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Negotiating Daily Life: Land Access and Checkpoint Encounters

by Steph, November 6th

During this last week while I’ve been picking olives in the Nablus area with Palestinian families and occasionally encountering/confronting soldiers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of negotiation in daily life here in Palestine, and also about the role of internationals in that. I often find myself in situations where Palestinians ask for us to talk with soldiers in order to help them gain access to a place, but I’m concerned about how this sometimes could be seen as accommodating the occupation.

Here are some examples of situations I’ve been in recently:

Aside from going through checkpoints, one of my first contacts with soldiers this week was during my third day of harvesting, in the village of Tel. Four of us internationals went to Tel because farmers there often have problems crossing the settler road that cuts between their village and most of their agricultural land. Although Palestinians have the right to access their land, this village had reported recent incidents of denied access.

In the morning, we headed down the hill towards the road, a large and lively group of families and donkeys. Just as we began to cross the road, a jeep of four soldiers pulled up and ordered everyone to stop. The 20-minute conversation between the soldiers and us internationals was something to the effect of them telling us they knew that the farmers had the right to cross the road, but insisted they needed to see IDs from the four of us, as well as from the young men in the group. We tried to reason with them, asking that they let the farmers go ahead, but they would not budge.

It went on and on like this for a while. The soldiers took the hawwiyas (ID cards) of two young men, and claimed they had to check on them. Eventually, the villagers decided to turn back and take another route to their land, through a drainpipe under the road. Some farmers explained that the soldiers often deny them the right to cross the street, telling them instead to go under it in this way. I don’t know what the point of this is, other than to make life more difficult for Palestinians.

When we were told that we were cleared to go, we informed the soldiers that we would stay with the 2 men whose hawwiyas they had taken, until they were finished with them. They seemed surprised by this and immediately returned them to their owners, clearly not actually needing to check up on them.

In this case, I wondered what might have happened if we weren’t there, and my question was answered the next day when our contact in Tel called to report an incident in which soldiers held some farmers who were not accompanied by internationals for over an hour, and dumped a few bags of picked olives onto the ground. I’ve learned this week, mostly through the incidents in which we were not present, that the high court decision about farmers’ rights to access their land safely is only selectively enforced. At the same time, it never feels good to try to negotiate with soldiers for rights that Palestinians already legally have, even if it works at the time.

On Saturday evening, on the way home from dinner, we got a call that Sabatash Checkpoint, on the outskirts of the city, was closed and about 200 Palestinians were waiting in the rain and cold. Thinking we might be able to change the situation, we headed over there at 8:45pm. We arrived to a tense situation of about twelve packed taxis and buses in line and over 100 men in the street waiting. Soldiers had blocked the checkpoint with razor wire and were just standing around. It was dark, raining and cold, and the watchtower was shining a spotlight all over the crowd. People who had been there since 2pm told us about an incident earlier in the day when a man was shot in the leg for verbally defending a woman who was touched by male soldiers after refusing to lift up her shirt. Nobody had been allowed through the checkpoint since.

The eight of us walked up to the checkpoint, and a few crossed the razor wire against the soldiers’ orders to go back. We began talking with them, asking why they wouldn’t let anyone through, and trying to appeal to them by explaining that many had been waiting for over five hours in the cold and rain. It took a lot of talking and complaining and negotiating, but within twenty minutes the soldiers agreed to allow the women through, then the university students on buses, the trucks, and finally, after two hours, the shebab (young men).

While it’s clear that the presence of eight American and European activists was a positive force in changing the situation (after nearly seven hours of closure, they reopened it within twenty minutes of our arrival and confrontation), it does not remain in my mind as a success. As we left, I felt uneasy, thinking about all the times we aren’t able to be there to make changes, and then reminding myself that relying on our presence as internationals in order to open checkpoints, grant land access and provide protection, also isn’t a solution to the problem. In fact, it makes me feel even more a part of this brutal occupation.

The next day we were called back to “Sabatash” and told it was once again closed. When we arrived, the lines of people were moving, but slowly. We decided to leave but then realized that the soldiers were not going to let a group of women walk through, claiming that only people in cars could pass. This is a difficult place to get a taxi and it was cold out, so we tried once again to negotiate them through. A soldier told us he needed to stick by his orders, and couldn’t in his conscience allow them through. Most of our responses to him went something like “But isn’t it worse to have on your conscience that you made a group of women with small children stand in the cold?” and “How would you feel if someone made your mother or sister do this?” Eventually, we suggested that the soldiers get a taxi so the women could go through, and they agreed. We left feeling infuriated that it took international activists relentlessly making suggestions and bothering them, to get the soldiers to actually do it. And once again our involvement made a small change in the situation, but not in the occupation or in this all-too-common process.

If I am in a place where I am asked by Palestinians to try to make a difference, and my negotiating or confronting soldiers can make a situation even temporarily better, I of course feel obligated to do it. Meanwhile, I struggle with my part in creating expectations that Palestinians (or internationals) must negotiate for rights that are either already there on paper, or should be. This is also not a sustainable solution, and I hope that we can all continue to use various tactics in order to directly challenge the occupation, even while trying to maintain a basic level of dignity here in daily life.