Huwarra checkpoint is the main checkpoint to the south of Nablus, and probably one of the worst ones that I have experienced in Palestine.
Every time I pass through, people are being humiliated in many ways: screamed at, beaten, detained, forced to wait for no reason, arrested, you name it. Some days it is open, some days closed. Some days women can get out, some days not and if you are from one of the refugee camps, you might as well forget about being able to get through Huwarra, even on a good day.
So approaching the checkpoint sometime around 4pm, we saw just what I feared; the checkpoint was crammed with people, all of them crushed in a mass trying not to get wet in what was a day of constant rain and bitter cold weather, as well as suffering the beatings and abuse of the soldiers manning the checkpoint. Having been stuck there before in a similar yet less intense version of this situation for at least an hour (but in good weather), I decided that we should just use our privilege as foreigners and just walk through the checkpoint. I had never done this at Huwarra, or any checkpoint, for that matter, but with the weather nasty and the checkpoint even nastier, I just had to do it. So we walked confidently (and inside quite guiltily) past the hundreds of Palestinians, who had been waiting there for hours, and flashed our passports to the soldiers there. They waved us on, but then changed their minds and said to check in with the officer at the end of the checkpoint. We went to him and he asked us the usual stupid questions;
Q: Did you get special permission to be in Nablus?
A: Sir, we were let through the checkpoint when we arrived.
Q: Where did you stay? A hotel?
A: Yes, at the Yasmeen hotel.
Q: Is it a five star hotel?
A: Sir, I have no idea how many stars it has, it is a good hotel.
And more like that; stupid questions asked by young boys with guns that have a slightly hard time mustering up the kind of racism and nastiness that comes easily when questioning Palestinians. After a very poor search of our bags, we passed through Huwarra. Just before leaving, I stopped when I saw that 3 or 4 young male Palestinians were being detained in a small area of the checkpoint. I turned around and asked the soldier that had just let us pass “How long have those boys been there? Why are they there?” The soldier said to me “They hit a soldier,” and made a motion like a slap.
This just made me so angry inside I can’t tell you. Myself and every other person I know that went through that checkpoint that day saw soldiers hitting and beating Palestinians. Of course, I’ve seen it many other times as well; activist friends of mine have been arrested for allegedly beating a police officer, which are just plain lies told by the police (even the Israeli judge in one case stated that he was “outraged” by the behavior of the police). It seems a logical axiom that if one is charged by the Israeli military for beating a soldier, that means a soldier assaulted you.
“They hit a soldier,” he said. So, in response to the officer, I mustered as much sarcasm as I could manage without screaming, and said “Well, that’s too bad,” and walked away (for more descriptions of what checkpoints are like, I highly recommend an article by Gideon Levy, Theater of the Absurd).
And so I left, angry, guilty, just plain revolted at the injustice and brutality of it all. If this was my daily life, what would I do with all these emotions? How would I survive?
Next was to arrange a ride to Ramallah, the next large city before crossing into Jerusalem. What followed was a crazed and dysfunctional process of getting either a taxi for the two of us or waiting until enough people trickle through the checkpoint to fill up a shared taxi.
While we were haggling over prices, we had a surprise; who shows up, but our friend who left hours before us! He had arrived at Huwarra at 1pm, and did not pass through until 4pm!! Even he had tried to use his passport to get ahead of the line, but to no avail; they told him to wait his turn, and that he did. Needless to say, he was happy to see us, and I could not imagine what I would be like mentally after 4 hours of being crushed in a sea of people, in that weather, while watching soldiers beat and abuse people the whole time.
He joined us in the shared taxi, but our travels had not ended yet! Off we went from Huwarra in the pouring rain and thick fog, which did slow traffic from its usual somewhat too fast driving pace, but as a lovely Christmas present to Palestine, the IOF had a few more hurdles to get past. Usually, the next manned checkpoint is at Zaatara, not too far down the road from Huwarra. But on this day, there was an impromptu “flying” checkpoint, as they are called, both before and after the Zaatara checkpoint. It usually consists of an army jeep/truck blocking the road with soldiers out waving people to stop or keep going.
Sometimes taxis alert each other ahead of time and they can be avoided, sometimes not. So, before getting to Ramallah we had to show our IDs and be assessed by soldiers at checkpoints three times. Each time is much like the other, the humiliating experience of being treated like possible criminal just for traveling in Palestine. And as awful as all these experiences were for me yesterday, it is nothing compared to what a Palestinian has to go through. My time here has given me the barest, most basic taste of what it is like, but I would never claim to ‘know’; in the end, I am a foreigner, and eventually, I will leave Palestine with my all powerful passport and white male privilege intact.
And then to Ramallah we arrived. After a walk in the rain, we got our things organized for the next leg of the journey, the crossing at Qalandia checkpoint into the ‘Greater’ Jerusalem area which the Apartheid Wall is annexing to Israel as we speak. Qalandia Checkpoint has always been another one of those nasty, abusive and in the past, makeshift checkpoints, and with the construction of the Apartheid Wall, Qalandia is out of control; blocks of cement, railing, piles of gravel and dirt, fencing, razor wire, sniper towers, and plenty of subversive graffiti, of course. Right next to this is the most surreal thing; where there was once a hill, the hill is no more, and a brand spanking new, shiny and gleaming terminal-like building has been constructed, along with a parking lot and a large sign with a picture of a flower, next to which is written in three languages “The Hope of Us All.” Myself and other activists who have seen this feel that it is only a matter of time until: “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Despair all ye who enter here” are spray-painted in its place.
This is the new (improved�) Qalandia terminal, paid for by US tax dollars, of course, and it is a cruel joke. I don’t know which is worse, walking through a random assortment of concrete and steel while soldiers point guns treat you like dirt, or a spotless post-post-modern cross between an airport terminal and a sanatorium, with soldiers sitting behind bullet proof glass and yelling commands through a machine while they sit comfortably, as if you are some infected microbe that they dare not be in the same room with. The walls are complete with screens that say “welcome” and other signs saying “please keep the terminal clean,” and “enjoy your stay.” Who was it that designed such a cruel joke? This checkpoint is miles past the 1967 green line, well into Palestinian land, and no one has any possibility of ‘enjoying their stay’ while they are being humiliated, whether up front or by remote control.
So, do you think that that is it? Nope, one more checkpoint, a quick stop while taking a bus to Jerusalem. Everyone on the bus has the process down: lifts up their IDs, the border policeman comes in, looks at them, and then waves us on (on a good day of course). It was close to 9pm when we got to the hostel, a journey of 60 kilometers took about 5 hours (for Aaron, 9 hours) and we had to pass through 6 checkpoints in the process.
And people ask, when will peace come to the Holy Land? God only knows, when people are forced to live like this.