It's no wonder they explode. Pack hundreds of motorists who need to get somewhere into a space the width of a two-lane highway and then keep them immobilized in a line that snakes back for maybe two or three miles, add scores of pedestrians to the mix, and then put a couple of wary, young, flak-jacketed soldiers at the front of the line, carrying machine guns and inspecting documents, and you have a recipe for a human firecracker of outsize proportions. That's the Israeli checkpoint, rickety watchtower and sharpshooters included.
In recent months, the violence at these crossings has escalated, as suicide bombers and Palestinian marksmen take murderous aim at the symbols of their frustration. The checkpoints are the friction line in the brutal encounter between Israel and the Palestinian people, the place where the two cultures and political entities rub up against each other. Along this line the script for all the violence between the two sides is written. Crossing the checkpoint has become a ritual degradation for the Palestinians, a ritual display of power for the Israelis. Look at the faces of the Palestinians in these pictures and you'll see what it's all about: containing hatred, accepting humiliation, hoping against hope. If these people don't get across the checkpoint, their personal economy stops: The jobs, the trade-it's all on the Israeli side of the border. There's no economy on the West Bank because the West Bank, home to 2 million Palestinians, is occupied territory, hopeless and unreal. If each individual on the West Bank is incapable of earning his bread, then the whole Palestinian economy crumples.
Trying to pass through a checkpoint is like running up against an existential brick wall. Decisions, some of them life-and-death, are made by callow soldiers with little or no knowledge of Palestinian culture or customs. The Israelis use a mixture of eyeballing and documentation-all of it thickened with fear and prejudice-to make decisions about whether a particular Palestinian may pass through. Say you have a mustache but are 70 years old and have medical papers and are unaccompanied. Maybe. Say you're 15 (or on some days up to 40 years old) and male. Don't bet on it-mustache or no mustache. If you're a woman, it was easier until January, when a young volunteer medic blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem. Since then, her example has been followed by other women, including one who ran toward a checkpoint with a knife and was shot dead by soldiers.
The terrible violence has utterly destroyed whatever trust existed between the two sides. Even on a good day, you see it at the checkpoints: the sullen, sunken-eyed regard of the Palestinian teenager, the whispering anger of all the Palestinians, the Israeli soldier's jittery gun waving or his laughing disrespect for the old man in the robe and head cover, the dark jokes inside the checkpoint guardrooms and the darker jokes among the pent-up passengers inside the cars, among the men who are herded between cement walls protected with razor wire, among the vendors who've developed a whole new trade servicing the people stuck in the lines.
Delays at the checkpoints have caused needless deaths. Babies, delivering mothers, diabetics, and kidney patients have all died, waiting to cross over. Even in times of the toughest closures, exceptions are supposed to be made for medical emergencies. But passage is ultimately left to the discretion of individual commanding officers. So a sick infant's fate may rest in the hands of a man who is overworked, or who's been raised to despise Palestinians, or who just wants to get safely home that night, or just not to be bothered, and especially not to let any suicide bombers through on his watch. Or all of the above.
It wasn't this bad when peace was on the agenda, even if the seeds for what is happening now were planted during those years that seemed so full of promise. In those days, you didn't spend the entire day at the checkpoint. Crossing over was just a major inconvenience; it wasn't a life stopper. Now, for the Palestinians, it is a dead end, just as what was once called the peace process proved to be. Now, for the Israelis, the checkpoint provides a daily lesson about the fruitlessness and dangers of an occupation that was never intended to last this long. Like the Berlin Wall, the checkpoint has become a symbol of the pure stupidity of the entire situation.