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IHT: “At the checkpoint, waiting for Palestine”

By Fareed Taamallah International Herald Tribune

QIRA, West Bank As the line behind me grew, I read a novel. The drivers behind me leaned on their horns. I advanced a few meters and returned to reading “Memory in the Flesh,” by the Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi, thinking of her presentation of the ravages of colonialism from the viewpoint of its victims, enjoying the passion of the language.

I was interrupted by the siren of an ambulance trying to get through the checkpoint with a patient. I moved my car a bit to let them pass.

The Zaatara checkpoint, where I was waiting, is one of dozens inside the occupied Palestinian territories, restricting the movement of people and goods. It’s the only passage between the northern and central West Bank.

This week, during Ehud Olmert’s first visit to the United States as Israel’s prime minister, he will claim that under his “convergence plan,” Israel will withdraw behind its wall, leaving most of the West Bank. But under Olmert’s plan, Zaatara, 27 kilometers inside the West Bank, and other checkpoints like it, will remain under Israeli control, dividing the West Bank into several “bantustans.”

I looked at the two young soldiers arrogantly manning the checkpoint, with dozens of people awaiting a sign from them. At last the soldier moved his finger. A taxi edged forward. The driver got out, still far from the soldier, holding the passengers’ identity cards. The soldier signaled to the driver to remove his T-shirt. Checking IDs takes 10 minutes per car. Palestinians are required to carry Israeli-issued identification cards to present at checkpoints inside the West Bank. If the soldier keeps the card, the Palestinian cannot travel.

Unfortunately, I must cross Zaatara to reach my office in the city of Salfit. I spend from 90 to 120 minutes daily at the checkpoint, despite living 8 kilometers from my office.

Wondering how I could best use this waiting time, and avoid the checkpoint’s tension, it struck me that I could read. For the last few months, I’ve carried books in my car.

I was staring at the soldier as he shouted at a woman holding a crying baby. He ordered her to dump her bag’s contents on the ground. Then he forbade her from crossing because she lives in Tulkarm, a city whose inhabitants are currently being collectively punished. A few youths were forced to sit for hours under the sun just because they are under 30 years old, or for trying to cross the checkpoint on foot.

While we waited in a long queue under searing heat, Israeli settlers in airconditioned vehicles bypassed the checkpoint in their special lane.

Israel says these measures are vital to stop suicide bombers from flooding into Israeli cities to terrorize the civilian population. But I can’t imagine a suicide bomber standing in a long line deep inside the West Bank, waiting for soldiers to check his ID and car. Determined people can always travel through the hills, avoiding the checkpoints.

Checkpoints are the most intimate contact between Israelis and Palestinians. This contact occurs over a barrel of a gun. An Israeli friend of mine told me the main Arabic phrases they teach in the Israeli Army are “Stop or I’ll shoot you”; “Go back”; and “Forbidden.”

At 9 a.m., it was my turn. The soldier waved me forward with his finger. As I do every day, I stepped out of my car to hand him my ID. On the side of the road, a soldier whose face was partially hidden beneath his helmet pointed an automatic rifle at me, his finger on the trigger. I opened the trunk and he returned my ID to me without a word.

I left the checkpoint wondering whether my generation will witness a day when Palestinians write novels about the old days of suffering under occupation, as Ahlam Mosteghanemi did. What stories will we tell about the checkpoints? Will they be stories of bitterness or steadfastness, pain or hope?

Fareed Taamallah, a peace activist, works as the coordinator for the Palestinian Central Election Commission for the district of Salfit.