A return visit to the checkpoint that does not exist

Two months after the Israeli Defense Forces announced at the beginning of June that it was removing the Atara checkpoint, north of Ramallah, it was still there today.

I went with a team of three Israeli women from Machsom Watch [or “Checkpoint Watch” – women against the occupation and for human rights], to see for myself.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint north of Ramallah in the West Bank - June 2009

Young Israeli soldiers sweltering in the heat were in the watchtower. Others were on the ground inside a compound formed of concrete blocks, where a generator was making some noise.

When they saw the Machsom Watch women, the soldiers in the watchtower shouted: “Oh, it’s those people from Peace Now [another Israeli anti-occupation group], they’re back again!”

The soldiers shouted down to the women that they knew they were responsible for an article about thempublished last Wednesday on the Israel website Walla — and they shouted that they had no intention to give the women another story this week.

They threatened to lodge a complaint against one of the Machsom Watch ladies who was taking pictures, because, they said, she was taking pictures of a “military installation”.

Then, someone shouted down through a loudspeaker that it was a closed military zone — one through which there just happened to be a steady stream of Palestinian civilian road traffic — and ordered the Machsom Watch ladies to leave.

The Machsom Watch team leader laughed it off, saying that the soldiers had to show a written order, which they had not done.

A brief history of the movement posted on its website, Machsom Watch explains that “Legal advice assured us (and its worth remembering) that the army has no right to prevent citizens from being present in the area of the checkpoint unless a closed military area is declared and a document signed by the area commander or other senior officer presented”. This can be read in full here.

The main page of the group’s website says that “MachsomWatch, in existence since 2001, is an organisation of peace activist Israeli women against the Israeli Occupation of the territories and the systematic repression of the Palestinian nation. We call for Palestinian freedom of movement within their own territory and for an end to the Occupation that destroys Palestinian society and inflicts grievous harm on Israeli society” — see here

The soldiers then said they were calling their commander, and one stood in the watchtower window with a phone at his ear. One solder came out of the gate and took our pictures.

The soldiers were completely preoccupied with the presence of the Machsom Watch team, and paid no attention whatsoever to the passing Palestinians.

If it looks like a checkpoint- the chain of spikes was rolled up and placed behind the cemented post, the pillbox was standing like a phallic sentry on the highest spot, the lights were turned on even though the sun was blazing in the sky.
And if it sounds like a checkpoint- from a distance we could hear the soldiers yelling.
Even if all the media and all the newspaper say the checkpoint has been taken down- it is still a checkpoint.

The soldiers, some were seen standing behind the pillbox window and the others hurried to hid from us (or from our camera), who were inside the confined area yelled out to us, and then later started using the megaphone.

Here are some selected quotes, as published in the Machsom Watch team report of 26 July:
“Here they are, those women from ‘Peace Now’ just arrived…”
– “Yalla, come on, get lost. What is there for you to take a photo of?…”
-” Yalla, go home… Yalla, go home to your kids, your grandkids… Yalla, go on…”.
-“This is a military zone, you can’t be here!”
-“This is a military zone, you aren’t allowed to take pictures!”
And the best one:
-“Isn’t it enough you made an article on us?!- You want another one?- We’re not giving you another one!…”

The story published last week in Walla was also covered on this blog here.

Now, MachsomWatch has released a video, with a photo montage of the earlier moments, and footage of the final confrontation and then, at last, after the sun had set, the release of the mini-bus driver, five hours after the bus and its passengers were detained at this checkpoint-that-does-not exist.

The video can also be found on the Machsom Watch website,
here .

The story: in an extraordinary confrontation at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank on 12 July, a group of Palestinian passengers was detained from 15h15 (3:15 pm) until 8:45 pm, and subjected to a lengthy period of prolonged searching, apparently as a punitive measure — and not for security reasons, unless the concept of security requires a totally cowed and intimidated submissive population.

The checkpoint, known as the Atara-Bir Zeit checkpoint, north of Ramallah, and north of Bir Zeit University, was supposed to have been dismantled on 3 June.

