The Observer News Service – 28 June 2003
At the checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank town of Qalqilya, Monder Nazzar was slumped over the wheel of his ambulance. His 19-year-old patient, Ahmed, was next to him in the passenger seat, creased up in pain from a gastric infection. Behind them, lying on a stretcher, was Ahmed’s mother, looking pale and dazed.
“We’ve been sitting here half an hour while the soldiers check our papers,” Nazzar said. He had brought his patient from the nearby city of Nablus for emergency treatment via bumpy back roads to avoid as many checkpoints as possible along the way.
“He’s in agony from all the movement and his mother is car sick,” he said.
Ambulances are among the few vehicles allowed through checkpoints and this one at Qalqilya is the only way in or out of the town which is home to 40,000 Palestinians.
Townspeople, if they can get permission to leave and there is not a “closure” — Israel’s term for the sealing off of Palestinian towns and villages — must negotiate their way past a dozen Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint.
The checkpoint commander, who had finished checking the contents of the manila envelope from the Nablus hospital, ordered the ambulance’s three occupants out while his soldiers searched under the stretcher and seats for hidden weapons.
After a further 10 minutes, Nazzar was told to get back into his cab and waved through.
Another ambulance driver, Faris Abu Albi, who arrived at the checkpoint moments later, had been less lucky. A journey to the renal unit in Nablus with three dialysis patients — which a few years ago would have taken 30 minutes — had taken all day. Abu Albi had spent much of it sitting on the tarmac by the checkpoint at Beit Iba, a little west of Nablus.
“They didn’t like my papers so they made me get out of the ambulance and sit on the road for four hours. Eventually my colleague was allowed to drive the patients to hospital. I just sat there until the ambulance came back,” he said.
Still, he said, this was a good day. At least the checkpoint was open.
The checkpoint has become Israel’s frontline weapon against the Palestinian public. An army spokesman said the policy of restricting Palestinian movement and searching ambulances had been made necessary by the continuing terrorist and suicide attacks launched against Israel.
Officials claim all medical emergencies are allowed to cross at checkpoints. But Israeli human-rights group Btselem disagrees.
“The reality is different. The sick are often prevented from moving along the roadways, both by physical obstacles [such as concrete blocks and piles of dirt] and by soldiers at checkpoints,” it said.
It is impossible to know how many Palestinians have died during this intifada because of such delays, or how many died taking lengthy and illegal hill paths to avoid a closed checkpoint, shot by the army for being suspected terrorists.
Btselem lists 38 deaths caused by restricted movement but spokesman Lior Yavne says the figures are conservative.
“We have only included cases where we know beyond doubt that the delay caused a death. In most cases, if someone dies hours later in hospital, how can you prove an hour or two spent at the checkpoint was the reason?” Yavne said.
The US-backed road map, designed to end violence between Palestinians and Israelis and create a Palestinian state by 2005, makes dismantling the more than 120 manned checkpoints in the West Bank and 40 more in Gaza a low priority.
Palestinian analysts believe this fact alone may ensure the road map’s failure, because for most Palestinians the checkpoints represent the occupation.
“The checkpoints not only stop us moving freely, they are designed to humiliate us and destroy our lives, economically, socially, politically,” said Akran Salame, one of two dozen taxi drivers waiting hopefully for the business of Palestinians making their way home on foot past the soldiers.
By 3pm, Salame’s shared taxi was slowly filling. The few Qalqilyans with an “approved reason” to travel were returning home from their work in one of the 30 or so neighboring villages. Before the intifada, Salame said, he passed the day ferrying businessmen, students and shoppers between Qalqilya and Nablus.
“Now the longest journey I can make is the 2km it takes from here to the far side of Qalqilya,” he said.
Most of the 3.5 million Palestinians, made to all but disappear since the intifada erupted two-and-a-half years ago, are now largely confined to their towns and villages.
Abid Abu Mariam, aged 27, had not left the city for six months.
“I’m too frightened to go through the checkpoint. I am young and the soldiers could decide to arrest me. It happened to one of my brothers. It’s safer to stay here,” she said.
As well as preventing movement between towns and villages, an “external closure” prevents Palestinians leaving the West Bank and Gaza in search of work in Israel. Over the last decade, the 150,000 Palestinians who depended on construction or agricultural work in Israel have seen their sole source of income dry up.
But the Palestinians’ economic woes have grown dire because of the “internal closure,” roadblocks around Palestinian towns and villages, which are destroying the economy and preventing Palestinians from leading normal lives.
The World Bank estimates the closures have cost the Palestinian economy at least US$5.4 billion in lost income, with unemployment rates between 45 percent and 70 percent.
Palestinians rarely make non-essential journeys. Hani Shubatr was crossing the checkpoint late in the afternoon on his way back from his office job in Qalqilya to Azzoun. In his spare time he has been studying for a business degree at an-Najah University in Nablus.
Before the intifada, shuttling between the three neighboring towns was easily done. But the strain of constantly negotiating the checkpoints had finally taken its toll.
“I am postponing the last year of my degree,” he said. “Maybe things will be easier in another year.”
Like everyone else, he studies as much as is possible at home.
“You can never know where you will have to sleep. I rent a small apartment for US$60 a month in Nablus so that I can sleep there, and friends put me up in Qalqilya if it’s impossible to leave,” he said.
Other times, when closures are called unexpectedly, he risks one of the illegal hill paths to reach his family.
“I only do it in an emergency because it’s too dangerous to do regularly. If a soldier spots you using one of these paths, he is likely to shoot you,” he said.
The Observer News Service – 28 June 2003