Checkpoint delay kept me from getting to the bank on time

Because of a 30-minute wait in the broiling sun and baking heat today, I arrived less than five minutes too late to get to the bank — and it was Thursday, normally the last day of the working week here in Jerusalem, Israel.

Luckily, my bank — which is in East Jerusalem — will be open a few hours on Friday morning (because it will be closed on Sunday), unlike other Israeli-chartered banks.

But, that means I’ll have to line up again to go through the checkpoint tomorrow, too.

Ar-Ram checkpoint to leave Dahiet al-Bariid

One thing that really makes me mad is when people cut in line, because they think their time is more valuable than the others. What’s worse is that some people allow others to cut. I jumped out of the car once this week already to ask the driver in front of me why he let somebody cut ahead, when we had been waiting so long. “Because he asked”, the driver replied. I wonder what else he would allow, if only somebody just asked …

Here is the clean and well-kept (NOT) path for pedestrian passage through the checkpoint. Notice the commanding perch on the upper right.

Ar-Ram checkpoint - pedestrian access.

Now, after 30 minutes waiting, I am just one car from being checked!

Ar-Ram checkpoint - Exhibit A

The soldiers (apparently they’re actually Border Police) — and the private contractors (in navy-blue shirts and bulletproof vests, carrying big black automatic weapons) do a thorough job. They demand ID — and this checkpoint is particularly notorious for turning people back, because they are not on a specific (unspecified) “permitted” category. Then, they hold the drivers ID …

Holding the driver's id at the Ar-Ram checkpoint

…. as they make the driver get out to open the trunk, so that they can check his baby stroller and what-not. One time, a soldier held back my U.S. passport, and began to lecture me on how I should not be angry. “So, I should be happy?”, I asked. I had to insist many times to get the passport back, because he wanted to give me a lecture. Finally, someone told him to give me back my passport and let me pass. My passport is getting dog-eared, from having to take it out and put it back several times a day. Sometimes the soldiers stand there and finger slowly through every single page of my passport. And, my passport holder has finally broken under the strain, so my papers are spilling out in the bottom of my handbag — I have to find a new passport case, somewhere…

Checking the BAGGAGE at the Ar-Ram checkpoint leaving Dahiet al-Bariid 31 July 2008

This stressful (adrenalin rushes through the veins and the heart pounds), and humiliating routine is done with an attitude of suspicion and superiority — anyone and everyone passing through here is to be ordered around, and viewed as a threat. And remember, this is done with loaded guns all around…

A Palestinian neighbor told me how I should approach this situation: “When they rap on the hood and bark “BAGGAGE” at you, you should calmly get out and open the trunk, saying ‘bevakasha'”. When I recounted this to dear Eliane, we both rolled around laughing. But you don’t laugh when you’re on the spot.

Israeli friends say to me: “But you should be able to pass the checkpoint easily!”. Yes, maybe, at least in principle — but if there are ten or twenty or even more cars ahead of me in line, and each car taks about five minutes, you can do the math … a 30-minute passage is virtually lightning speed.

But, today I missed the bank. And tomorrow I’ll have to go through the checkpoint AGAIN…

Festival of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank – Jenin

You could get the impression, from some of the statements made by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the Israeli Defense Forces, that Israel’s checkpoints in the West Bank are monitored by attractive and polite young people in crisp uniforms and maybe even wearing white gloves, holding baskets of hard candies (it is too hot for chocolates), and aiming to please their Palestinian “customers” with their impeccable polite, friendly and efficient customer-oriented service.

So, we took our cameras out into the West Bank to investigate this story, and see the actual situation on the ground.

Here are Rajai’s photos of the Jenin Checkpoint:

Jenin checkpoint - Photo by Raja'i Mukahal

Jenin Checkpoint - Raja'i Mukahal

Just coming home — Dahiet al-Bariid

I wrote this before, but seeing is believing.

And, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Ladies and gentlemen, anyone entering my little neighborhood is putting his/her life at risk.

The sign reads:

A lawyer might say this sign gives rather broad discretionary powers to those administering this checkpoint by military force.

My neighbors here, and I, and the drivers and passengers of literally thousands of cars a day, are all in mortal danger in this area, even if just going home.

A warning sign at the ar-Ram checkpoint entering Dahiet al-Bariid

We are so informed by this little sign at the checkpoint (usually referred to as the ar-Ram checkpoint) which is supposed to control traffic going OUT — in the direction of downtown Jerusalem.

This little red sign — in three languages: Hebrew first, then Arabic, AND THEN English — used to be put up only during total closures of the West Bank. Those total closures happen during every Jewish and/or Israeli holiday, and during events such as … peace negotiations.

Now, this sign declaring some unspecified area around it as a “MILITARY ZONE” (though not a closed military zone) is up ALL THE TIME.

This checkpoint is in Jerusalem.

