The Checkpoint: Part 1

A series of vignettes on my experiences at Israeli checkpoints.

Genna and I sit next to each other on the bus. It’s a Friday morning, meaning many Palestinians will be traveling into Jerusalem to pray. Genna and I opted to take the bus through the Tunnels Checkpoint today rather than walking through Checkpoint 300 because of this. We know Checkpoint 300 will be busy, and because of our blue passports we are able to choose the easier route into Israel proper from the West Bank. My host family and hers both are supportive of this choice, although they were not shy about reminding us that this is not a choice they have.

The weight of my privilege, which allows me to travel into and out of Jerusalem whenever I choose, only grows as the bus approaches the checkpoint and pulls up onto the sidewalk. Wordlessly, the younger Palestinians on the bus (those under 60 or so,) stand and exit the bus. Rain or shine, they stand in a line outside the bus to have their papers checked by Israeli soldiers who are likely no more than 19. Genna and I, with our foreign passports, are allowed to stay on the bus with the elderly.

Two Israeli soldiers board the bus, their large guns slung in front of them, and begin checking papers. They barely even glance at our passports as they pass, the guns nearly brushing against my shoulder. Meanwhile the Palestinians’ flimsy permission papers are scrutinized over. I heave a quiet sigh of relief as they make it to the back of the bus without incident and turn around to exit, but that sigh quickly tightens back into tension as they tug at two elderly men. “Get off,” they command in Arabic. “Jerusalem is forbidden.”

There’s no other reason given. The men don’t even really argue as they’re pulled off the bus. They just seem resigned. The rest of the passengers get on again, filing back to their seats silently.

The bus moves forward, minus two passengers.

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The Jerusalem/West Bank Young Adults in Global Mission (JWB YAGM) Cohort approaches the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Our country coordinator Colin decided today was a good day for us to walk through this most infamous military checkpoint. Nearly 26,000 Palestinians cross through this checkpoint every day during their commutes to and from work. The wait can be hours long in the morning.

The area looks like a war zone, with barbed wire spread across the empty land before the checkpoint and watchtowers looking over the grounds. 18 foot high cement walls tower over us, here whitewashed clean but in other areas graffiti-ed with slogans and art calling for justice and freedom in Palestine. Soldiers carrying large guns patrol the area. Ahead of us, a young veiled mother holds the hand of her young child as they approach the pedestrian check.

My heart pounds as we approach the intimidating concrete structure, although I know that logically I don’t have anything to fear. I, an American citizen, will not be harmed. But everything about the experience is designed to be intimidating, from the grim-faced soldiers to the stark concrete and metal barriers.

We put our bags through the scanner and walk through the metal detector with our passports in our hand. Then, single file, we begin to walk through the turnstile to the passport check area. One, two, three of us go through and then it’s my turn. The metal bars turn halfway around before clanging to a stop; I’m trapped in the turnstile. I take deep breaths while I wait for the turnstile to unlock again, realizing I’ll have to head through without the group ahead of me.

When the bars finally unlock, I head into the next room. I’m confused – there’s no signs to indicate where I should go or what I should do. An Israeli soldier catches my attention from a bulletproof glass window. I show him my passport, the Israeli visa facing forward, but he’s clearly displeased. He doesn’t say anything (at least not anything I can understand, he mutters to himself in Hebrew.) Eventually, I figure out that he wants to see my picture page as well, and I fumble the pages as I try and turn them. Feeling increasingly anxious, I press the picture of my face, taken at a CVS in Nashville, Tennessee that feels a whole universe away right now, against the glass. He squints at it for a minute before nodding curtly and gesturing with his gun that I should leave.

I imagine walking through this checkpoint every day to get to work. I imagine walking through the checkpoint without the security of my blue American passport, Norwegian surname, light hair, and colored eyes. I imagine that this checkpoint is in my country, separating my sleepy suburb of Milton from the big city of Seattle. I imagine that this checkpoint was not set up by my military or my police for my security, but by an occupying force that forced my grandparents to flee their homes. I realize that I can’t imagine it, not really, try though I might.

As we walk away from the checkpoint, I feel the knot of tension begin to unravel, being replaced with anger and disgust and despair burning hot and cold all at once. I feel small and weak and powerless and insignificant and scared, and I hate it. It makes me want to scream.

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The van door sliding open startles me awake, and I open my eyes to two Israeli soldiers, guns ever-present, peering into the van. The other JWB YAGM, by now having learned from our experiences driving through checkpoints, give a cheerful and very American-English “hello!”  We’ve seen that being as friendly and American as possible smooths over most of these interactions. I’m too late to join in, still bleary-eyed and fumbling for my passport.

Where are we? When I had fallen asleep we were on our way to Mt. Tabor, all the way well within the boundaries of Israel proper. Why is there a checkpoint here? 

