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Checkpoint harassment – everyday ‘normality’?

17th March 2016 | International Solidarity Movement, al-Khalil team | Hebron, occupied Palestine

Occupied al-Khalil (Hebron) is a city of far too many checkpoints. Operated by heavily armed Israeli forces, they create obstacles that  all Palestinians must cross in order to go about their daily lives in al-Khalil: to go to school or work, to visit friends or even just to go grocery-shopping. These checkpoints become a ‘normal’ feature of everyday life—as does being delayed, stopped, searched and questioned, even denied passage by Israeli forces when attempting to traverse these checkpoints. It is a normality that should not exist.

As many are forced to pass through these checkpoints regularly, some of the soldiers and border police begin to recognize faces, to get to know and target people. Some will close the metal turnstile just after opening it for someone to pass, making them get stuck; some will ask someone who already passed through the metal detector without setting it off to take off some of their clothing, to go back and forth again repeatedly, pointlessly through the metal detector. It often seems, to those passing through and watching as the soldiers harass those attempting to cross, that the Israeli forces are enjoying the power they have over the people forced to endure their humiliation. At times they act childishly, soldiers manning a checkpoint cracking up laughing as they manage to stop the turnstile halfway through, at just the right time to make people crash into it as they try to walk through. Sitting in their small walled-off guard posts with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, these Israeli soldiers are given total power to decide the fates of Palestinian civilians—children, adults, women, elderly people—an unjust, unreasonable power to determine what will happen to anyone passing through the checkpoints.

Many Palestinians try to avoid checkpoints at night, when it’s dark. As a foreigner in Palestine, I enjoy certain privileges in contrast to Palestinians, privileges that make passing checkpoints much easier for me. For example, a tourist or international will rarely be asked to remove metal items and walk back through the metal detector repeatedly until it no longer beeps, nor will they have their bags emptied and thoroughly checked, be arbitrarily detained, or invasively searched. I am sometimes permitted to cross checkpoints or enter areas most Palestinians are barred from. I am also far less likely to be physically assaulted, beaten or killed by Israeli forces. The life of a foreigner, it seems, is worth more to outsiders and media than that of a Palestinian; there might at least be a media outcry if soldiers did something to a light-skinned European. But a few days ago, passing a checkpoint in the vicinity of Ibrahimi Mosque at night, things changed…

As I attempted to pass I recognized the two soldiers at the checkpoint as the ones that tend to make passing a long-drawn-out process, harassing anyone trying to pass as much as possible. This did not surprise me when I was repeatedly ordered—In Hebrew, a language I, as well as many Palestinians, do not understand— to go back through the metal detector even though it did not beep. One of the soldiers came out of the small walled-off room they use to control the checkpoint to stand on the other side of the high gates, ordering me to take off my jacket, which I refused. After some discussion, they allowed me to pass to the other side, past the metal detector and turnstile to the far side of the soldiers’ control post, he then ordered me to hand over my bag to the soldiers.

It was a gloomy night, in an area with no real lights, deserted except for the soldiers. I was alone with the them, as the person I had been walking with was trapped on the far side of the checkpoint, behind the locked turnstiles, waiting to pass and unable to see what was happening.

After putting my bag on a cement roadblock, one of the soldiers started searching for something in his trouser pockets while the other kept a close eye on me, watching my every movement. As the soldier kept going through his pockets searching for something specific, I started wondering what he was looking for.

After many Palestinians were gunned down at checkpoints in recent months, not only in al-Khalil but throughout the West Bank, knives suddenly ‘appeared’ next to them. Many Palestinian women have told me of how they are scared that soldiers would plant a knife in their bag when ‘searching’ it at checkpoints. Standing in the dark at this checkpoint, these thoughts crossing my mind, I started worrying that this might happen to me as well. Would the soldiers put a knife in my bag? And would they arrest me when ‘finding’ the knife, or would they shoot me? Would anyone believe that a knife was planted in my bag? Would anyone believe me more than any Palestinian this has happened to? Having already lived in al-Khalil for a long time, repeatedly crossing checkpoints, knowing that these soldiers always try to harass and intimidate me, I started wondering how much they must dislike me. I started doubting my privileges—international media would likely believe the soldiers’ story in any case, as they have so many times before when Palestinians were killed. Would this be the last time I passed this checkpoint? There was no-one around witnessing what was happening – no-one but me and the soldiers. Fortunately, after harrowing moments that dragged on for what felt like about five minutes, the soldier took a flashlight from his pocket, starting to comment on whatever he saw in my bag.

For a few minutes, I had experienced that fear, that terror which soldiers operating with impunity would turn harassment at a checkpoint into something worse. For Palestinians living under the illegal Israeli military occupation, this fear is part of everyday life. This fear, that something might happen when passing a checkpoint – for Palestinians living under the illegal Israeli military occupation, is part of everyday life.

As international media and governments turn a blind eye to the daily, ongoing human rights violations by Israeli forces, Palestinians are denied the basic rights that European and US politicians tend to speak so highly of, criticizing every small infringement – except those against Palestinians. This ridiculous ‘double standard’ has continued for far too long; it is about time to stop turning a blind eye to the situation of the Palestinians under illegal Israeli military occupation. Global forces looked the other way and ignored repeated UN resolutions as Israeli forces trampled human rights for generations of illegal occupation. The international community has stood idly by for sixty-seven years too long already.

As humiliation and intimidation are routine parts of passing checkpoints and going about life under military occupation, people have learned to adapt, to come to expect and learn to arrange their lives around something that is not supposed to be part of anyone’s life. As humiliation and intimidation often is part of the experience passing checkpoints and living under military occupation in general, one learns to ‘accept’ or ‘arrange’ with something that is not supposed to be part of anyone’s life. This is not only about human rights and basic freedoms, about being able to pass a checkpoint without fear, but it is also about dignity – about being treated like a human being.