The checkpoint is ostensibly placed here because The Wall is still open up the hill (see yesterday’s post, below).

It might be dismantled soon. Or, it might not be dismantled.

Nobody who lives here knows anything, of course, because people who are affected by these checkpoints and this WALL are never informed of anything that is about to happen, no matter how much it will impact their lives. They are not given the simple respect of clear information.

But common wisdom is that The Wall will be completely closed within the next ten days. And then, this checkpoint is supposed to be dismantled.

This amazing development might, then, be presented to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a success story — a checkpoint dismantled.

So far, maybe 60 out of some 600 checkpoints have been very reluctantly dismantled, months after the Annapolis process began. (Other checkpoints, however, have been reinforced, and expanded.) These checkpoints make life absolutely miserable for tens of thousands of people — or more — each and every day.

However, if I were a betting person, I’d bet that this checkpoint will stay — though there would no longer be any rationale for it.

Here’s how the checkpoint looks while coming from downtown Jerusalem. Normally there is no check for anyone entering this area — but of course there is the little red sign warning that this is a military zone, and that anyone entering is in mortal danger:

approaching the ar-Ram checkpoint on 29 July 2008

Once you’re in this little Twilight Zone, between the checkpoint and, up the hill, the still-open gap in The Wall, there is an Israeli military observation post, at the huge administrative complex located beside Neve Ya’acov (inhabited mainly by Canadian and/or religious Jews), just to keep an eye on things:

Israeli military observation post overlooking Dahiet al-Bariid

And, here’s how the checkpoint looks for those trying to get out of the area, to go to downtown Jerusalem.
Luckily, there are not too many cars waiting. Sometimes there are twenty or thirty or more — and it can take several minutes per car, even at the best of times.

approaching the ar-Ram checkpoint to leave Dahiet al-Bariid

Monday in Dahiet al-Bariid – The Wall is still open

It is Monday, and The Wall is still open.

Workers are, however, busy stringing a second strand of razor barbed-wire on the Jerusalem side of The Wall.

Openin in The Wall at Dahiet al-Bariid - 28 July 2008

The work seems to be taking some time — it has been going on for nearly two weeks already.

The Jerusalem side of The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

There are not even any Israeli Border Police or security guarding the workers — testimony to how dangerous this area really is (NOT).

This brings us to the obvious question: if it is so NON-dangerous here, why is The Wall being built?

Palestinian woman passes workers putting up razor barbed-wire

The view of the opening in The Wall from the West Bank side of Dahiet al-Bariid:
The opening in The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

The Wall — and my neighbors being immured

The Associated Press has just posted this photo of the present situation in my neighborhood:

The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid - AP Photo by Muhammed Muheisen

This photo is interesting for several reasons:
(1) the main intrigue is that the woman is rather exposed. My next door neighbor puts on her scarf and robe to hang out her laundry. It is rare to see this state of undress, no matter how hot the weather, and no matter how messy the chore…

(2) the photo shows some of the razor barbed wire that is being placed on the top of The Wall in our area — I have not seen it anywhere else — apparently in preparation for the onslaught of hoards of barbarians once the last two giant slabs are put in place to immure my neighbors. There is, in fact, a double row of razor barbed-wire.

(3) the photo is taken from the West Bank side (the razor barbed wire is only on the Jerusalem side of The Wall in our area.

(4) the photo shows that this house has all new glass windows — evidence of the construction boom on the Jerusalem side in our area, where ruthless market forces are at work. (Everybody here is building, thinking they will cash in soon on their new status, with great demand for housing in Jerusalem from both Palestinians and righteous internationals. On the West Bank side, by contrast, the market forces have caused the value of property to plummet, and many dwellings are simply being abandoned.

(5) But, this building boom is all being done in a political and legal vacuum — because the Israelis say they have no responsibility, this is area B and area C. The building permits are being issued by Ar-Ram municipality — which is notoriously sensitive to, um, there is no good way to say this, financial incentives. Yet, once the two giant slabs are in place, Ar-Ram will not have any further control of the area on the Jerusalem side of The Wall. As the Israelis are fully aware of this, yet say they can do nothing, one has to ask what their considerations are? What will they do, exactly, when The Wall is finally closed (according to rumor, in the next two weeks)? Will they demolish a few buildings? Or….what???

Here is a photo, taken by myself in June, of a skyscraper being built on a lot that was previously (until very recently) zoned as a “green area” — not permitted for building — just a few meters from my windows.

The lot was rezoned quite recently. The construction is proceeding apace — despite the fact that a twin tower built beside it has been deemed (by Ar-Ram municipality) to be illegal, and its nine stories should be reduced to four. Of course, this has not happened, because Ar-Ram will soon have no authority here. Everybody knows what is happening, and nobody is doing anything.

