Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Palestinians are doomed to a life of hardship within their divided territories. Condemned to pass through dozens of checkpoints to be meticulously and endlessly searched, they are required to wait for long periods whenever they arrive at a checkpoint or barrier with their identification documents and permits to cross in hand.
A person traveling from Ramallah to London would arrive before someone traveling from Ramallah to Nablus, which is only approximately half an hour away at the most. However; today, it takes seven hours to get there if the security is tight or if the situation is aggravated.
Sometimes it is impossible to travel from one city to another when they are declared closed military zones. Trips made during such times put Palestinians at the risk of being detained or getting caught in the crossfire in a homeland where barriers, walls and divisions transform it into disconnected ‘cantons’ and a few military-guarded prisons.
In most cases, Palestinians do not leave their cities unless they are compelled to do so, fully knowing that they are banned from entering some cities without first obtaining special permits that are issued by the Israeli authorities in accordance with specific criteria. Even those holding the aforesaid permits are not always guaranteed entry to a city such as Jerusalem, for example.
Gradually and over time, Israeli roadblocks have become considerable barriers with the ability of dividing two states. Palestinians stand crammed at these crossings waiting for hours on end to be allowed passage after being searched thoroughly and questioned meticulously by the soldiers on duty.
Crossing some of the roadblocks requires passing through a metal detector and being strip searched in a nearby room – should the guards warrant that search for security reasons. Not a day goes by where Palestinians are spared the long wait under the beating sun or rainfall whilst others among them have been detained, humiliated, fired at, provoked, gassed or killed. All this can happen in one city, a day or an hour with every raid and operation carried out by the Israeli army in the cities, villages and camps.
A caricature artist, Essam Ahmed leads an ironically miserable life that is far removed from the one he depicts. He is bitter when recounting how he has to pass through three fixed checkpoints and other mobile ones on his way to work in Ramallah every day. Living in Bethlehem, he has to leave his house hours before he is due at work despite the journey time between the two being no more than an hour.
He recounted how he has to wait for hours to gain entry into Bethlehem for no apparent reason. He often talks about looking for work in neighboring cities after having been subjected to countless humiliating situations – he even contemplated just quitting his job without making future plans.
Essam told Asharq Al-Awsat of the two-kilometer long queues where the cars have to line up and wait by the checkpoint known as “containers” that separates Bethlehem from Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. He added that in order to avoid the abuse and degradation, some Palestinians resort to traversing the rugged terrain on foot, which takes over three hours to get to a location that is 100 meters away from the checkpoint.
Residing in southern Bethlehem, Mohamed al Faqih has discovered an effective weapon that can sometimes get him through the barriers on the road to northern Nablus. Married to two women, Mohamed has to travel quite frequently and he cannot recall the number of barricades he has to go through on a given day.
When under severe stress, Mohamed resorts to impersonating famous political figures, “every time I find myself stuck there, I start to impersonate Israeli politicians. This eases the tension both for myself and for the people, and it also distracts the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints,” he said.
Fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew, he also impersonates prominent Arab politicians, including Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Anwar Sadat, King Hussein, Prince Hassan Bin Talal and Hosni Mubarak, among others. He also does uncanny impersonations of Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin. Al Faqih reveals that his antics amuse those waiting to get through whilst also relieving some of the tension – even compelling some of the soldiers to adopt milder attitudes.
Many crowd around al Faqih and request certain ‘characters’; some ask him to mimic Hassan Nasrallah or Osama Bin Laden. Al Faqih is able to lighten up the scene and make people laugh; however, he said, “sometimes it helps lift the mood and the soldiers become less hostile and aggressive and more willing to cooperate.”
It is most often the Israeli soldiers’ mood that is the determining factor in facilitating or hindering the passage of the Palestinian commuters and travelers. Some of the Palestinian youth say that they inquire as to the soldiers’ moods and dispositions at certain checkpoints before making the journey down. When they are in a bad mood, it could cost these youths arrests, physical assaults or detention for hours on end. Others, however, inquire about the origin of the soldiers: Israeli Jews are better than Arab Jews [Mizrahi Jews or Mizrahim] who are better that the multi-national mercenaries that sometimes stand guard.
