn’t heard it. “Irja!” roars the soldier at the person whom he is preventing from crossing the checkpoint–i.e., go back, get out of here. “Irja” to the man carrying the injured child, who wants to bring him home. “Irja” to the construction engineer who wants to get to work. “Irja” to the mother carrying her baby on the way to visiting her parents. “Irja” to the old man who wants to visit his grandchildren.
The theater of the absurd of the occupation is giving rise to a new scene, reminiscent of an older one. Last Thursday, Yosef Abu-A’adi, 29, stabbed and killed soldier Nir Kahana at the Qalandiyah checkpoint. The checkpoint was closed immediately, and for the past week, hundreds of thousands of P! alestinians have been unable to cross it. Qalandiyah, we should mention here, is a “mega-checkpoint” in the territories, not between the territories and Israel. The cruel collective punishment that was ordered last week–there’s no other way to describe it–condemns tens of thousands of innocent people, who are already in a bad way, to many more days of harassment.
Is the checkpoint closed? Not really. It can be crossed. Not by walking a few hundred meters, as usual, but via a very costly and prolonged ride in a taxi–50 kilometers and an hour and a half in each direction–to bypass the closed checkpoint, involving a trip almost all over the West Bank. You drive north, in order to drive south for a few hundred meters, until you reach the other side of the checkpoint. Is this not collective punishment?
Soon the new Qalandiyah crossing will be dedicated: a virtual checkpoint city with the suffocating separation wall alongside, impressively organized internat! ional lanes for passage with parking places for the disabled–the com fortable occupation. Stones from the Golan Heights beautify the plazas, and there’s a large sign that someone has planted here with great chutzpah, proclaiming “The hope of us all,” with a picture of a red rose next to it. The renovated checkpoint that cuts the occupied West Bank in half will be “the hope of us all.”
What wretched hope!
In the mini-bus taxi in which we traveled this week, to experience the absurdity of driving dozens of kilometers in order to bypass the closed checkpoint, it says in Hebrew “Do not despair.” But this winter in Qalandiyah, which the Israel Defense Forces likes to call “a crossing,” continues to be a very depressing one.
The mountains of garbage, the sand, the barbed wire and the concrete blocks that were placed here last Thursday prevent any possibility of crossing by car. If there’s a murder in Tel Aviv, is all of Tel Aviv placed under siege? If there’s a stabbing in Haifa, is all of Haifa imprisoned? But here in the t! erritories anything goes: a murder in Qalandiyah, and half the West Bank is under detention. The Palestinian press reports on this checkpoint every day on the front pages, but who in Israel has heard about it? Who is even interested?
A young man carrying his nephew, a child whose entire leg is encased in a cast, approaches the concrete blocks with the barbed wire strung between them. The Border Policeman, out of great humanity, allows the injured child to return home; after all, Israel allows “humanitarian cases” to cross, as has been publicized. However, the uncle, who is carrying him in his arms, is not a “humanitarian case.” The child cannot stand up. The uncle puts him down like an object on the concrete block, before the unfeeling eyes of the policeman: “I’ll take him only up to the car and I’ll come back,” pleads the uncle, but the Border Policeman is not affected by any of this: “Irja.”
A line of cars that are forced to head back where they came from, t! raffic jams and loud honking of horns. A young man sits in a white VW Polo, pointing to the scars on his face. On the last holiday a soldier hit him there. The man says that he tried to convince the soldier to allow the man’s brother to join him for a holiday visit to their family–and the reply was blows with the rifle butt. Everyone here bears the scars of the checkpoint.
A social worker from the Red Crescent in Ramallah, a volunteer who specializes in treating the emotionally scarred, tries in vain to show the Border Policeman his volunteer certificate from the humanitarian organization, as well as the newspaper clipping in which it says that “humanitarian cases” are allowed to cross. “Irja.” The emotionally scarred in Ramallah can wait.
An easing of the closure: Starting on Sunday, Israel allowed residents of East Jerusalem to cross at Qalandiyah, but not the residents of Ramallah or the West Bank, of course. We cross on foot. In the filthy tunnel at the crossing, a young man walks toward us, returning to where he came from,! his face contorted in anger: “They’re sons of bitches.”
Issa had smoked a cigarette at the checkpoint, the soldier ordered him to put it out and then, when he tossed the cigarette butt into the garbage that is scattered all over the ground, the soldier ordered him to collect all the cigarette butts from the checkpoint. “I don’t work for you,” said the young man–and gave up his right to cross. “This whole business of the stabbing was not a simple matter,” says Issa, a Jerusalemite. “It was probably a man who suffered a great deal at this checkpoint. It’s not a small matter, for a man to stab a soldier.”
“Are they letting people cross?” asks a passerby.
“They’re letting people cross, but humiliating them,” replies Issa.