These new buildings are a great hazard to the area, and to their possible future inhabitants. There is no access, except through a very narrow street running perpendicular to The Wall. All the neighbors protested a few months ago, but they have all dropped out now. There are clearly powerful financial interests behind this construction, and the people said they were afraid. They have also reportedly been offered major incentives. One house next to the narrow access road will give a few feet from its garden, in exchange for the construction of a second story (for family expansion, or for renting), for example …
Another photo of big machine lifting concrete blocks - 25 June 08

Uri Avnery on Jerusalem and East Jerusalem

In his weekly article, circulated today by email, Uri Avnery speaks about the abysmal situation in Jerusalem — and in East Jerusalem. He starts just before the creation of the State of Israel:

“Thus I became acquainted with the Arab neighborhoods, among them elegant quarters like Talbieh and Bakaa, which became the centers of Jewish Jerusalem after the 1948 war. In that war, the inhabitants fled/were driven to East Jerusalem and settled there – until these neighborhoods, too, were conquered by the Israeli army and annexed to Israel.

“THE ANNEXATION of East Jerusalem created a dilemma. What to do with the Arab population? They could not be expelled. The destruction of the Mugrabi quarter opposite the Western Wall and the brutal expulsion of the Arab inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City had already caused much negative comment throughout the world.

“If the government had indeed intended to ‘unite’ the city, they would have accompanied the annexation with some immediate measures, such as conferring automatic citizenship on all the Arab inhabitants and returning their ‘abandoned’ properties in West Jerusalem (or, at least, paying compensation.)

“But the government did not dream of doing so. The inhabitants were not awarded citizenship, which would have given them the same rights as the Arab citizens of Israel in Galilee and the Triangle. They were only recognized as ‘residents’ in the city in which their forefathers had lived for over a thousand years. That is a fragile status, which accords Israeli identity cards, but not the right to vote for parliament. It can easily be withdrawn.

“True, in theory an Arab Jerusalemite can apply for Israeli citizenship, but such an application is subject to the arbitrary decision of hostile bureaucrats. And the government, of course, relies on the Arabs not to do so, since that would mean recognizing the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation.

“THE TRUTH is that Jerusalem has never been united. ‘The city that was reunited, the capital of Israel for all eternity’, was and has remained a mantra that has no bearing on reality. For all practical purposes, East Jerusalem remains an occupied territory.

“The Arab inhabitants have the right to vote for the municipality. But only a handful – city employees and those dependent on government favors – exercise this right, because this, too, means recognition of the occupation.

In practice, the Jerusalem municipality is a city government by Jews for Jews. Its leaders are chosen by Jews only, and see their main purpose in Judaizing the city. Years ago, Haolam Hazeh magazine disclosed a secret directive to all government and city institutions to make sure that the number of Arabs in the city did not exceed 27.5%, the exact percentage that existed at the time of the annexation.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the elected democratic mayor of West Jerusalem is also the military governor of East Jerusalem.

“Since 1967, all mayors have seen their job in this light. Together with all the arms of government, they see to it that Arabs living outside the city do not return to it, and that Arabs living in the city move out of it. A thousand and one tricks, large and small, are employed to this end, from the almost total refusal of building permits for rapidly growing Arab families, to the cancellation of residency rights for people who spend some time abroad or in the West Bank.

“The contact between Arab Jerusalemites and the inhabitants of the adjoining West Bank, which had been a closely woven fabric, has been totally severed. Jerusalem, which served as the economic, political, cultural, medical and social center, has been completely cut off from its natural hinterland. The building of the wall, which separated fathers from sons, pupils from their schools, tradesmen from their clients, physicians from patients, mosques from believers, and even cemeteries from the newly deceased, serves this purpose.

“In Israel, people say that the Arab residents ‘enjoy the benefits of social insurance’. That is a mendacious argument: after all, the insurance is not a free meal – it is paid for by the insured. Arabs, like Jews, pay for it every month.

“Arab residents have to pay all municipal taxes, but receive in return only a fraction of the municipal services, both in quality and in quantity. The schools lack hundreds of classrooms, and their standard is inferior to the private Islamic schools. Trash removal and other services are beneath contempt. Public gardens, youth clubs, gardening – cannot even be mentioned. The inhabitants of Kafr Akab, located beyond the Kalandia checkpoint, pay municipal taxes and receive no services at all – the municipality says that its employees are afraid to go there.

“THE JEWISH public is not interested in all this. They don’t know – and don’t want to know – what is going on in the Arab neighborhoods, some hundreds of meters from their homes.

“So they are surprised, surprised and shocked, by the ungratefulness of the Arab inhabitants. A young man from Sur Baher recently shot pupils of a religious seminary in West Jerusalem. A young man from Jabal Mukaber drove a bulldozer and ran over everything that crossed his path. This week, another youngster from Umm Touba repeated exactly the same act. All three of them were shot dead on the spot.

