To Qalandiya for coffee

// January 27th, 2013 // Reviews

Roni, Vivi and Tamar are Checkpoint activists: more than activists they are devotees, enthusiasts, even obsessives.  For ten years or more they have been going regularly to Checkpoints, military courts and prisons, like terriers, monitoring what passes for a legal system, harrying soldiers, officers, judges, trying to make them act in conformity with the laws of war or the laws governing occupation. They face not so much a monstrous wall of silence as a vast, labyrinthine bureaucracy in which rules are invented and disinvented, arbitrary decisions are made and unmade. Remember the Caine Mutiny?


Roni is the granddaughter of a man who died with his own child in Auschwitz. Before he died he charged a fellow-prisoner to return to his town and tell the story and fight to prevent such things ever happening again. Roni feels she is carrying on this responsibility: for decades she has fought in defence of human rights. Vivi was born in Iraq and her story serves to recall the deep irony and tragedy of Oriental Jewish culture. The Jews were prominent in every walk of life, they were even central to the Communist parties of Iraq and of Egypt, but with the rise of nationalism and the build-up of Jewish settlement in Palestine, their position became untenable. A few years after Vivi’s parents came to Israel the ‘67 war opened up the West Bank to them and her mother would go to Arab neighbourhoods addressing the men as ‘Sir’ like in Baghdad. One day someone asked she why she spoke so respectfully to Arabs… Tamar is a seasoned warrior: throughout our visit she is taking pictures for the record, her Facebook page is pure politics, and she writes a column twice a week on the Occupation.


Machsomwatch  (Checkpoint Watch) is an organization of women. They operate a rota to be on hand regularly observing what goes on at crossings like Qalandiya, which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Why only women? Israeli men, they explain, are almost all connected to the military: they have done military service, and if they do not remain in the army, they are at the disposal of the army for a month every year until the age of 45 as reservists, and they cannot but help falling into a military way of talking and of course shouting even when they are campaigning for the defense of human rights. They get into pointless disputes with the soldiers at the crossings, sometimes concerning their units or petty rivalries. Women on the other hand keep their cool (more or less): they realize the soldiers are just cogs in the machine following a strict protocol, and also, they say, the soldiers are young and can associate these women with their mothers, even with their grandmothers.


Human rights work becomes a routine: it has to be a routine because one important feature of it is to document the repetitive, bureaucratic character of violations and in the Occupied Areas of the endless petty abuse which people undergo at these crossings. So they get to know the peddlars, streetsellers, taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, kiosk-owners and street children from the neighbouring refugee camp, who populate the precincts of the checkpoint, trying to sell the last desirable trinkets that capitalism can produce. Street children touch your sensitivity: as a regular visitor and activists if you give them money that produces a perverse relationship, so to deal with the pressure Tamar hit on the idea of taking pictures of them and then when she returns the next week she brings the pictures. They has been in this campaign long enough to see street children grow into adults. They help people with getting papers if they can – like getting them off blacklists, or the precious permits to work in Jerusalem, available only to men over-30 – and they visit people in prison. Blacklists exist to put people on, not to take them off, and if one inquires the authorities might discover that they don’t know why someone is on the list, or that the reason is trivial or out of date, so they take the name off.


The Checkpoint watchers have become part of the bedraggled Palestinian urban landscape which stretches from Jerusalem to Ramallah, via Kalandia. It is a 20-30 minute drive, during which one watches the roads getting narrower and the debris of urban life more intrusive. The housing is not poor quality, but the roads are poorly maintained and ill-kempt on account of neglectful environmental services. On the way they meet up at their usual café in the East Jerusalem district of Bet Hanina and are greeted warmly by the staff in fluent Hebrew.


As we approach the dividing line enormous walls appear on the side of the road, random cement blocks litter the roadside, watchtowers pop up, and a sense of chaos builds up. This is one highly fortified, checkpoint out of 524 barriers, roadblocks and terminals and 61 checkpoints spread across the tiny area of the Occupied Territories.


Amidst the bureaucracy there is nevertheless plenty of repartee, squabbling, and point-scoring. We hang around the parking lot and then approach a fence. Soldiers’ voices boom over a very high-volume loudspeaker. A private security guard approaches them from the other side. Exchanges follow and he says ‘It’s a pity we have to protect the houses of people like you’.  Then we queue to go back through the turnstile: when their turn comes Vivi and Tamar are held up and of course get into an argument with the soldier who seems to find it something of a joke. When they tell him I am a journalist the soldier asks ‘Why do you bring Israel into disrepute?’. As I go through they call a policeman who asks me for my camera: I ask why and he says I had taken a photo of the soldier; I say ‘no I didn’t’ and then he asks the soldier who also says ‘no he didn’t’.  Finally we have a cup of coffee at a kiosk-on-wheels in the car park.


This week nothing much happened: last week there was stone-throwing and return fire. Nothing has an explanation: today the queue was short, another day it can take hours and hours. Suddenly a stone is thrown…, something crops us, all hell breaks loose – or maybe just the purgatory of a long wait or a detour via another crossing.


So what is all this trivial stuff about? It’s about tying people up in knots, multiplying rules and inventing them on the spot.  Roni, Vivi and Tamar spend much of their time trying to make sense of detailed regulations and procedures, and trying to find out who is responsible for what.


Later at another checkpoint the conversation’s tone changes: a chatty, handsome soldier comes over and say he is a leftist too, but he has to do his job. A long conversation ensues. Suddenly he gets a call and returns to his station where he stops every passing yellow taxi. Maybe he has been told to look out for a taxi-driver. If so the driver will have been alerted by the build-up of a queue at the checkpoint. Maybe just an unpaid parking fine; maybe something serious. Probably something trivial, but that is their job: to keep a track of trivialities because so much abuse is in the trivialities. Tamar takes pictures of the taxis as their drivers are questioned.




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