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Palestinian Bingo

by Linda Bevis

On Dec. 23, several ISM members visited the area where the Israeli forces (IDF) had blocked the road joining the city of Nablus with three outlying villages: Azmut, Salem, and Deir al-Khatab. Besides blocking at least two access roads to Nablus, the army has dug a large, steep moat to keep people from crossing fields to reach the Nablus access road. We had heard that the villagers were suffering from being cut off from jobs and food and hospitals in Nablus, as well as suffering from pollution coming from the chemical plant of the Israeli colony/settlement called Alon Moreh, which sits on two hills overlooking the three villages.

The roadblock is intermittently staffed by the IDF. Usually there is one Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) (looks like a tank, except it doesn’t have a large gun), with 3-4 soldiers at the wall of red earth that is the roadblock. Every time a Palestinian approaches the roadblock, slipping and sliding on the steep muddy paths approaching it from either side, the soldiers take his or her ID card. Then the Palestinian must wait in the rain and cold until the ID is returned. (These IDs are issued by the Israelis and are necessary to move around the country and to enter hospitals, etc.).

When we ISM internationals first arrived on the afternoon of Dec. 23, about 20 Palestinian men were crouching in the rain, forced to face one direction and not to move. The soldiers, meanwhile, were taking their time checking every ID by telephone. They seemed to wait til 10 or 15 IDs had been checked before allowing any of the 10 or 15 people to leave. Occasionally, the soldiers would allow one or two people who approached the roadblock to pass directly on through. Unfortunately, this had the effect of convincing more Palestinians to try to pass through. In our three days of roadblock watch so far, we have found that the vast majority of Palestinians who have tried to pass through the roadblock have been stopped and held for 2-7 hours. Those stopped have included men, women, and the occasional donkey. Usually, younger children, very old people, and people so sick that they are on stretchers, have been allowed through with minimal (though not the absence of) hassle.

During negotiations, the soldiers explained their behavior to us in the following ways: “this is a game of Palestinian Bingo: we gather all the IDs and sometimes we have a “bingo” and find a terrorist.” Thus, I understand Palestinian Bingo be a strategy of not only criminalizing but actually arresting an entire population, in hopes of sifting through them to shake out likely suspects. The soldiers insist that this harassment and collective punishment is “justified by the end result” of occasionally catching someone they believe might be trying to bomb children in Tel Aviv. Clearly they are fearful, often making men bare their bellies (to show no explosives) before allowing them to approach the soldiers.

Unfortunately, on the night of Dec. 23, the “bingo” was our friend Omar al Titi, who has been helping the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement and who had led us down to the roadblock thinking that any security check on himself would reveal that he was not “wanted”. That night, however, after making Omar squat with the men for 3 hours, the IDF said that he was a “wanted” man and arrested him (true? or just trumped up charges to punish the ISM?). Although internationals tried to block the APC’s exit, Omar was taken away. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

The ISM has been successful at the roadblock in ensuring that no one was beaten or shot while we were there. The people tell us that our presence helps prevent this, as well as preventing some of the more egregious humiliations such as being made to kneel in muddy rainwater (in plentiful supply). However, the people also tell us that sometimes their punishment is doubled after we leave, thereby emphasizing that we cannot afford to ignore places that we begin to help.

At the roadblock, we witness various levels of power games. One captain admits he’s been reprimanded for hitting soldiers and indeed he is the most rigid about making the detained men squat and face a certain direction – handcuffing any who attempt to speak to him. In another power trip, a young soldier with round glasses constantly aims his machine gun up the hill at little boys shouting far in the distance. When I stand before the rifle saying “I hope you aren’t going to shoot anyone”, he replies, “they’re throwing stones”, though they aren’t. He keeps aiming and I keep standing in front of the muzzle til my partner helps me realize that this is his power game with me. So I distract with another request to let the detainees go. Later, in the rain and dark, only one detainee is left, but the Captain will not let him go. At first, he says it’s because the man refused to call neighbors over to this Venus Flytrap of a roadblock when ordered to do so. Finally, the Captain tells us “because of you. You push too much. If not for you, this man would be gone.” We realize then that we have pushed our political discussion too far, and this last detainee has paid the price. We ask if it would help if we step back. He nods and we step away, out of the shimmer of APC headlights. Minutes later, this last detainee is freed. We have learned all kinds of lessons about power today.