“The attackers were ordinary young men, not particularly religious. It seems than none of them was a member of any organization. Apparently, a young man just gets up one fine morning and decides that he has enough. He then carries out an attack all by himself, with any instrument at hand – a pistol bought with his own money, in the first instance, or a bulldozer he drives at work, in the two others.

“If this is indeed the case, a question presents itself: why is this being done by Jerusalemites? First, because they have the opportunity. A person who drives a bulldozer at a building site in West Jerusalem can just crash into a passing bus in the next street. The driver of a heavy truck can run over people. It is relatively easy to carry out a shooting attack, like the recent event at the Lion’s Gate, the perpetrators of which were not caught. No intelligence service can prevent this, if the attacker has no partners and is not a member of any organization.

From the utterances of the commentators this week, one can gather that they cannot even imagine the anger that accumulates in the mind of a young Arab in Jerusalem throughout the years of humiliation, harassment, discrimination and helplessness. It is easier and more amusing to go into pornographic descriptions of the 72 virgins waiting for the martyrs in the Muslim paradise – what they do with them, how they do it to them, who has enough energy for them all.

“One of the main contributing factors for the stirring up of hatred is the demolition of ‘illegal’ homes of Arab residents, who are quite unable to build ‘legally’. The dimension of official stupidity is attested to by the demand of the Shin-Bet chief, voiced this week again, to destroy the homes of the attackers’ families, for the sake of ‘deterrence’. Apparently he has not heard about the dozens of studies and the accumulated experience, which prove that every destroyed home becomes an incubator for new hate-driven avengers.

This week’s attack is especially instructive. It is quite unclear what actually happened: did Ghassan Abu-Tir plan the attack in advance? Or was this a spontaneous decision in a moment of excitement? Was this an attack at all – or did the bulldozer driver run into a bus by accident and try, in a state of panic, to escape – running over his pursuers, becoming a target for a shooting spree by passersby and soldiers? In the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that pervades Jerusalem now, every road accident involving an Arab becomes an attack, and every Arab driver involved in an accident will in all probability be executed on the spot, without a trial. (It should be remembered that the first intifada broke out because of a road accident, in which a Jewish driver ran over some Arabs.)

“AND AGAIN there is the question: what is the solution to this complex problem, which arouses such strong emotions, feeds on deep-rooted myths and causes such moral dilemmas for millions around the world?

This week, a lot of proposals were presented, such as building a Berlin-style wall through the middle of Jerusalem (in addition to the one going around it). To punish whole families for the acts of their children, much like the Nazi ‘sippenhaft’. To expel the families from the city or to cancel their resident status. To demolish their homes. To take away their social insurance benefits, even if they have paid for them.

“All these ‘solutions’ have one thing in common – they have been tried in the past, here and in other places, and found wanting.

“Except one, clear solution: to turn East Jerusalem into the capital of the State of Palestine, to enable its inhabitants to set up their own municipality, while keeping the whole city as an urban entity united under one super-municipality in which the Arabs will be equal to the Jews”

Problems entering Bethlehem through Checkpoint 300 – the Rachel's Tomb crossing.

I went to Bethlehem Thursday afternoon, and was held at the checkpoint for TWO HOURS waiting to get INTO the West Bank.

Bethlehem - Checkpoint 300 - the main crossing - photo by the Rev. Julie Rowe

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) liaison office in Tel Aviv, which is supposed to coordinate and facilitate access for foreign press, spent all that time negotiating with the Israeli Border police in order to enable my entry.

They did so the previous time I went to Bethlehem, when I was held one-and-a-half hours while trying to get INTO Bethlehem. Then, the IDF liaison office suggested that the next time I go to Bethlehem, I coordinate with them, so this would not happen again.

So, I decided it might be wise to take this advice, and I called and coordinated with the IDF in Tel Aviv, giving them my Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) card number, and my U.S. passport number as well.

The same Border Police figures were on duty this Thursday as the last time. I remembered them, and they remembered me.

You cannot pass.


“Did you get in the last time?”, the man at the gate asked. “Really? You did? I can’t believe it”:

Yes, I replied, I got in the last time, and I am going to get in this time as well.

Bethlehem - Checkpoint 300 - the main crossing - photo by the Rev. Julie Rowe

What was the issue?

It was never explained to me the last time, though an Italian priest with the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church said it was because I was driving a rental car, which the Border Police asserted — completely wrongly, in smug ignorance — did not have insurance to travel to Bethlehem.

As a matter of fact, I have gone with this same rental car at least thirty times into Bethlehem, not to mention the hundreds or perhaps now thousands of times I have been to Ramallah and areas of the West Bank nearer my home. It is leased from one of the East Jerusalem car rental companies who provide, for people like me, cars with two separate insurance policies — one effective in Israel, and one that is in effect for the West Bank.

By contrast, the Israeli car rental companies — including Eldan, Avis, Hertz, and Shlomo Sixt, among others — make their customers sign waivers saying they are aware they are forbidden to drive their cars in the West Bank.

