Reinforcing mental roadblocks

Violence: Israeli checkpoints put Mideast peace at an impasse.

March 10, 2002|By H.D.S. Greenway | H.D.S. Greenway,BOSTON GLOBE

KALANDIA, West Bank - It is bottom-of-a-mineshaft dark, it's getting cold and the air is electric with tension. We are standing before an Israeli army roadblock, the infamous Kalandia checkpoint, on the main road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat is cooped in his de facto capital much as he was in Beirut 20 years ago.

The soldiers shout at us to halt, voice high pitched, perhaps not entirely under emotional control. My companion raises his hands. I think of colleagues who have lost their lives on lonely roads and at disputed barricades.

The soldiers have a right to be nervous. Snipers have fired at them here, and the week before, six soldiers were slaughtered at a checkpoint west of Ramallah by gunmen who got clean away. Less than 36 hours after our visit seven more lost their lives, along with three Israeli settlers, to a lone sniper at a checkpoint east of Ramallah who also got away.

Checkpoints are becoming central to what is now a Lebanese-style guerrilla war. For Palestinians, checkpoints are a primary symbol of their everyday humiliation at the hands of an occupation force.

During the day this checkpoint will be visited by large numbers of Arabs, some pleading, some cringing, some patiently waiting with anger in their hearts to cross. Some will be held up for hours. Some will be waved through. Some will not be allowed to cross at all, and the time they will lose away from jobs contributes to the plunging economy.

Many, perhaps most, of the soldiers are trying to make the best of a bad situation. But there have been well-documented incidents of harassment and lack of discipline. Pregnant women have been denied access to maternity wards, the sick from medical care, and mourners from funerals. Young men are arbitrarily taken and beaten and young women sexually harassed.

Then there are the shootings. Recently three Palestinians were shot at this checkpoint - the Palestinians say six - and one died. None was even suspected of terrorist activity. The speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Qurei, was wounded in his car for reasons that have not been explained, and nearby a pregnant woman was shot in the shoulder.

Israelis do not have to face this checkpoint. There are settlement bypass roads.

A former deputy mayor of Jersusalem, Meron Benvenisti, recently wrote that the function of checkpoints was to "inspire fear and to symbolize the downtrodden nature and inferiority of those under the occupation."

Benvenisti's bitterness comes from seeing the inevitable attitude of contempt that creeps over armed occupiers for their powerless yet feared subjects of another race or religion. It is a phenomenon I have seen in Indochina, the Balkans, in South Africa. It is by no means unique to Israel.

Few terrorists are caught at checkpoints, and it is possible to scramble around them through the rocky hills, but you never know. When confronting a pregnant Palestinian at a checkpoint, one day, I felt my pity moving to apprehension lest it not be a baby but plastic explosives around her midriff.

Israelis fear that checkpoints are becoming targets. They are right. Here's how one of the hard men of Palestine, Maswan Barqhouthi, explained it to me. "We are not an army," he said, "so we cannot be destroyed. We have our will to continue the resistance, and so we attack the Israelis at their weakest points, settlements and checkpoints. For they are all of what is most humiliating to us."

In this atmosphere of ever-escalating violence, however, it is the checkpoints of the mind that have become impassable. These are two different narratives on either side of the divide. One thinks of itself as conducting a brave if ruthless resistance against a brutal colonial power. The other says it is defending itself against murderers who want only to push the Jews into the sea.

Both sides long for peace, but there is no leadership to give it to them. Arafat no longer has the means or perhaps even the will, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's only answer is: "We have to cause them heavy casualties and then they'll know . . ." Both sides use exactly the same language to justify their violence, but nobody wants to look into the mirror and see the other, and so only death wins.

Death, however, has no business to conduct. Here at Kalandia this night, the soldiers decide to let us pass. As we walk on toward Ramallah, one of them calls: "Tell the chairman I would rather be at home."

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Boston Globe.

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