It has been overpoweringly heartening at the roadblock to watch Palestinians approach Israeli soldiers (mostly 18-25 year olds here) as human beings and negotiate with them. There was ‘Assem, a high school counselor, speaking to the soldiers: “Tell me, human to human, what is the solution? Our village is cut off from food; our people are hungry, our animals are starving, we cannot get to our jobs, and we cannot get to the hospital. We are starving, what is the solution? If you tell me, I will try to do it. Tell me, not as a soldier, but as a human, what should we do?” There was Haithem, who works in the Nablus Tourism Office (a grim job this year!), walking up to the soldier and saying: “I did not try to sneak across the field, I did not try to climb over some mountain. I came here, to you, to this checkpoint. Now I am asking you to let me go to my job in Nablus, or let me go home to my two girls who are coming home from school now and will have noone at home to care for them.” And there was the man whose name I didn’t get, organizing the group of 20 today (Dec. 25): “Alright, everyone who has been here since 7 am and waited here patiently for the last 7 hours, stand in this group here. Everyone who has just arrived and been detained, please stand over there. Now, I ask you soldiers, even though your shift has just changed and everyone looks new to you, to please let all of us who have been here since 7 go home. Thank you.”

We also witness various levels of humanity from the soldiers. One APC crew allows the Palestinians to complete unloading animal feed across the roadblock, while the IDF checks IDs. Another crew allows the detainees to stand, sit and build a fire. They give a canteen of water to a devout student of Islamic studies who wants to pray. They allow some old women and women with children to pass across the roadblock without security checks. Most soldiers (especially the dual citizen from Baltimore) feel compelled to justify their obviously unkind job as moral, in order to protect Tel Aviv babies from bombs. But humane or abusive as each individual man is, all are still soldiers in an army whose rules require them to systematically and consistently violate international law by collectively punishing an entire population of men, women and children. In Palestine, all 3 million people are being forced daily to play one big cruel and unpredictable game of Bingo.

And amazingly, all of a sudden, all of those IDs which take “so long” to check according to the soldiers, materialized and were returned – all the ones that the soldiers had had for 7 hours AND the ones that they’d only had for 1/2 an hour. Suddenly, at 3 pm today (Dec. 25), all the people detained during the day were released. Who knows why – were the soldiers tired of standing in the rain, guarding old men and school girls and one soggy donkey? were they tired of the internationals and hoped they’d leave? were our calls to Hamoked (human rights organization) and the IDF spokesperson bearing fruit?…. The only thing that was clear was that it does NOT take a long time to check IDs, and if the soldiers really were there simply to increase Israeli security by checking IDs, the process could take less than 10 minutes for any one person.

Even though Captain Arial Zev of APC # 753731 claimed that he was not doing this to “humiliate” and that he was “just following orders” (his own words were not in response to anything we had said, for we had found engaging in political discussion fruitless and counterproductive), his actions spoke loudly of collectively humiliating and terrorizing and starving the people and animals of three small villages – a heroic group of courageous people retaining their dignity and community while trying to survive.

And as I sit here in an incongruous internet cafe in the midst of a refugee camp in Nablus and write this report, I wonder whether our replacement shift saw a whole new group of folks detained. I wonder how the two young men got home after we met them on the road and warned them that they’d most likely be detained if they tried to pass the roadblock. And I wonder where Omar is tonight. Is he, like 90% of the male Palestinian population who has been to prison (currently there are 5,500 in prison) being beaten and forced to stand all night tied to a pipe in some freezing, dripping courtyard, or bent double in a cold “closet” covered in a burlap bag soaked in feces? I dedicate this report to you, Omar al-Titi, as you showed us the way to the roadblock, and opened up your heart and house to us. I hope that the coming days find you free – and increasingly safe and warm.