My daughter, and the other neighborhood kids who attend Friends School in Ramallah, usually take a public bus in the morning. As long as they leave before traffic builds up, it’s an easy ride from Jerusalem—no checking of identity papers, no searches by soldiers. But the return to Jerusalem can take hours through military checkpoints and sometimes requires the dodging of obstacles and dangers.
Because of these erratic conditions, we mothers take turns bringing the kids back by car, either the long way around through the Beit Il checkpoint (which I can do because I have a United Nations identity card) or on the Jeba’a Road through the Pisgat Ze’ev checkpoint. Sometimes I take a risk and drive through Qalandia checkpoint. Once you’re in though, there’s no turning back. You’re stuck for the duration.
Whether on foot or by car, going through military checkpoints is miserable. It might take 20 minutes or it might take 2 hours, but either way, I go through emotional turbulence. Sometimes I’m stuck on a simple (existential?) question: Why does someone else decide if I get home or not and whether or not I’m late? Sometimes it’s more logistical: If boys start to throw rocks, how can I get out of the checkpoint before the tear gas flies?
Occasionally there are amusing or thought-provoking incidents at the checkpoint. A few weeks back I was near the front of the line at Qalandia when rocks started raining down on my car and the cars around me. The drivers jumped out of their cars furious at the boys, “You’re hitting us, you fools. The Israeli watchtower is over there. Learn to aim!” And recently, coming home with a carload of children through a different checkpoint, we encountered a soldier the children named, “the happy soldier” because he seemed so happy to see us.
What do you say to a child when he waves enthusiastically at an Israeli soldier at a military checkpoint? Do you tell him not to be friendly and squash the innate humanity of the child? Or do you encourage him to express his humanity, perhaps awaking the humanity of the solder? Or do you spend the next 20 minutes talking about the complexities of human interactions in situations of structural inequality, thus losing the child completely and embarrassing your daughter in front of her friends? (You can guess what I did.)
Even when I’m alone, checkpoints are hard. How to act? I’ve noticed that if I drive up and hand my passport to a soldier with a scowl on my face, although I intend to communicate my disapproval and non-acceptance, the soldier tends not to notice or care. To be honest, they are often too deep in conversation with one another to acknowledge me. Yesterday a male and female soldier were flirting so suggestively at Qalandia; I felt I had walked into a private bedroom! In these situations, I find I want to shout, to make them feel uncomfortable; to make them know they are unwelcome.
But let’s be honest, if I make a fuss, I’ll delay the line. The drivers behind me will be angry. After all, we just want to get home, have some lemonade and watch Fetafeat, the cooking show, on TV. And it won’t make a difference anyway. Nothing makes a difference. So why make a fuss? But if I don’t make a fuss, what am I saying about occupation?
One thing that especially infuriates me is when they make me get out of my car to open the trunk for inspection. In my trunk I have a gallon of windshield wiper fluid, a quart of oil, and equipment for changing a tire. Sometimes my computer is in there and a box of books and some bags of recycling to deliver. There could be anything in there, but invariably, they glance in the trunk and hand back my passport without comment. So what was it for? It certainly wasn’t a security check. It was harassment. How come I have to drive away furious while they get to go back to flirting without even registering my existence?
Sometimes I’m angry before I get to the soldiers. Sitting in my car, next to a pile of rocks and expended tear gas canisters, I can see them up ahead chit chatting and repositioning their guns on their shoulders. Through the loudspeaker, the soldier who I cannot see in the watchtower to my left shrieks (yes, she shrieks!) “imshi” by which she intends the first several cars to enter the checkpoint while the rest wait behind the line. But “imshi” isn’t the right word for that! She should say “itfadal” (if you please) or “bevakasha” if she wants to say it in Hebrew. “Imshi,” especially in that tone, is the tone that an animal-hater would use to tell a dog to get out of the way, or perhaps, if you were really, really upset, you might use it to tell your child to hurry up.
I feel my muscles tightening just writing about it.
So, when I’m in the car with people who use a different strategy, I am amazed. They drive up to the checkpoint and greet the soldier: “How are you?” with a smile. They hand over their passport and wait patiently. They take back the passport and pause to say, “Thank you! Have a nice day!” How do they do that?
I understand, intellectually, that the soldier is a human being and s/he may not even want to be there oppressing me. I also understand that if I treat the soldier like a human being, s/he is more likely to treat me as one. But I don’t live in my intellect.
What would you do at a military checkpoint?