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West Bank Checkpoint

By Wendy Pearlman

Saturday, June 30, 2001; Page A31

BIR ZEIT, West Bank -- It is 100 degrees, and the sun blazes overhead as I trudge up the hill. I have just finished a full day's work and am lugging vegetables that I picked up on my way home. I try to ignore the soldier leaning against his tank in the middle of the road, his machine gun in hand and ready to fire. But this is getting more and more difficult to do.

I live in the Palestinian village of Bir Zeit, where life has recently become hostage to the Israeli military checkpoint stationed to obstruct traffic on the main road connecting us to the rest of the West Bank. Last March the Israeli army used bulldozers to tear up the road, halting movement between 35 surrounding villages and the town of Ramallah. Although Palestinians came together to repair the damage and reopen the road, Israeli tanks and armed soldiers have remained stationed here.

For the past two weeks, the soldiers have been forcing almost everyone traveling from one point to another to get out of their taxis, abandon their cars and cross the checkpoint on foot. At best this requires people to gather their belongings and walk a long distance in the sun before catching another ride. Yet it is also not unusual for soldiers to stop people or turn them back, inspect identity cards, confiscate car keys or fire tear gas bombs and rubber bullets.

Like some 65,000 Palestinian citizens and dozens of other internationals living in Palestine, I travel this road on a nearly daily basis. And on a number of occasions, when I am too frustrated to just pass by the soldiers, I have stopped and talked to them. I ask them what they think about making so many men, women and children deal with this daily torment. Their replies leave me dumbfounded. Again and again, Israeli soldiers tell me that if Palestinians suffer enough they will give up the current uprising. If daily life becomes too unbearable, they say, then the Palestinians will become frustrated and put pressure on President Yasser Arafat to end the resistance and "stop the violence."

The crux of these comments, while obvious to most Palestinians, may be surprising for Western audiences. The checkpoint is not a security measure designed to prevent terrorists from transporting bombs. It is a political tactic aimed at making Palestinians suffer in order to break their wills. As one soldier told me, Israel knows that at least 99 percent of all the people crossing this checkpoint want nothing more than to get to work or school. Nevertheless, it is a military order to fill their path with obstacles.

This Israeli policy of deliberately tormenting a captive civilian population is not only morally abhorrent. It is also just plain illogical. Does Israel really think that if it tortures Palestinians then Palestinians will oppose Arafat? Is it not obvious that when Israel tortures Palestinians, Palestinians rise up in opposition to Israel?

Israel's logic of power is doomed to boomerang. In its fear of terrorism, Israel employs warlike violence that drives people to terrorism. In its effort to crush radicalism, Israel has imposed a siege that is making people more radical. A person who takes his own life in a suicide bombing is a person whose political horizons have been so blocked that he sees no alternative means of demanding his rights from a hostile power. Bombs do not go off in Tel Aviv because Palestinians want Arafat to make concessions to Israeli demands. Bombs go off because Israel's siege on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has left many Palestinians feeling that they have nothing left to lose.

The more Israel makes the Palestinian people suffer, the more Israel will suffer in the long run. If the Israeli public feels no sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people, it could at least do better at attending to its own interests. The Palestinians I see crossing the checkpoint each day are not on the verge of surrender. They are righteously angry, as I am angry and as anyone forced to submit to such humiliation would be angry. The checkpoint only reinforces our conviction that the Israeli occupation must end. It confirms the need for a future without checkpoints and the injustice that they represent.

The sooner the Israeli government realizes that force will not bring acquiescence, the sooner we can all move on to more productive ways of dealing with the conflict. Neither checkpoints nor F-16s will coerce the Palestinian people into relinquishing their legitimate right to live in the land of Palestine with freedom and dignity. I must disagree with the checkpoint soldier who told me that no one knows how to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Here on the blocked road between Bir Zeit and Ramallah, it seems to me that the solution could not be simpler. Israel has only to gather up its soldiers and settlers and leave the Palestinian territories, once and for all.

The writer, a doctoral candidate in government at Harvard University, resides in the town of Bir Zeit in the West Bank.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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