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Land of the Checkpoints

Went with Dorit to the evening arranged by Machsom Watch at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and, though we arrived late and left early, we couldn't help but leave with the conclusion that the system of machsomim (checkpoints / roadblocks scattered throughout the West Bank) is intended to make life as difficult as possible for Palestinians. That point is indisputable - everything else is philosophy. You can ask why this is so, what purpose it serves, whether it benefits Israel in the short or the long term, whether it is effective in preventing terrrorism, improving the lives of Israelis or settlers, etc. What cannot be questioned are the consequences for Palestinians, who are most directly affected by the system.

To the Palestinians, one of these consequences is that virtually every journey they make from one area to another area within the West Bank (not to speak of traveling to Israel) requires a permit. Obtaining a permit is an ordeal, and the journey that follows the receipt of the permit is also an ordeal. Many of the main roads are blocked to all Palestinian traffic and only Israelis can travel these roads. Other roads are open but require passage through checkpoints. Going through a checkpoint requires a long, sometimes agonizing wait, and at some checkpoints transferring from one vehicle to another, since cars are not allowed through. Sometimes there is also a five hundred meter walk from one vehicle to the next. Other journeys require ridiculously circuitous routes, off-road travel, etc.

In addition to the permanent checkpoints, there are also temporary ones which are sprung by surprise by the military. At these checkpoints too, there are lengthy waits, and many cases of people being turned back. Often, decisions are made by individual army units or individual soldiers, acting according to their own initiative. Such decisions particularly affect the sick, pregnant women, and elderly people, who may need to reach a hospital quickly, with or without a permit, or who are physically unable to wait for long hours in the hot sun.

It does not always help that a sick person is being transported in an ambulance, since these are equally regarded with suspicion and often delayed. Dr. Salach Hajihia (Physicians for Human Rights) gave a fresh example from a few days ago, of a man who was being transported in an ambulance following a heart attack. After being delayed for twenty-five minutes at a checkpoint, he died before reaching hospital.

Permanent and surprise checkpoints themselves are not the only kind of obstacle encountered by the population - there are many others, including earth mounds, trenches and concrete blocks that often close off villages. There is also Israel's security barrier, that is currently being built. The barrier, which cuts deeply into the West Bank, often divides farmers from their lands. In urban areas such as east Jerusalem, it divides children from their schools, and the rest of the population from municipal services, hospitals and work places. The barrier follows a seemingly arbitrary path, with the needs of the Arab population being a minor consideration.

Because the meeting at the Van Leer Institute was arranged by Machsom Watch, much attention was given to the matter of the checkpoints, but other areas where the occupation affects Palestinian life were considered too. Attorney Michael Sfard of "Yesh Din" ("there is justice") spoke of the complete lack of recourse to legal protection for Palestinians. While Israeli settlers are policed by a special police division for Judea and Samaria, the civilian Palestinian population is policed only by the army, with no practical possibility even to submit a complaint at any police station. The police stations are usually in the settlements, and therefore out-of-bounds for them. If they do attempt to file a complaint (Yesh Din has tried to help with this), the police, according to Sfard, have no means or authority to conduct an investigation. Sfard pointed out that this is an apartheid system par excellence.

The system means that Palestinians are powerless when settlers steal or damage their crops, olive trees and property. Settlers have also frequently assaulted farmers, ordinary citizens, and even elderly people.

As evidence of a system of "ill will" towards the occupied people, Sfard gave a final example of the army taking an active interest in protecting the wild thyme that grows throughout Palestine. Every spring, Palestinians go out into the fields to harvest this herb. But since in Israel thyme is a protected plant, the army has decided to uphold law and order, and prevents the harvest. Sfard was making the point that the army suddenly finds that it has time to consider ecological needs, whereas it finds it impossible to consider the needs of the civilian population under its control.

As mentioned, the one indisputable fact of the occupation is its effect upon the lives of the Palestinians. Whether all of these measures are in some way justified, or in some way effective (and to what purpose), is another matter. Once, a foreign journalist told me he was unable to understand how Israelis could manage to live beside an oppressed and willfully antagonized population. The truth is that many Israelis do so by leaving these concerns to the politicians and trying to get on with their lives.

Trying to be 20 in Jerusalem

A photographer came in the office today, Dinu Mendrea - a Romanian born Israeli. He asked to see the article about Neve Shalom in Marie Claire magazine. He had worked with the photographer of that article in the past. The last such assignment he had done was a photo essay to be titled "Being 20 in Jerusalem, " - part of a series of books about being twenty in various world capitals. The deal fell through at the last minute, but Mendrea's work became an exhibition that has traveled around the world. He calls it "Trying to be 20 in Jerusalem". In his own words, many of the subjects appear to be looking inside themselves. They do not succeed to be young and carefree in the same way as other people in the world perhaps can. The exhibition, and other work by Mendrea can be seen at http://www.photomendrea.com/. Mendrea says that, in his work, he avoids news stories. He thinks that reportage of the conflict helps to perpetuate it. But I wonder what he would have thought about the exhibition of photos portraying the checkpoints, which hung at the Van Leer Institute today. I believe such photos may have an important role in helping to remind Israelis what happens at the checkpoints, or on the other side of all the walls and barriers. And, for that matter, one of the movements represented at the event "Shovrim shtika" (Breaking the Silence) also started its life with a powerful photo exhibition.