I explained this to olive-green-uniformed types — one, a young woman with a very big black automatic weapon — who were my first interlocutors, and then to several other Police officials in light blue shirts and dark blue trousers.

You don’t understand, the young woman in an olive green uniform with a big black automatic weapon told me, (patronizingly, it must be said): this car can get stolen in Bethlehem.

(Many of these border police officers and even the IDF who operate at other checkpoints have never been on the other side of their checkpoints, and they imagine them as a place of total terror and chaos, not as places where ordinary human beings not too unlike themselves are trying, just trying, to live.)

The Border Police spokesman, Moshe Pinchee — who I had tried to call earlier, at the suggestion of the IDF liaison officer in Tel Aviv, but who told me he was in a meeting and would call me back, but whe didn’t — spoke over my phone to the blue-shirted types at the checkpoint, and then said to me that I got in the last time despite the regulation concerning rental cars, which he said he was previously unaware of. He, the Border Police official in charge of facilitating crossing at Border Police-controlled checkpoints, was unaware of a regulation? What kind of regulation is that?

Are you acting as an agent for the Israeli car rental companies, I asked?

If this is really a regulation, as you are saying, it should be publicly known clearly in advance, accessible for everyone to know well in advance.

It should be painted on a billboard at the checkpoint (say, in English, Arabic and Hebrew – which were all official languages during the British Mandate in Palestine, and English is still the common language here, and is used during all the peace negotiations.)

It could also be put on the internet (in the same languages). It could be printed in brochures and given to car rental companies, and to the Foreign Press Association.

A regulation is not something just pulled out of a hat when somebody pulls up at the head of a long line of hot and nervous people at a checkpoint.

The owner of the car rental company said he would immediately fax the West Bank car insurance certificate to them, if they provided me a fax number. I asked the Border Police at the Bethlehem Checkpoint for a fax number — one, I said, for a fax machine which they would be watching, not an unattended fax machine where the fax would just come in and lie there for hours while I baked outside in the afternoon heat and the burning sun.

Finally, they gave me a fax number. The fax came in. The blue-shirted types came out and discussed the paper.

So, I said, you have the fax. Yes, they replied, but it’s in Arabic, and we can’t understand it.

Arabic is an official language of the State of Israel, I replied. And, I added, you didn’t expect a car insurance certificate for the West Bank to be in Chinese, or even in Hebrew, did you? (I later asked them to give me the fax, and then I saw that while the form itself was in Arabic, all the information — the type of car, year, plate number, date of validity of the insurance, etc. — was entirely in ENGLISH!)

Arabic may be an official language, the IDF liaison officer told me, but people are only required to speak their own language.

What is the West Bank?, said the girl in the olive green uniform with the big black automatic weapon.
What do you mean by the West Bank?, she insisted, in that flat tone of people who don’t speak English very well.

That’s when I lost it. Was her English so deficient? Or, was she making an ideological argument, because she preferred to hear the politically-laden terms used by the religous nationalist settler movement, who call it Judea and Samaria?

What is the West Bank?!?!?!!!!! I began to speak loudly What is this checkpoint??? What is this Wall??? At least we can agree that that, over there, on the other side, is the West Bank!!!!

Then, one of the blue-shirted types with epaulettes with three stars said: She is shouting, she cannot enter.

Pull your car over there (in the full exposure of the sun), he said. This is an order.

I am not going to wait in the hot sun, I said. If you want me to wait, you should bring me some water. I would also like some tea, with sugar.

The three-starred officer laughed, then stopped abruptly. I think you are serious, he said.

I am serious, I said, and you have no respect for people. You have absolutely no respect.

As I drove off looking for a shady spot, I passed an unmarked Border Police post about 150 meters ahead of the checkpoint, where two olive green jeeps were parked. I got a quick glimpse, while driving past, through the door of a corrugated tin walled and roofed room, of three young Palestinian men standing inside, detained, in the full blistering heat.

An hour later, the IDF liaison officer in Tel Aviv said, this is ridiculous. This is more than that, it is stupid.

Another half hour later, he said the order had been given to let me pass. Go to the gate.

I went to the gate, and the guy inside waved his hand at me to go back. “Who said you could go in?”, he asked. The IDF, I replied. Who? he asked, apparently puzzled. THe Israeli Defense Forces. He still looked puzzled. The Army. No flicker of comprehensive. Tsahal, I said, finally. Oh, he said, lifting his eyebrows in surprise.

One of the blue-shirted types, a junior one, who had earlier convinced the Border Police Spokesman that there was actually some kind of regulation prohibiting the entry of rental cars into Bethlehem, came and took my phone. He snapped to attention, and called the Border Police commander at the checkpoint — the one with the three stars on his epaulettes, the one who said I could not enter Bethlehem because I was shouting, the one who told me if I had a complaint I could write about him, and pointed to his nameplate (written only in Hebrew), and the one who told me his name was Hagai Cohen.

