Al-Ahram Weekly – 30 August 2001
Nowadays, all roads in the West Bank city of Ramallah lead either to a traffic jam or a dead end. The journey starts promisingly enough. The centre of Ramallah is a huge roundabout called the Minara with a skeletal metal sculpture at its heart, the outline of what appears to be a rocket pointing to the stars.
Two years ago it was made more imposing with the addition of four life-size stone lions around the base, each standing at the head of a road and roaring at the horizon. There has been much speculation among Palestinians about these lions, which were hewn from stone in China. It is generally accepted that they represent the city’s four great hamulas, or families. But there is much less agreement on why one, the biggest and most aggressive, is wearing an improbably large wristwatch on its paw. There are as many explanations as Ramallans to be asked.
One recurring theory is that a scaled-down model was sent to China with a decorative ribbon attached to the paw. The Chinese, baffled, assumed it was supposed to represent a watch and carved it accordingly. But, Hassan Mitwalli, an IT worker, is more cynical. He says that, after the lions had been designed, a computer expert was entrusted with generating a virtual 3-D model on compact disc to be sent to the Chinese. Aware of the city’s perilous finances, he introduced the watch as a “virus” into the programme. It was an insurance policy: were he not paid, he would refuse to remove the watch. Apparently he never got his money.
The busiest road from the Minara leads to Jerusalem, once a 20-minute drive away. Since the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Israel’s most visible punishment of the West Bank has been its stranglehold of this highway. The thumb, pressing on the windpipe of Palestinian society, has been Qalandiya, a now infamous military checkpoint next to one of the West Bank’s most squalid refugee camps. From fortified turrets and concrete bunkers, the guns of Israeli soldiers are permanently trained on the queues of Palestinian vehicles and pedestrians.
As hopes in the peace process have waxed and waned, so the checkpoint has loosened and tightened its grip. On a good day Arab East Jerusalem can be reached in 45 minutes; on a bad day it can take many hours. Nowadays, every day is a bad day. Israel’s “closure” policy conceals the Palestinian experience of endless traffic queues in the cauldron of heat and dust of a Holy Land summer.
No one, not even the soldiers guarding the roadblock, believes these queues ensure Israel’s security. The tiny back roads through the camp and neighbouring hills, some designed for only the horse and cart, are continuously clogged with traffic trying to evade the checkpoint. It’s usually a toss-up which route is slower.
What the closure has achieved is a slow crushing of the Palestinian spirit: the simplest tasks, whether visiting family, shopping, running a business or getting to the doctor, now require a herculean effort. Only the most essential traffic makes the journey to the checkpoint. Most people take taxis as close as they can, then walk past the roadblock and traffic queues to taxis waiting on the other side. Ever-present is the danger of being caught up in gunfire between soldiers and youths from the camp.
Trapped in stifling cars and lorries, the drivers visibly sweat bitterness and anger. Such emotions are combustible. Watching over these scenes are posters celebrating the martyrdom of a local painter and decorator, Ali Joulani. Until recently he lived with his wife and three young children in a house by the checkpoint: he had a front-seat view of the ritual of daily humiliation. Although he had no known political affiliations, early this month he travelled to the heart of Israel’s military establishment, the defence ministry building in Tel Aviv, and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle wounding 11 people, mostly soldiers. Moments later he was shot dead by police.
Joulani’s anger was terrible indeed. For the moment at least, the roar of Qalandiya’s drivers is more muted, soldiers at the checkpoint are disturbed only by the frustrated cacophony of car horns.