One Day in Ramallah

— Daniella, ISM volunteer

ONLY HOURS AFTER a suicide bomber detonated himself on a bus in the French Hill section of Jerusalem, the IOF (Israeli Occupation Force) started its invasion and clampdown of Ramallah. At 8:00 am I woke to heavy gunfire on Jerusalem Street in the Southern neighborhood of Ramallah.

As looked out the window I saw a barrage of APVs and Jeeps speeding down Jerusalem Street towards the center of town. I still was unaware of the bombing or the fact that a full curfew had been imposed on the town. Yet when I went outside, the apartment guard told me about the bombing as well as the curfew.

I knew this was going to be a tough day for Ramallah. The IOF vehicles zoomed up and down the city streets, their loudspeakers barking out orders to close all stores and stay off the streets or suffer the consequences.

It was the first time in my many visits to Ramallah that I heard sustained gunfire in the normally quiet city. As I walked around the apartment building, I was struck by the empty streets, normally teeming with people.

In the center of town there were reports that the IOF vehicles were trying to start clashes with children. A few small clashes did start. The soldiers also hijacked and stole keys of any vehicle out on the roads. Again it would be quite easy for many citizens of Ramallah to be completely unaware of the curfew and innocently get into their car to go to work.

Later in the day I was made aware of the escalating situation at the Qalandia checkpoint. It was completely sealed off, and many Palestinians were trying to get home to Ramallah so they were sneaking around the checkpoint only to be confronted by the extra soldiers on patrol. I was told that many men were beaten and arrested.

A friend called me from the Al-Ram side of the Qalandia checkpoint wondering if I could help him pass. I wasn't sure if this was possible, but I thought at the very least I could view the checkpoint situation as an International observer.

As I approached the checkpoint I saw the hundreds of Palestinians waiting and baking in the sun, far from the actual queueing area. They were herded in one area by dozens of soldiers with their M-16s fixed on the group.

As I walked towards the soldiers they all started screaming at me in Arabic and several raised their guns towards my head. I held up my hands, continued walking and said “speak English, I only speak English.”

Then one guard said, “Don't take another step, STOP!! We are closed, go away.” I said, “I have an American passport and I need to cross.” I was standing about two feet from the soldiers, but still he raised his megaphone and started screaming, “I don't care NO ONE PASSES.”

At this point a Palestinian woman in a long traditional Palestinian dress and hijab started begging the soldier to pass. They pointed the gun right at her temple and YELLED “Hallos.” the Arabic word to “get lost.”

At this point I told the soldier that he didn't need to blow our ears out with the megaphone. We were two feet from his face and we could hear him perfectly. I said I knew his job might be stressful and difficult, but he was just making the situation worse by treating everyone like dirt.

This little dose of reality was the last thing this tall, angry, sweaty, enraged soldier wanted to hear. He told me to “FUCK OFF.” I didn't move.

Soon three more Internationals approached my position, two French citizens and one Finnish journalist. The French woman had the IDF Liaison office on her cell phone. She told the soldier she was talking to the IDF and the closure only applied to Palestinians not Internationals. The soldier said “I don't care what they said, no one is going through this checkpoint.”

The Frenchwoman communicated this to the IDF Liaison and he said he would try to contact the checkpoint. After about a half hour of debating, arguing and approaching different soldiers it became clear that none of the soldiers were going to tell us if the IDF Liaison had contacted them and whether we had clearance to pass.

We noticed that about five people were being let in to the Ramallah side of the checkpoint and several soldiers had moved back to the queueing area.

I decided to chance it and approach the queueing area. And sure enough, once I made it to the lone soldier stationed at the desk to check IDs, he let me pass. The other three Internationals followed and we were all let through.

As I walked down the long corridor of the checkpoint I noticed dozens of men handcuffed from behind and sitting towards the barbed wire fence I was passing. They asked me something in Arabic and the soldiers screamed at them, most likely telling them to shut up.

Several of the men had blood on their faces and were obviously beaten before arrest. Once I made it through the checkpoint, I met my friend waiting with the hundreds of other Palestinians. There were probably about 600 people waiting to cross.

Once again the soldiers had all the people herded in one area, surrounded by soldiers with weapons drawn. Some of the soldiers had adjusted their weapons to spay teargas, a method employed minutes before my arrival.

As most Palestinians are already subject to stringent travel bans, this closure was only making an impossible situation intolerable. My friend told me that there was probably nothing I could do for him and that I would probably have trouble getting back into Ramallah; many foreigners had tried and failed to pass.

He couldn't wait any more and was going to sneak back because his 11-month-old son and wife were waiting in Ramallah. I wished him safe passage and luck. This man works in Al-Ram and has to sneak into work on a weekly basis because the Israeli government won't give him permission.

The obnoxious soldier from the other side of the checkpoint had now moved to the Al-Ram side of the checkpoint. The soldier continued his constant babble into the megaphone, telling people they would never be able to go home and they better leave or they would get gassed again.

I soon befriended a doctor standing beside me. This man had an Israeli ID and well as humanitarian credentials and a card signed by the highest ranking IOF soldier in the region saying he should be given access through all checkpoints. He said he had approached the soldier several times and was screamed at, humiliated and denied access.

We started talking about the behavior and immaturity of these soldiers. Basically they were little immature boys, with M-16s and too much power. They had absolute power and they were going to treat us all like animals just because they could. This soldier was actually enjoying torturing the crowd. He was relentlessly threatening us and laughing at the same time.

The scary part was that if he shot any of us waiting to cross, he probably would get away with it. There is no justice for Palestinians and the worst part was I probably had to start kissing up to that soldier just so he would let me pass.

This is the irony. The soldiers can brutalize you and badger you and still you have to sit there and take it because they have the power to say YES or NO. This was the first time I really understood the racism, abuse and brutality Palestinians endured daily at these checkpoints.

After about two hours a white military jeep approached our position the doctor told me it was the captain and we had to get his attention because he had the power to let us pass. As he stepped from his vehicle a sea of people began begging him to pass. Any green Palestinian IDs were denied.

I worked my way to the front of the line with the doctor and eventually we were two of the four people allowed to pass, among the hundreds waiting. I felt guilty as I was given the approval to pass. I walked down the long corridor towards Ramallah and saw more been caught and arrested while trying to sneak past the checkpoint.

One soldier was holding a stack of confiscated Palestinian IDs. I thought of my friend and hoped he was able to get home safely. As I arrived at my apartment my friend soon greeted me. He had made it through. He said, “Hey . . . it's just another day in Palestine.”

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ATC 105, July-August 2003