It was immediately decided that I could enter, after they noted the license plate number of my car (as they had done the last time, about a month ago…)

The next time, as friends subsequently suggested, I will simply avoid this checkpoint, and go in another way — longer, but much easier.

And this is supposed to be security! It is sometimes also described, to the press, as customer service offered by the checkpoints to the Palestinian population.

Bethlehem - Checkpoint 300 - the main crossing - photo by the Rev. Julie Rowe

"Israel keen to crack down on East Jerusalem"

This morning, I decided I would make a good try to buy some kaak – a delicious foot-long oval of chewy white bread (maybe it could be described as a cross between a bagel and a French baguette) completely covered with toasted sesame seeds.

The man who sells the kaak in our Twilight Zone used to sell 300 pieces a day, but by early 2008 it was down to 80, I was told by a former resident who — like the previous purchasers of the 220 other pieces of kaak — moved out to get further into town, into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina.

For nearly a year I had wanted to get some kaak to enjoy in the morning — but either I was busy writing, or not dressed, or I didn’t hear the vendor’s call until it was too late and he had already disappeared, around the corner.

But today, I was up, dressed, and ready. I heard the call come from further down the hill, and I went outside to try to intercept the kaak-seller. But, what did I see instead? An Israeli Border Police jeep — olive green, bristling with antennas — careening up the hill, kicking up clouds of dust in its wake, not looking very peaceful.

The military jeep squealed around the corner, and screeched to a halt at the open garage door of my next-door neighbors. A soldier jumped out of the double-doors at the back of the jeep, and — covered by his comrades who stayed inside — he began shouting loudly and agressively at a man and his small son, about four or five years old, who were standing next to their car pulled into the neighbors’ open garage door, and chatting with another man.

The soldier continued shouting, even more loudly and aggressively, and then pointed his big black automatic machine gun at the man and his small son. At that moment, they obeyed his orders, and got into his car, and drove 50 meters up the road, crossing through the still-open hole in The Wall into the other side of Dahiet al-Bariid, the West Bank Side. Their car had Palestinian licence plates (green numbers on a white background).

The military jeep followed them up to the opening in The Wall, and then turned on the Israel-built access road on the Jerusalem side of The Wall, to wait, unseen from the West Bank side.

After a few minutes, the military jeep careened out of its hiding place, and returned back in the direction of where I was standing. It passed, and went further in the same direction, towards the huge Israeli administrative complex, where a number of huge red and white communications antennas (so high that they have lights on the top to warn any planes that might be flying in the area — these could be only Israeli military planes, of course, as no other planes can fly here.

The jeep came and went over the next 40 minutes, making a number of forays to intercept cars. It even crossed opening in The Wall and went into the West Bank side of Dahiet al-Bariid, to intercept a blue car that had been in our area a few minutes earlier, when the jeep was ostensibly out of sight.

I asked the neighbor, what is going on? The Israeli Border Police soldiers — who get overtime for doing their duty in our neighborhood — are telling people that it is forbidden for West Bankers to be in our area.

Isn’t there a better way to do it?

Or, is this part of the crackdown presaged by the remarks reportedly made earlier in the week by Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israeli security agency, or Shin Bet, in an article published in Haaretz under the title: “Shin Bet chief warned of copycat terrorists 3 hours before Jerusalem attack”.

In this article, Haaretz correspondent Shahar Ilan wrote that Diskin said to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee on Monday that: ” ‘If we do not take care of the power vacuum, Jerusalem will turn into a serious problem’, Diskin told the committee when asked about the spate of recent attacks in the capital. The Shin Bet chief called on the government to seal and destroy the terrorists’ homes in order to preserve Israel’s deterrent capability. Diskin warned that sections of Jersualem on both sides of the West Bank separation fence have become security vacuums, and that Israel is unable to properly enforce the law in these areas without deploying large numbers of forces. ‘Today, entering [the East Jerusalem area of] Shuafat requires massing a greater number of forces than it does entering Jenin’, Diskin said”… This article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

So, was this new Israeli Border Police presence in my neighborhood the beginning of a crackdown?

It seems clear that the Israeli military is preparing to close the gap in The Wall in our area. They have given no information, of course, to the residents of the neighborhood, or to anyone who might be affected.

There were rumors that it would be closed at the end of the school year, in June. This week, there are rumors that it will be closed in two weeks’ time — before the opening of the next school year.

But, nobody really knows anything …

View from the West Bank side of the gap still open in The Wall in Dahiet al-Bariid

Workers are putting double rows of razor barbed-wire on top of The Wall on both sides of the opening where the road to the West Bank passes through now. Razor barbed-wire! I haven’t seen this anywhere else on The Wall (I have passed many, many miles of The Wall, but I haven’t seen all of it).