In a blue Golf sits a Jerusalem woman with a baby on her lap. She has been standing at the eastern part of the crossing, where cars from Jerusalem are allowed to leave Ramallah along the bypass route. She took the baby out of his car! seat, after his crying could be heard far and wide. Already an hour a t the checkpoint, and the end is not in sight. A visit to Grandma and Grandpa.
Three young children are returning from their private school to their homes in the Qalandiyah refugee camp. Every day they cross here on the way to school and back; Israel allows them to pass through. The sixth-graders see what is happening at the checkpoint, their hearts filled with love of Zion. Subahi, Samer and Yasser got out of school early today. The soldiers did not allow the gym teacher or the science teacher to cross.
Meanwhile, the woman with the baby is still waiting in the blue Golf. The mother straps her baby into his seat; there are only two cars still ahead of her at the checkpoint, an hour and a half after her arrival.
Elderly Jedda Darwish has an American passport and a valid tourist visa for Israel. He’s allowed to walk around freely in Tel Aviv, but not to cross Qalandiyah, American or not. “Irja.”
The entire West Bank is now becoming covered with pho! sphorescent yellow vests. A new ruling that will come into effect in Israel shortly will require every driver to wear this glowing garment when he leaves his car at night on the road. West Bank drivers, whose safety is especially important to Israel, have rushed to buy vests from the many peddlers on the sides of the roads: They know that they will be the first ones to get ticketed for violations. At the Qalandiyah checkpoint they cost NIS 15 each. Instructions for use: “This vest must be worn closed only, for the safety of the wearer. It should not be put in a clothes dryer. It should not be washed more than 15 times. It should not be used for the following purposes: protection from fire, chemical substances, cold, electricity or other dangers.”
It’s 12:25 P.M. and our taxi finally gets moving. Inside are some angry-looking people who are now being forced to pay NIS 15 each and to kill an hour and a quarter, not including the long wait until the taxi fills up–just! to reach the other side of the Qalandiyah checkpoint. On the right is the Qalandiyah refugee camp. We are driving into Ramallah, passing by the homes of El Bireh, on our long trip. The passengers are wrapped in silence. What is there to say? They absorb the humiliation of this stupid excursion, and keep quiet.
Feingold & Son assembled the seats of the shabby van. A passport photo of the driver’s son, a son of refugees from Qalandiyah, is hanging above his head, alongside the little green fir tree that once gave off a scent. The driver’s face is angry, too, although since the closing of the checkpoint he has more work.
The Best Eastern Hotel in Ramallah. The city is trying to create an international impression. To reach southern Ramallah we travel north. Very far north. Then east, and then again south. The village of Sudra, the site of one of the crueler checkpoints in the West Bank, which has been removed. And Abu Kash, a large percentage of whose inhabitants have emigrated to America. In the window of one of the stores we p! ass, there is a display of exercise equipment. To our left is the pleasant campus of Bir Zeit University; indeed we’ve already arrived in the town of Bir Zeit, where most of the population is Christian. Tour and enjoy.
The checkpoint at the exit from Bir Zeit is not manned today; there is increased easing of the closure. The Atara bridge. On the right the road ascends to Nablus, on the left to the Jewish settlement of Halamish. The road becomes hilly, we descend the valleys and climb the mountains on this roller coaster. Jifna on the right. It’s already 1:15 P.M., so far we’ve been on the road for 40 minutes.
As we head toward highway No. 60 the driver puts on his seat belt; there’s a Jewish road ahead. The conditions on the road improve immediately: They are well paved, with no bumps, wide shoulders and lighting. It’s 17 kilometers to the settlement of Beit El, five to Ofra. The driver’s seat belt refuses to close. Ofra on the left, 28 kilometers to Jerusalem! . Finally we are headed south, the direction of our destination. The s ettlements of Ma’aleh Mikhmash, Kokhav Hashahar on the left. It’s quiet today, and there are no surprise roadblocks. “Careful, blind people on the road,” warns a Jerusalem Municipality sign near the A-Ram checkpoint, which is exactly at the entrance of the Helen Keller school.
After 48 kilometers and exactly an hour and a quarter, we have arrived at our destination: the Qalandiyah checkpoint, from which we started out, but on the other side.
The IDF spokesman: “The Qalandiyah crossing was closed because of the great security risk to the IDF soldiers who carry out the security checks there and the direct contact between the Palestinians and the soldiers, which last Thursday led to the stabbing attack in which an IDF soldier was killed by a terrorist.
“Since the new crossing at Qalandiyah, which promises better protection for the soldiers and better conditions for the Palestinian residents, is expected to be opened soon, the IDF Central Command has decided! not to take any unnecessary risks, and to wait for the opening of the new crossing. It should be mentioned that in spite of the closing of the checkpoint, humanitarian cases and residents of East Jerusalem are being allowed to cross there.”
A naive question: If it’s dangerous for the soldiers, and if it’s possible to cross–but only via the long and expensive route–why not just get rid of this ridiculous checkpoint?
GIDEON LEVY writes for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.