Tuesday 13 January 2015

First Checkpoint – Man Left Behind

My first experience going through a checkpoint involved an Israeli soldier coming onto our bus and barking something in Arabic at everyone, before getting off. A Palestinian woman behind lent forward and told me and the other volunteers I was traveling with that he told everyone under 50 to get off the bus.  Most of those on the bus, including me and my other three white European companions, got off the bus and, in the open, walked to the back of the bus to queue in between two metal fences around 15 meters long and 1 meter apart, so that we could have two soldiers inspect our passports and the permits of the Palestinians with us. A queue could easily have been formed without the fences, and it had no discernible ‘security benefit’; one can only assume that the main purpose for which they were built was to have psychological impacts upon those having their travel rights checked, and to establish the power relationship between them and the soldiers.

The disposition of the soldiers was unfriendly and nonchalant. My companions and I had a slightly nervous interchange while joining the queue as it seemed one of us might have forgotten our visa paper or had it somewhere separate to the passport, but not wanting to draw attention just mumbled “let’s just see how it goes”. A Palestinian man in front of us was nodded through after having shown his blue permit, only to be called back instantly and, after a second glance at his permit, asked to stand to one side. Everyone in the queue remained silent. I decided not to show my visa paper along with my passport in case it drew attention to my friend’s omission, as I discovered later did the others. One by one we and the others in our company were nodded through and reclaimed our seats on the bus, walking past the man whose expression seemed to me to combine anguish and resignation. I wanted to catch his eye or make a gesture of sympathy, or solidarity, but he stared sideways worriedly in the direction of the soldiers but with no fixed focus – it felt weak and unkind to simply walk back onto the bus without indicating that I recognized the injustice of the situation: that my British passport should be more valid than his permit, or his Palestinian identity, in granting me passage to East Jerusalem from the other side of the wall; that they should be routinely asked to stop and show papers in the first place; that he might be left alone to deal with the Israeli soldiers and whatever reasons they would come up with (if any) for at the very least humiliating and inconveniencing him, without any support or defence to depend upon.

When all except the man had retaken their seats on the bus, again without a word from any person, we saw the man give the bus driver a pleading look to wait. The driver shook his head in a way that indicated his discomfort and closed the doors. A young boy in front of me looked to a woman I assumed to be his mother and voiced something with a questioning intonation, gesturing at the man outside the bus. I heard no audible response from his mother. We drove off and the bus remained in silence for most of the rest of the journey. I got the distinct impression that this was a checkpoint passing ‘without event’, a mundane everyday occurrence, a vague relief for all but the man left behind, alone, with the hostile Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint. The phrase ‘banality of evil’ sprung to mind. No one could have spoken in support of him without risking their own safe passage – and who would wish to jeopardise their own right to pass now and in future, or to not continue their day unobstructed by intimidating and hostile armed soldiers? No solidarity was forthcoming for the man left behind.

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