The tension, the misery, the anxiety, the waiting for the neighbors to be immured, the non-stop stream of traffic by the house including heavy trucks carrying all sorts of heavy materials, the dust, the huge pot-holes in the road…

The neighbors say they will be happy and relieved when our opening in The Wall will finally be closed — despite the misery it is causing on the other side.

The neighbors predict that it will be very dangerous then, just on the other side, in the areas now consigned to the West Bank — with many attacks and robberies anticipated.

And, they say, they will be happy when the closure of the opening in The Wall means the dismantlement of the miserable and aggressive Israeli checkpoint down the hill (known usually as the Ar-Ram checkpoint, according to the name of the next village in the direction of Ramallah, once known as the garden of Jerusalem, which became a commercial hub in the region during the boom years of the Oslo Accords, where some some 25,000 to 30,000 Palestinian inhabitants who mostly have Jerusalem IDs now find themselves trapped).

So, I ask, if the Israeli military is going to close this gap — where literally thousands and thousands of cars, busses, and trucks pass each day — couldn’t they bother to inform the people who will be affected?

Couldn’t they put up a big sign, announcing their intention, and maybe the target date — even just an approximate date?

Couldn’t they post a couple of jeeps at the present opening in The Wall to stop West Bank cars in a reasonable and more respectable way?

Do they really have to behave like storm troopers, and point their big black automatic weapons at a father and his small son? Does this enhance Israel’s security?


For more on this neighborhood, see Toni O’Loughlin’s article in The Guardian, It’s like living at the end of the world: “Dirty, dilapidated and desperate, al-Ram is typical of the Palestinian towns cut off by the barrier on Jerusalem’s eastern outskirts” – the photo used for illustration is of this gap in The Wall, just 50 meters from where I have been living, that I am writing about in this post.

Photo from The Guardian - by Gali Tibbon

The description of the neighborhood is good, but the implication that terror attacks come from areas like this is blatantly unfair.

The three most recent attacks have come from Palestinian villages inside Jerusalem at its southern end, it is true. But it is not clear whether any or some or all of these attacks are indeed, terror.

The article in the Guardian reports that “Sufian Odeh used to be able to see his cousin’s house across the street from his apartment window – until Israel built a wall of concrete down the middle of their neighborhood two years ago. Standing eight metres high and just 13 metres from his building, it overshadows Sufian’s second-floor apartment like the wall of a prison, darkening this once thriving Palestinian district…His neighbours fled long ago, as the West Bank barrier crept down the main street of al-Ram, dividing families, separating children from schools and patients from clinics, and severing the road back to Jerusalem. Stranded outside Jerusalem by the barrier, al-Ram has become a virtual ghost town. Palestinian customers who came to Al-Ram from Jerusalem’s centre in search of cheaper prices have disappeared, as have one-third of its 1,800 businesses. Vast numbers of its 62,000 residents, unable to sell their homes, have gone. The abandoned shops, with their ‘for sale’ signs, deserted streets and overgrown gardens are typical of the Palestinian towns cut off by the barrier on Jerusalem’s eastern outskirts. Fearing permanent exile, many have moved back to Jerusalem. Israel conquered east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the Six Day war of 1967. Claiming to unify the city, which was divided at the 1948 birth of the Jewish state, Israel expanded Jerusalem’s limits, tripling the territory inside the municipality …

“From his kitchen, Sufian, can see the last gap in the barrier, through which he travels each day to work near Tel Aviv. It already takes him hours to pass the local checkpoint, and he fears things are about to get much worse: Israel needs only to insert two more concrete blocks to seal the gap and shut al-Ram out for good. When that happens, he will be forced to travel several miles to a new checkpoint, where thousands will queue each day. He is on the verge of joining the exodus to the other side of the wall … ‘Whenever I see the wall, I can’t control this ugly feeling inside me. It’s hatred and anger’, says Sufian”. The full article in The Guardian can be read here .


