The Day of the Palestinian revolt at Atara checkpoint – the checkpoint that does not exist,

What is it like at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank?

Middle East peace negotiators should know, if they don’t already, that what really happens at Israeli checkpoints is not just a matter of obstruction of movement with purely economic consequences.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint 12 July 09 - sitting in the thorns

In a recent report, Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who observe the behavior of Israeli forces at Palestinian checkpoints in the West Bank, have documented a Palestinian civilian mini-revolt during an abusive delay at the Atara/Bir Zeit checkpoint just north of Ramallah on Sunday 12 July.

One note: a common Palestinian reaction these days — it seems to be the only defense — to an inappropriate show of Israeli force in an normal civilian situation is a mocking smile and a quiet joke shared with other Palestinians trapped in the same moment — such as this group of young men who were separated from the other passengers on the bus whose story will be told below.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 12 July 2009 - young men being detained separately from the other passengers

Here is the story of the bus whose passengers annoyed the soldiers at the checkpoint that does not exist

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 12 July 2009 - the back of the bus being inspected first

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint 12 July 2009 - photo by Tamar Fleishman

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint 12 July 2009

This, as Machsom Watch stresses, is a checkpoint that the Israeli military has said it dismantled. Machsom Watch calls it “the checkpoint that does not exist”.

What happened that Sunday day was actually quite unusual — maybe a first. A group of Palestinians who happened to have been riding on board bus that was detained and subjected to arbitrary and lengthy search procedures organized a rare and spontaneous protest when they heard their driver being abused by soldiers off to the side.

Several weeks ago, the IDF announced with great fanfare that this roadblock has been removed. Since then, the Machsom Watch observers have gone back and found the soldiers still there — though until 12 July merely hanging around and lurking off to the side of the road, behind the Israeli concrete blocks.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 14 June 2009 - photo by Tamar Fleishman

Here, Machsom Watch reports, the “assumed free movement” through this checkpoint that the IDF said had been closed is still being actively controlled — turned on and off like the water in a tap — by Israeli soldiers.

Below, a line of cars waiting to be checked, then one car being inspected:

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - line of cars waiting to be checked at the checkpoint that does not exist

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 12 July 2009 - one car being inspected

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint 12 July 2009 - photo by Nurit Yarden

On 12 July, Machsom Watch observers Nurit Yarden and Tamar Fleishman noted in their just-released report, one soldier at the Atara checkpoint who “was trying to get rid of us” told them that “This isn’t a checkpoint, it’s an inspection post”.

The Machsom Watch observers then reported that “When we reminded him [the Israeli soldier] that the Minister of Defense announced that there was no longer a checkpoint at that area, he replied: ‘Did the Minister of Defense also tell you that yesterday there were two armed men around here?’ No, the minister didn’t tell me about that. But I myself was sure that at that moment I could see, not two, but seven armed men hanging around there”.

Machsom is the Hebrew word for checkpoint.  (Most Palestinians now also use this Hebrew word as well).  Machsom Watch is a group of Israeli women who go on a regular basis to monitor the Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, and who try to intervene with the military command when there is an impossible situation for Palestinians at the checkpoints.  They sometimes succeed, but not always.  Machsom Watch says on its website ( that it is a group of “women against the occupation and for human rights”.  They are all Israeli — everyone who is a member has to be Israeli, because of the way they approach the soldiers at the checkpoints.  And they are almost all women. Part of the idea is that the soldiers should see them as women from their own society, who reproach them for their bad behavior but who do not represent a physical danger.

The Machsom Watch report gives these details of the mini-revolt of the passengers on the Palestinian mini-bus on Sunday 12 July – the following is in their own words, only slightly edited for errors:


“Make sure you take in a flock”- One soldier yelled to his colleagues.

When we arrived the first “flock” (six men) were being inspected: Their IDs were placed on the ground, from fear of making physical contact, their shirts were pulled up, their legs were exposed and the entire content of the vehicle was examined, all their luggage were emptied and shaken. Then the soldiers picked up their IDS, their details were given to some sort of a mysterious center, and only once the members of that flock were found “clear” or “un clear” they were sent on their way.

In the mean time the Palestinians that sat in their vehicles, stopped in hesitation, you could see the despise [disdain, anger, fear] on their face. They didn’t dare to drive on until they saw the soldier signaling them with this finger, that familiar signal that means “drive on”. That signal was escorted [accompanied] by verbal text: “forward, forward… you ass…”, “forward, forward, you son of a bitch…”

And then a new flock was taken in: a bus of Palestinians, full of men, women and children.

The men were the first to be taken out. The whole ritual started all over again. The young men, and especially Yusuf, the driver, appeared to be not as succumbed [submissive?] as regulations or custom would have it. They wouldn’t conceal their ridicule towards the soldiers the whole time they were obeying their orders, they made things worse when they used provocative hand signs.

