The reports that appeared at week's end about the tightening of the blockade of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, took at least a few of the local residents by surprise: "How can they tighten the siege any more?" wondered A, a resident of the closed city.
Still, the underlying rationale for the total prohibition the Israel Defense Forces imposed on vehicles seeking to travel south from Ramallah was understandable: Security sources reported that place-specific warnings had been received about suicide bombers, and many roadblocks were put up on Israeli roads, too. The siege of Ramallah will probably be lifted soon, the city will revert to its old routine, and Israel may even score propaganda points by declaring it has having "relaxed the closure." The traffic on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road will return to "normal" and the state of things will go back to what it was, for example, at the Qalandiya roadblock.
The roadblock at Qalandiya is a relatively new one, having been established in the midst of the current Intifada. It is located opposite the fence that surrounds the deserted international airport at Atarot, in the north of Jerusalem, on the main road to Ramallah, and next to the neighborhood of Qalandiya, which is within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. This is not the Palestinians' entryway into Jerusalem and Israel - for that, there is the A-Ram checkpoint, a few kilometers to the south.
The Qalandiya roadblock is located on a road that is in a scandalous state of maintenance and is the busiest route in the West Bank. More than half a million Palestinians make use of it - residents of the Ramallah and East Jerusalem areas, including all the many villages and refugee camps around the cities. They have no other way. Jews do not have need of this route: The way to the settlements in the region passes on separate roads, on which Palestinians are forbidden to travel. Now another wide road is being built there, which will also be reserved exclusively for the use of the settlers.
At the Qalandiya roadblock three or four soldiers check the vehicles, their passengers and their contents (the permits to enter Israel are checked a bit later, at the A-Ram site). Here's how they go about it: the line of cars, which is several kilometers long, stretches toward the horizon behind concrete blocks and a terrifying army bulldozer, which sits, poised and mute, by the roadside, perhaps to intimidate the travelers, and one of the soldiers signals one vehicle at a time to move forward. When the check is over and the vehicle has been cleared to go ahead, the soldier takes a break - it can last two minutes, or five minutes, and sometimes more - before signaling the next vehicle to move forward to be checked. It's a methodical procedure. The result is that each vehicle has to wait for three to four hours in each direction - and this is not in the rush hour.
Under the blazing August sun thousands of perspiring, irritable drivers wait for the soldier's signal, so that one more car can at last move ahead. Some of them get out of their cars, unable to bear the overwhelming heat, others occasionally sound their horns in a furious cacophony, which quickly fades away because of its uselessness.
There are young people and old people, women and children, for whom the trip is obviously vital; otherwise, it stands to reason, they would not subject themselves to this agony. They wait in the vast traffic jam for hours to make a journey that in ordinary times would take a few minutes. Last Sunday, the Palestinian Authority's minister for international cooperation, Nabil Sha'ath, was also here, in his air-conditioned van, and he waited together with a bridegroom in a decorated car: the Qalandiya roadblock is a great social leveler.
The sight of the pedestrians is even more pathetic. Having no other choice, thousands of Palestinians cross the roadblock on foot. No one checks them, even though they are carrying packages, a situation that raises doubts about the security usefulness of the roadblock. In a procession that can only arouse pity, are old people leaning on their son's shoulders, people who are ill and are making their way with their last remaining strength, the disabled, pregnant women and children who can't understand why they have to drag themselves like this in the withering heat.
Says the IDF spokesman in response: "In humanitarian cases the IDF ensures that the checks are expedited and that the travelers are not delayed." That is simply ridiculous: No vehicle, not even an ambulance, can get around this horrific traffic jam, and anyone who is ill is condemned to wait for hours in a vehicle or to make his way on foot.
The conclusions are almost unavoidable. To begin with, this roadblock is not meant only to check vehicles but also to punish their passengers, and perhaps to dissuade them from leaving their places of residence. Otherwise it's hard to understand what the justification is for this most terrible of the West Bank roadblocks, for what do security needs have to do with the infuriatingly slow-motion behavior of the soldiers?
Second, along with the security benefits, whether real or imaginary, the security damage also has to be taken into account. No one can know whether it is more likely that a terrorist attack will be prevented by a permanent roadblock whose existence is known far and wide, or that the hatred that is generated during the long hours of exhausting and humiliating waiting will produce more terrorism.
Finally, if more Israelis were exposed to this slice of reality, which is a regular part of Palestinian life, and saw with their own eyes the ordeals endured by ordinary, innocent Palestinians, they might gain a better understanding of the roots of the hatred the Palestinians feel for them. One roadblock is enough to understand it.
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