Friday, January 05, 2007

"It's fun to be free"

Twilight Zone / What are you doing for the holiday?

By Gideon LevyHaaretz 5.1.2007

"The easing of restrictions of the closure" is already at its height: Hurray, we can travel to Qalqilyah. We can even somehow m ake it to Nablus, whose houses can be seen from every window in the village. Not in our private car, it's true; they won't dream of such luxuries here. But in several taxis and on foot, from checkpoint to checkpoint. A few checkpoints, believe it or not, are even temporarily deserted. Oh, the enlightened occupation.

Incessant rain fell on the occupied West Bank this Sunday, the dark sky and freezing cold a supremely fitting backdrop to these festival days. It was the second day of the holiest of Muslim holidays, the Festival of the Sacrifice, and the last day of the accursed year 2006, during which no fewer than 683 Palestinians lost their lives, far more than the year before, which was also a bloody one. Only the new holiday clothes of the children who splashed in the mud and rain between the checkpoints, skipping from puddle to puddle, from taxi to taxi, carrying holiday gifts on the way to Grandma and Grandpa, lent a bit of joy to the scene.

The boy Akram Arman also set out, accompanied by his two young sisters on the way to their aunt in Nablus, all three dressed in new sweaters and trousers. But the soldier at the Beit Iba checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus was not in a festive mood: ID cards, he demanded. But the girls don't have ID cards yet; they are not yet 16 years old.

"So bring birth certificates," ordered the soldier, and the embarrassed and frightened children went back home to their village to get their birth certificates. Imagine: Your children go to visit their aunt in Kfar Sava on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and they're sent home rudely because they forgot their birth certificates. Happy holiday to the Arman family.

Their village, Jit, is a pretty place, high on a hill west of Nablus. The hills opposite are sown with the houses of Kedumim, a settlement that spreads from hill to hill, ever growing. There a neighborhood of trailer homes, here an antenna rising in the distance, the new Zionism celebrating its small and temporary victories. There are 2,500 residents in Jit, and half of them live by working their land. Their land? Only what is left of it. On the way to a significant portion of the lands to the west, one has to pass several checkpoints. Sometimes it's possible and sometimes it isn't.

Citizen Jemal Bakr, an English teacher in the school in the neighboring village of Sera, has to travel about 40 kilometers each day in order to get to the school, which can be seen from his window - you can stretch out your hand and touch it. Instead of traveling on the direct road to the village on the opposite hill, he has to travel via the Beit Iba checkpoint to Nablus and from there to Sera, sometimes an hour and a half, sometimes a day and a half, depending on the checkpoints. Now he is traveling to Kafr Tal to visit his sister, which is also a complex operation. Since the previous holiday, the teacher has not seen his sister-neighbor. The teacher cannot travel there in his private car, only on foot and by taxi.

The fate of the teacher's father is even worse: He cannot reach his own house. Mahmoud Abu Bakr, an elderly man of 76 with a hearing aid, has not been able to go to his house for about four years. Located on the slope of the hill, an isolated house at the foot of Jit but still in the area of the village, it is on a road where the Israel Defense Forces prohibits any Palestinian traffic. On the black snaking path that descends from the village - the short route to Nablus - there is sometimes a "surprise checkpoint." Sometimes the "surprise" is a jeep that quickly descends from the IDF position on the mountain whenever a resident dares to get on the road - an unruly rebel on foot or by car. Abu Bakr, who was a refugee from Haifa, gave up his home on the slope and rented a room inside Jit. Zakaria Sada, the village human rights activist, has a letter in his pocket written in 2004, from Captain Shiran Asher, the ombudsman in the Central Command, in which the officer writes that "there is nothing to prevent traveling on the road," and "if there is a localized problem the resident should turn to the Nablus Coordination and Liaison Office to solve the problem." But this letter is already creased from having been presented to soldiers so often, and it is still impossible to travel on the road. A half-deaf old man leaning on his stick certainly cannot live in a house where there are almost always "localized problems."

A week ago, Abu Bakr did try to visit his house, but was chased away in disgrace. He is allowed to live in it, but he is not allowed to get to it.The children of the old man are scattered in the surrounding villages; two of them live in Jaffa. His grandson is now coming for a holiday visit straight from his home on Yehuda Hayamit Street, an Israeli teenager, a student in the Neve Shaanan school in the city, coming to see a different way of life. The whole family has not gathered for a holiday meal in years. Samar Sada gave up on the holiday customs and the traditional family visits this year. A pleasant man, 29, the father of three children, he makes a decent living as a warehouse worker in the Barkan industrial zone, but he doesn't have the strength for holiday visits, with the harassment and humiliation at the checkpoints. Samar is staying home this year.

