The word itself may sound innocuous, but checkpoints are neither points nor places where people are checked for this or that possible infringement. Checkpoints are military zones–formless, ugly– where the mechanisms of humiliation try to turn human beings into tiny little creatures, struggling not to lose their cool under the loud, rude blare of microphones.
True, Israeli military checkpoints around Jerusalem and across the West Bank have been substantially reduced in number over the past few years; transportation is easier. But the truth remains that for those trying to get in and out or through Jerusalem, checkpoints are ugly reminders of all that is wrong, offensive and stupid in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Checkpoints are manned by Israeli kids, who are barely out of high school, so young is their appearance. Many of them scream and yell and treat the passers-through with crude force, shielded as they are by thick, dusty glass. Today, it was my turn to be humiliated and screamed at. I simply had not known that I had to place my passport where I should have placed it. I did not see the instructions, which are small and not terribly visible. The young woman behind the glass flipped, or so I thought so loud was her voice, so wild her scream. My first impression was that something had gone terribly wrong in the strange world behind these glass separations. And my first reaction was to wonder what kind of help she would need. But I was soon proven wrong when I realized that while this was not a young woman gone crazy, in another sense it was because it is insanity which reigns here–no question about it! The incident passed, after a few minutes of tension, but for the Palestinians checkpoints are part of their daily reality, day in and day out, year in and year out. On wheelchairs, on foot, in large families, small groups, Palestinians endure the state-sanctioned humiliations of checkpoints.
Is there anything more to say about checkpoints? They are the cites of everything that is at the dark edge of human capacities, everything that is stupid, everything that is brutal, which is the real face of the occupation. The Palestinian writer Azmi Bishara has devoted an entire book to checkpoints. The Checkpoint, like its subject, hovers somewhere between reality and fiction, and yet it is a profound book, in the way in which it is hard to imagine turning the wretched sites into literature. But he has done it, and that is the great achievement of the Palestinians:that despite the utter horror of life, they manage to build little nests of goodness and transcendence, and I am no lilly-white optimist in this matter. But they do. They are, despite the checkpoints.
PS. Just as I finished this post from a café in Ramallah, a fellow traveler from Pal Fest, and I were chatting about this very last idea in the previous paragraph. How can you write about the cruelty of checkpoints with any sense of style and grace? Don’t, she said. Just write as a journalist, just write what you see. Nothing about cruelty and humiliation and all that stuff, she said.
Well, there will surely be a counter-post soon written in that journalistic style. For now, this stuff about humiliation and cruelty will have to stay, I’m afraid.