The writing was on the wall, and the soldiers behaved according to the slogan of the Cellcom commercial: “What does each and every one of us want – to have a bit of fun”, and boy did they have fun. It was the opening whistle of a macho game: the metal sound of the weapons being cocked, and someone called “Ho, Ho, Ho…”. The two groups got mingled with each other, gas and shock grenades were taken into the soldiers’ hands and placed somewhere reachable: they all formed a packed cluster of men.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint 12 July 2009 - child waiting in front of soldier with cocked gun

The commander arrived and ordered his soldiers to avoid physical contact with the Palestinians.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 12 July 2009 - what happens at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank

Once again, a gap that constituted a “no man’s land” stood in between the two groups. Once everything settled down, an angry and bitter soldier, that was unsatisfied with the result, approached Yusuf [the bus driver] and made a promise: “I’m not through with you yet”.

Time grew longer and the hours passed. The answer from the secret services regarding the clearance of those people was delayed. Abdalla, a young and agitated man, wander around the place as though he owned it, and was rebuked. Abdalla didn’t take notice of this reproach and kept on doing as he did, he was then sent to the thorny filed as punishment: “sit over there”. He was also directed as to the specific posture his must sit in – his back was turned to his friends and he was looking at the distant horizon, while the whole time a soldier rifle was pointing at his back. He was to make sure he stayed in that very position even when his legs hurt and his bones stiffened.

An hour and a half after this event started, either out of boredom of from his will that his soldiers have a nice time, the commander ordered that the women and children also be taken off the bus.

They now arranged another line up: the women were told to stand in a line, a crying baby was among them. They were ordered to place their IDs on the ground and to empty their bags.

The women, unlike the men, didn’t ridicule or insult the soldiers. They ignored them while throwing their belongings from them with a deafening silence, anger and protest.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 12 July 2009 - women and children being searched

At that point the soldiers realized that they hadn’t yet preformed a physical inspection on the men – each and every one of them was now inspected: shirts, shoes, belts, pockets…

What else? The uniformed men had a brainstorm and came up with the idea the Yusuf (the driver) should perform the “Neighbor Procedure”. He was told to unload all the language, the shopping bags, and all students back packs – anything that was inside the bus. He was told to open, to check, to browse – he had his job cut up for hi: new clothes, personal belongings, books, note books, new shoe boxes, items that had been taken to a professional for fixing … it was a real and endless violation-of-privacy fest, and it was all done in the name of security.

Atara - Bir Zeit checkpoint - 12 July 2009 - Yusef the driver being forced to unload and inspect all the passenger luggage

{In.b. – In the photo above, the Israeli soldiers are right on top of Yusuf the driver — who they said they had not quite finished with at this point — and also right on top of the passengers’ supposedly-suspect hand luggage.  If it was really thought that there would be the slightest security threat, the Israeli troops would be nowhere near the driver or the luggage…]

Since no bombs were found in their belongings and as the belts on their waists were just that and nothing more, they were all sent back to the vehicle and their IDs were handed back. All of them, apart for Yusuf [the bus driver]. After all they [the soldiers] gave him their word they were not done with him yet] … Yusuf was taken away to the other side of the wall that surrounds the pillbox, and the gate was locked with him inside.

The whole group [of detained Palestinian passengers] sat silently inside the bus. The sat and waited. Then racket from inside the restricted area was heard: bashing, the cocking of rifles and loud shouting.

As though on signal, the men burst out from the bus’s door, they ran towards the soldiers who were pointing their rifles at them, and yelled (in English): “Kill us! Kill us! We want to die, now! Bring our driver back”.

The stood right in front of each other. Two groups of men. As equals.

The spokesman of the group, an elder man with gray hair, preached in the ears of the soldiers in bulletproof vests. As they were still pointing their rifles in their at the other group, he summed up before them all the crimes and wrongs they have done.

Like the explosion of a volcano, an abscess that had been forming in the depth of these peoples’ bodies, during the long years of occupation, the mutiny burst and flooded the place with blinding lava that light that good forsaken place from the darkness of night, right in front of the overwhelmed soldiers and before us, who were dazzled by the event.

There was no fear in their eyes or hearts. Once the fear from the rifle had diminished, the upper hand of the armed side fades as well.

The weak were the powerful ones, and there was nothing but that moment. Such an essential moment. It was the essence of forty-two years of occupation and oppression, of preventions, humiliations and orders”.


These and many other photos taken by Machsom Watch at the Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank can be viewed here and also here


One of the Machsom Watch women said afterwards that at one point during the three hours she remained at the checkpoint-that-does-not-exist on 12 July, she felt at one point she absolutely had to smoke a cigarette.  Out in the open air, she sat down next to the “fort” that the IDF has constructed with the “pillbox” watchtower, and began to smoke.  One of the soldiers approached and asked her to stop smoking, because it bothered him.  She continued to smoke,  “You don’t understand”, he said to her, “it’s my job, and I have to be here, and your smoke bothers me”.

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