A few weeks ago, the workers who cultivate the family olive grove on the slope asked him to come to the plot to show them its boundary, "to introduce them to the land" as he says in his good Hebrew, prior to the olive harvest. It was a Shabbat afternoon, and Samar drove with his neighbor and his young children to the plot, several hundred meters from the village. The trip to the olive grove passed successfully, as did the briefing of the workers, but the way back was an experience he would like to forget. A Hummer descended the hill.

"Don't you know that you're not allowed to pass here?" asked the soldier.

"Why isn't it allowed?"

"Bring me a permit."

"I went to my land, only 15 minutes. What have I done? What permit?"

"Stand at the side." They stood at the side of the road for 20 minutes.

"You're all saying that you don't know that you need a permit to travel on this road," said the soldier angrily. "

The soldier lost patience," recalls Samar, "began to shout and said to me 'Come down' to the Jit checkpoint." At the checkpoint, the soldier gave the ID cards of Samar and his neighbor to the soldiers at the checkpoint, signaling "four" to him with his fingers. Four fingers mean four hours. Four hours of delay at the checkpoint, a punishment for chutzpah, or for an unapproved trip on an unauthorized road on the way to the family olive grove. Samar, his neighbor and his two young children were thus sentenced, in an accelerated procedure, to a humiliating four hours in the car.

"How we talked, how we pleaded, what we did so he would release us after an hour. An hour is all right, but four hours?" Night began to fall, the cold began to freeze their bones, the children cried, they weren't even allowed to get out of the car. In the house in Jit, Samar's Israeli employer from Raanana, who had come to visit his employee, was waiting, but Samar was delayed. "I'm stuck here with your soldiers," Samar apologized on his cell phone. The human rights activist, Zakaria Sada, also rushed to the site, trying to use his connections, but in vain. After an hour and a half, the soldiers allowed the children go home in the car of a neighbor who had come down to the checkpoint. Even the employer from Raanana, who also came down to the checkpoint, was unable to convince the soldiers to lighten the punishment.

At 8 P.M., not a minute less than the sentence of a four-hour wait, Samar and the neighbor were released. The soldier, says Samar, even asked for a cigarette, but Samar refused.

"Next time, if you travel on the road, we'll delay you for 10 hours."

"Look brother, I don't want you to detain me even for 10 minutes. They said that during the olive harvest traveling is allowed, but with you, even when they say it's allowed, it's forbidden."

Samar lights the kerosene heater that spreads a little heat in the room, and offers sweets for the holiday. "We're imprisoned here. My children haven't left the village for four years. I haven't gone to Nablus for four months. Why should I go there? A soldier will tell me 'Bring a permit.' I have a smart card for Barkan, but if there's a soldier who has it in for Arabs, I don't know for what reason, he'll tell me 'Stop at the side.' So why should I go? I prefer to be at home, not to go out and not to encounter such things." A holiday at home.

On Saturday, Samar went to the mosque, then he visited the old and the sick in the village and returned home. His wife comes from the village of Rujeib, beyond Nablus, and she wanted to go to visit her parents, but Samar refused: "I told her: What do you want? To go out now in this cold with the children, to stop at the checkpoints? There's no chance that you'll get through without stopping. So it's better to stay home. She called them and told them she wasn't coming.

That's how a holiday is an ordinary day for us. No different from any other day. There's nothing to make it different. You want to go on a trip, you want to get to the sea, it's only from heaven that you'll be able to get to the sea. My children don't know what the sea is and what a trip is."

Only once in recent years did Samar see the sea: That was when he went to a trial on work matters in Tel Aviv, and he sneaked off to the beach in Jaffa. "I like trips, trips means being mabsut [content], not mebuas [disgusted].

It's fun to be free. But our life is permits. You go to your land and you need a permit, you go to your job and you need a permit, a life of permits. It's good that there's no checkpoint at the door to my house. My company went on a trip to the North. To the far North. As much as they talked, the boss and his wife, that we would be given a permit to join, it didn't help."

They are five Palestinian workers at a warehouse for building materials in Barkan, including Nasser, Samar's brother, who is sitting in the living room with us. Most of the workers are Israelis from Raanana and Petah Tikva.

"Believe me, we can live together. What do you think, is the soldier enjoying sitting at the checkpoint now? Nobody enjoys standing in the rain and doing something bad. Standing in the rain and asking people for documents, that's not part of life.

"Ask my son, 5 years old, what a bomb is, what soldiers are, what fear is. The child should know only how to play and to like his school. He should forget that there is life after that. Games, toys, and that's it. Let him end up with a mind that's open to life and not a mind that's blocked, blocked from fear. If you frighten a little boy, that stays in his head all his life and that becomes the basis for bad things."

What will happen in the coming year, I ask Samar several hours before our New Year's parties are set to begin.

"It won't be good. They say that in 2007 there will be a big war." Six people from the village are imprisoned in Israel, and they are thinking about them as well on this holiday. Samar and his brother Nasser are trying to name them: Abed and Nabil and Mustafa and Omar and another Abed and Ahmed, who is an illegal resident, and in effect we're all in prison, in a big prison.

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