Calling it a checkpoint wouldn’t exactly be accurate – it’s what’s called a flying checkpoint, Israeli soldiers set up on the side of the road pulling over vehicles at random to check them. This one was where it was because we were approaching an Arab village – a security threat, or so they say.

I fall back into a doze, the image of men with guns leaning into our car seared into my retinas.

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As we approach the checkpoint in our 9 person YAGM van, our country coordinator Colin at the wheel and myself in the front seat, I feel my body begin to tense up. I fiddle with my passport in my lap as the soldiers open the trunk of the car ahead of us.

I wonder for a moment if I’ll ever get used to going through these checkpoints, if my heart will ever stop pounding as we approach. Almost as soon as the though crosses my mind, I reject the thought. I shouldn’t ever get used to going through checkpoints. No one should be used to military occupation in their homeland. No one should be used to the kind of capricious injustice that says even if you have “permission” to travel to Jerusalem, the city where your parents were born, a soldier can decide you can’t go. No one should be used to the intimidation and threat of violence. No one should be used to this.

So if I have to feel my heart race every. single. time. we approach a checkpoint, then so be it. Let it be a reminder that this is not normal, that this is not the way people should live anywhere in the world, ever.

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We wait until after dark to head north to visit my extended host family in Zababdeh. After the sunset on Friday, Shabbat has begun and travel through the West Bank becomes significantly easier, the checkpoints manned by skeleton crews . Although it is only 75 kilometers between Beit Sahour and Zababdeh, roughly the same distance as it is from my house in Milton to Seattle, we will have to pass through 4 Israeli checkpoints. Depending on how these checkpoints go, it could take us as much as 4 hours to travel there. Once, my host mom shares, it took them almost 8 hours to make the trip.

As we head down the winding Wadi Nar between Beit Sahour and Ramallah, towards the first checkpoint, I realize there’s another reason we left after dark. After about 15 minutes in the car, both of the boys have fallen asleep. They won’t remember the journey at all, and if we are to get stopped at a checkpoint, they’ll be safer asleep.

My host mom had shared with me that part of why passing through checkpoints is so stressful is doing it with two young children. If they travel while the boys are awake, they have to remind them to sit still, not to reach towards the ground for anything, because any move could be seen as a threat and result in their deaths. It’s hard to impress the seriousness of the situation to a 7 year old and a 3 year old without scaring the life out of them. Easier, then, to travel when they’re asleep.

The darkness, too, means that Israeli settlers are less likely to be out looking to attack passing Palestinian vehicles. A young woman was killed not long ago when a settler threw a rock into her car. Last year, a young Israeli settler mother attacked my host family as they headed to visit Zababdeh, beating on the car while carrying her newborn infant in her arms. My host family wasn’t hurt, but it’s a reminder that this trip north has dangers.

We are not stopped at any of the checkpoints, although we are forced to slow through each of them. For a second, I wonder “if the security threat is so great, how come we haven’t been stopped at all? Wouldn’t the threat on Shabbat actually be greater? This doesn’t make any sense.”

And then I realize I’m thinking like an American, as though there is a rational reason for the checkpoints to exist, as though there is a logic to injustice. The system of injustice here is capricious. It means that sometimes you might not be stopped at all, that if the soldiers want to be home for Shabbat they can leave checkpoints relatively unmanned, that it might take 4 hours to travel 8 kilometers, that you just as easily can be attacked as  ignored. The checkpoints do not represent security. They represent occupation – omnipresent and intimidating, reminding everyone who wants to go see Grandma that if they want to they can stop you, that they are the ones with the power.

On the way back home a few days later, each set of grandparents (in Beit Sahour and in Zababdeh) calls 3 different times to make sure we are okay. Once again, the boys are asleep in the back and I am sandwiched between them. When we cross through the last of the checkpoints unmolested, my host mom heaves a sigh of relief. “We made it,” she murmurs, and calls her parents to tell them we’re safe.

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for people like Hannah who serve as witnesses to injustice around the world and report back to their friends, families, and networks in the hopes of making the world a fairer place. We pray for the individuals and families who must pass through the checkpoint and for the Israeli soldiers who guard these crossings. Help us all to recognize one another’s humanity, especially in the face of fear.
Amen.


Hannah J. is a Young Adults in Global Mission volunteer serving in Jerusalem and the West Bank! Hannah arrived to her placement in Jerusalem and the West Bank in August 2018, along with 6 other young adults from Young Adults in Global Mission, a program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). YAGM sends 70 young people from ages 21 – 29 to nearly a dozen country placements, including to Jerusalem and the West Bank. Volunteers with the YAGM program serve for one year and focus on living in accompaniment with the ELCA’s companion churches. You can read more from Hannah on her blog, Yalla, Hannah. CMEP is very thankful for the writers who contribute Spiritual Resources. However, CMEP does not necessarily agree with all the positions of our writers, and they do not speak on CMEP’s behalf.