This brings me to the article in today’s Haaretz, “Israel Keen to Crack Down in East Jerusalem”, written by Amos Harel. He writes: “Responding to the sharp rise in terrorist attacks in the capital, carried out by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities are keen to expedite procedures that would authorize the resumption of punitive measures, such as the razing of terrorists’ homes … Since the start of the year there have been five major attacks in Jerusalem, claiming the lives of 12 Israelis. During the first half of the year, the Shin Bet security service arrested 71 Palestinians from East Jerusalem suspected of being involved in attacks, compared to 37 such arrests during the entire year of 2007. In the first seven years of the second intifada (which began in September 2000), some 270 East Jerusalem residents were arrested for similar suspicions. The same security sources said that the last three attacks in West Jerusalem (at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and the two bulldozer attacks) constitute a new challenge for Israel, and stressed that at present there is no means to counter them. The combination of a lone terrorist, who decides to attack without having an organizational structure behind him, and the freedom of movement an Israeli identity card guarantees East Jerusalem Arabs, constitutes a weak point in Israel’s defenses, making it difficult to prevent similar attacks in the future. The security sources further said that in the near future, efforts will be made to accelerate those administrative processes that will result in the razing of the homes of the two bulldozer terrorists from East Jerusalem … If the order is approved and survives the Supreme Court appeal of the terrorists’ families, the homes of the two bulldozer terrorists will also be razed. A security source claimed last night that one of the reasons for the delay in destroying the homes is that the Shin Bet has yet to officially rule that the attacks were terror-related. However, the Shin Bet has refuted this claim, calling it ‘baseless’. In recent talks among security officials, additional steps for deterring East Jerusalem terrorists were discussed. Past ideas were revived, including that of expelling the families of terrorists involved in serious attacks inside the city, and revoking the Israeli identity cards of their immediate relatives. Such measures would require legislative changes, and legal experts expressed doubts whether such proposals would be approved by the Supreme Court. Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin is in favor of resuming the policy. Speaking at the Knesset prior to Tuesday’s attack, he said that Israel faces a ‘problem of deterrence’ in East Jerusalem because it lacks any effective punitive tool, like razing homes. This article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

A day before, Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz that “In the terrorist’s village, Umm Touba, they were vociferous Tuesday that the whole incident was an accident: the bulldozer driver lost control over the breaks and was shot only because of the lessons of the previous bulldozer attack. This is a common Palestinian argument in attacks involving vehicles, unlike suicide bombings or shooting attacks where the intent cannot be hidden. Moreover, the family members of the terrorist are keen not to lose any of their rights, which they could if their relative is described as a terrorist. One the other hand, it is impossible not to remember the story of the Israeli truck driver who killed four Palestinian workers in the Gaza Strip in December 1987. That accident sparked the first intifada, but the Palestinians are convinced to this day that it was an intentional act”. This article can be read in full in Haaretz here .

Obama is in town

The first word painted on the side of the private jet that brought Obama into Ben Gurion airport last night was: CHANGE.

Obama speaking to the media after arriving in Ben Gurion airport 22 July 2008 - AP Photo published by Haaretz

Yes, Obama as the candidate of change — that is what much of the world hopes for.

Disclaimer: the title of this post was written before I even saw this Jerusalem Post article on Obama’s media caravan/circus: “Barack Obama is in town, along with hundreds of media personnel. Approximately 50 visiting journalists, most of the 400 foreign correspondents based in Israel, and the three anchors from the top US media networks will be following Obama through his day-and-a-half visit to the Holy Land as part of a longer trip to Europe and the Middle East. Katie Couric of CBS, Charles Gibson of ABC and Brian Williams of NBC have been promised exclusive, personal interviews with the presidential candidate. NBC, ABC and CBS evening newscasts are originating from stops along the route and will undoubtedly give it big play”. The full JPost article can be read here .

Here is a nice AFP graphic of the Obama tour:

Obama speaking to the media after arriving in Ben Gurion airport 22 July 2008

I’m heading off to Ramallah now to cover this part of the tour.
More to come later …

UPDATE : I am informed at 11:30 that it is too late to enter the Muqata’a – the Palestinian Presidential Compound — in Ramallah to cover Obama, who will only arrive for a meeting at 13:30, two hours later, If there is to be any press conference – which is initially said not to be on the schedule, but may happen anyway — it will not be before 14:30. In other words, three hours later.

Journalists are supposed to show up THREE HOURS before a scheduled event!

The Information Chief in the Muqata’a said he was so sorry, but the dogs – DOGS – and magnetic doors have already been taken away.

Journalists and their equipment (mine is a notebook of paper) must be sniffed by DOGS!

Who is responsible for these security arrangements, I asked????

Before I was always told by the Muqata’a staff that it is the Americans. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has given instructions that American Embassies and Consulates are not to be involved in the visits of presidential candiatess – which I mentioned to the Information Chief. Oh, he said this time, it is our security and the Americans.

This is what gets done to accredited (and therefore known) journalists? It does not happen EVEN in Washington …

UPDATE on Friday 25 July 2008: Angry Arab (Professor As’ad AbuKhallil) is reporting on his blog that “Obama was scheduled to have lunch with … Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, but that Obama changed his mind and decided to have lunch with his Israeli friends instead although the dishes were prepared”.

This reminds me that when I spoke to the Information Chief at the Muqata’a, I mentioned that I did not think it was reasonable to require journalists to be in place three or four hours before an event takes place, especially in such hot weather, without water or anything to eat for all that time (as happened during the last Condoleezza Rice visit, for example — although the U.S. Embassy and Consulate had managed to bring hamburgers with all the trimmings for the travelling press corps, who ate them in front of all the starving Palestinian journalists…)

Oh, the Muqata’a Information Chief said, who told you that. “This time”, he said, “we have everything, tea, coffee, cigarettes…”

Note to self: avoid any such events during Ramadan (which this year will be the whole month of September).