Human rights organizations have reported countless cases of emergencies where people were gravely sick but were still denied access across barricades. There are no exceptions and nothing is taken into account – not even the month of Ramadan where people are forced to break their fast by the Israeli checkpoints.
A month ago, the Israeli army admitted that a Palestinian woman was forced to give birth at an Israeli military checkpoint near Abu Dis after being denied entry into Jerusalem for over half an hour.
Diane Rumi told Asharq Al-Awsat that one of the Israeli border guards was compelled to help deliver her child in the street. This happened after she was forbidden to enter Jerusalem after the town of Abu Dis had become outside the borders of the separating wall.
According to the latest Palestinian Ministry of Health figures, since 2000 until early 2007, 68 Palestinian women have been forced to deliver at Israeli checkpoints in full view of the Israeli soldiers who ignored their pleading and screams as they begged them to allow them to go to a hospital. The figures also reveal that 34 babies were stillborn under these brutal circumstances while four women died of complications.
This same report upholds that during the Intifada, the Israeli army had ordered the siege and closure of all Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps transforming it into a huge prison and preventing people from getting back home or to work – even the pedestrians. As a result, 137 people died at Israeli military checkpoints, of which 49 were women, according to the report. No matter how critical or deteriorated their condition was; the Israeli occupational forces denied them access to hospitals.
But the Palestinians always managed to respond to the Israeli attempts to shut down and complicate matters for them with a renewed resolve to discover new arduous roads to use or by sneaking past unnoticed. Still, these walls continued to close down doors and usurp a lot of land, demolishing houses and dividing and displacing many families.
But it is not only the families who are suffering; Arabs living in Israel are not allowed to go to Palestinian cities such as Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarem and Jenin. Once open markets for them, the merchants in these cities are complaining about the blockade, price rises and the general bad state which their trade is suffering.
Although the wall follows the Green Line, it deviates slightly to include Jewish settlements and Palestinian land. In some areas, the wall is an eight-meter concrete structure, while other areas have extensive barbed wire, not to mention various control towers and electronic security warning systems.
A resident of the village of Nazlat Issa, located near Tulkarem, Abdel Hakim Abdel Khaliq (40 years old) used to live with his wife and four children, all of whom are Israeli citizens except himself. They abandoned the village after the construction of the wall to the neighboring Baka al Gharbiya village. Both villages had formed one Arab town together before the wall was erected; the houses and the families living in close proximity.
Abdel Hakim points to a tall building that lies 100 meters away, explaining that his wife and children live in it and that he can only see them once a week, since every time they try to visit him they have to traverse 30 km to the nearby village of Barta’a al Sharqiya, which is a border village located southwest of Jenin, and then wait at the gate for over an hour to be able to get into Nazlat Issa. The whole process takes three hours, while Abdel Hakim is unable to visit his family since he lives in the West Bank and does not hold a permit that would allow him entry into Israel.
“It normally takes five minutes to get from Baka al Gharbiya to Nazlat Issa,” said the frustrated father. However, this is but one account of the suffering and hardships that the Palestinians endure and call their lives. Between the strict and nonstop Israeli army patrols and the increasing difficulties to get from one place to another – even if they are mere meters away – the Palestinians are subjected to more restrictions and are locked down on their own land.
Upon completing construction of the wall, it will be 786 km around the West Bank and the rest will be transformed into pockets and enclaves. According to official estimates, 343,000 Palestinians will be isolated between the wall and the Green Line while the land of 522,000 Palestinians will either be isolated or destroyed.
Estimates also predict that Israel will practically include 43 percent of the West Bank land. The wall divides the West Bank into three main areas: The north includes Jenin, Tulkarem and Nablus; the east includes Salfit and Ramallah, and the south includes Bethlehem and Hebron. Surrounding these areas, there will be isolated pockets spread on the outskirts of the West Bank, such as Jericho and Qalqiliya, which are completely enclosed within the wall, which will only have one entrance that the Israelis can lock whenever they wish to do so.
Notwithstanding, Palestinians are confronting this bleak picture with hope. They do not believe their leadership’s empty promises and instead hold steadfast to their own hope and faith. On large expanses of the wall they have painted beautiful pictures and they discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall with renewed optimism.