Israel’s YNet website reported on that day that “Central Command Chief Major-General Gadi Shamni, Judea and Samaria Division Commander Brigadier-General Noam Tibon, and head of the Civil Administration Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai decided to ease restrictions after meeting with commanders of the Palestinian Authority’s security organizations and the official in charge of civil affairs on Monday”.  This report can be read in full http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3725514,00.html

Six weeks later, on Sunday 12 July, a team of Machsom Watch observers arrived at 17h15 (5:45 pm), two hours after the bus had been detained.  They began to photograph and film

The driver of the Palestinian minibus, Yusuf, was told (after he had complained about the lengthy procedures causing the bus’ delay) that he would get special treatment, and he did. After being ordered to take out and search all the hand baggage carried by the passengers, he was taken inside the soldiers compound. Then, Machsom Watch reported, blows and shots were heard from inside the compound.

At that point, the passengers revolted. They confronted the soldiers, and demanded the driver’s release: “He’s our driver. Let him go right now!”, they insisted.

“Why did you hit the driver of the bus? He made everything that you want him to do”.

The soldiers moved forward and cocked their guns.

“Go ahead, shoot”, the passengers say. “If you make this, we can make a problem with you now. Here. We want to die now. We want our driver”. “Let him go out now.”

The soldiers who had detained the passengers for hours already then decided to tell them to get back on the bus and leave. But the driver was still inside the compound, apparently being beaten.

“No”, the passengers said, “You have done wrong things”, said one. “Khalass [that’s it, that’s enough]. said one, apparently a student. “We’re not leaving”.

It was a rare and extraordinary moment — an exceptional show of solidarity in an environment where most have been reduced to saving their own skins, and an ultimately effective act of non-violent resistance.

By the time the driver was released, it was night. The sky was a deep blue. The driver, Yusuf, was tense, furious, silent. He was escorted by a group of armed soldiers. Just at the bus, they gave him back his ID (it looked blue – meaning a Jerusalem resident, not a West Banker), and one soldier waved his hand dismissively. Yusuf turned and climbed onto the bus, got into the driver’s seat, and started the engine. Some of the passengers pointed their fingers into a V-for-victory sign, and waved as the bus finally pulled away from the checkpoint-that-does-not-exist.


Here is a Machsom Watch photo of the checkpoint when it was a checkpoint:

on 23 November 2008

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 23 November 2008 - photo by Nur Bar-On

on 9 November 2008

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 9 November 2008 - photo by Mika Ginsburg

and also on 9 November 2008, the soldiers also taking pictures of Machsom Watch team members

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 9 November 2008 - photo by Tamar Fleishman

and here is a line of vehicles waiting to pass through the checkpoint on 27 October 2008

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 27 October 2008 - photo also taken by Tamar Fleishman

and here, on 19 October 2008, soldiers leading two blindfolded detainees whose hands are bound The Palestinian detainees are being taken out of the Israeli military compound at the checkpoint in the West Bank, for transport to an Israeli military detention center

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 19 October 2009 - photo by Tamar Fleishman

another picture from 19 October 2008

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 19 October 2008 - also by Tamar Fleishman

Sometimes, even before the checkpoint-that-doesn’t-exist was supposedly dismantled, it was empty of Israeli soldiers except for those in the “Pillbox” watchtower, as it was during this day in Ramadan 2008 (14 September)

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - empty of soldiers except in the pillbox watchtower - photo by Mika Ginsburg

These photos from late 2008 can be viewed here.

And here is a photo from May 2008, which can be viewed on the Machsom Watch Flikr site here :

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - line of vehicles waiting to be checked on 4 May 2008 - photo by Judith Spitzer

And another photo from 30 March 2008, also of a line of waiting vehicles waiting to be checked, in the morning as people are trying to get to work and to school, at the Atara- Bir Zeit checkpoint

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 30 March 2008 - Neta Efroni

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