Text size

The soldiers at the Haware checkpoint at the southern entrance to Nablus shouted commands in Arabic: Rukh (walk), Wakf (stand), Iftah (open). Dozens of women, crowded between the rows of cement plates, waited about half an hour for their turn to be checked. The last thing that interested them was the bad pronunciation and the use of the masculine gender. The women were thinking about the taxis waiting on the southern side of the checkpoint, about 200 meters away, that would take them home. The men stood in a separate line. The men and women watched silently as the three soldiers stopped a young man between the cement plates. Two aimed their rifles at him as the third shackled his hands behind his back with white plastic bracelets.

Last Sunday was actually a rather easy day at the Haware checkpoint. According to military orders, passage is allowed for men over age 30, and to women. Men younger than 30 were delayed for hours behind the cement plates - in the sun, without water. Every young man had his reason for wanting to get into Nablus or get out of the city. The soldiers explained that they didn't have entry or exit passes. At the end of the day some went back the way they came. Others were allowed through. A day of school or work or looking for work was wasted.

Every once in a while, because of the alerts, the checkpoint is closed. The activists from Machsom Watch reported that last Wednesday thousands of people - elderly, children, pregnant women - were delayed in the heavy heat for long hours. A tank stood between the Palestinians and the soldiers, with its cannon trained on the civilians.

Three women fainted, with one needing medical treatment. Children cried, exhausted people shouted Allah Akbar. The soldiers pulled away some young people they claimed were agitating the waiting crowd. One was beaten, a second handcuffed, but late that evening they were released.

The angry crowd moved closer toward the frightened soldiers, who threw stun grenades to the side of the road. Just before darkness fell the road was opened, but only to leave Nablus, for those who live outside the city. Some 70 detainees, some held since six in the morning, were only released after midnight. They remained to sleep over in the Haware mosque.

The eastern checkpoint at Beit Furik, which separates the village and five other villages, was also hermetically closed that day. Many residents wanting to go home were made to wait for hours. Hundreds of people sat on the ground to wait. They waited. A family with an ailing child asked if they could take her to the doctor in Nablus, then gave up and went back to the village. A man collapsed. The mother of a five-year-old boy dressed in hospital pajamas cried that he was sick. Children ran back and forth bringing water from a neighbor's house for the people who fainted in the heat. The soldiers told the women from Machsom Watch that they call it, "Time off from life."

There are 12 entrances around Nablus. All are blocked. Four are manned by soldiers who allow passage on foot by pedestrians and much more limited transit to vehicles, until 7:30 in the evening. One out of four of the entrances, the Awarta checkpoint, is meant for transporting goods in and out of the city. The rest of the roadblocks are made up of dirt ramparts, cement cubes and military jeeps. The roads to those roadblocks are broken and watched from afar by soldiers, who every few days expropriate cars that try to bring people to the actual roadblock for them to try to climb over.

The siege is a death sentence for what was once the economic and industrial capital of the West Bank. Until four years ago, the wholesale fruit and vegetable market of the city brought into city hall some NIS 3 million a month. Last month it brought in NIS 33 for the entire month. Out of 52 factories in town, only 18 remain open, and they are only semi-productive.

The Palestinians have a lot of ways to overcome their stolen freedom of movement. There are those who ride donkeys, others walk for hours. Some plead with soldiers. Some have parents who make a supreme effort and rent rooms in the city, so their student children won't lose any studies at the university. Others manage to get travel passes - don't ask how - and some find their way through the olive groves.

Some of the methods are used by those who want to get an explosives belt out of the city. For each of them there are hundreds of people who use the methods to continue with their lives. And for those hundreds there are thousands who can't or don't dare, and their lives shrink into utter poverty, enforced unemployment, alienation and disconnection from the surroundings - and enormous rage.

In Israel, people are convinced that the "Time off from life" of the civilian population deep inside the West Bank is a legitimate means to prevent terror attacks. In Nablus they are convinced that it is the army that is actually producing the infrastructure that creates people who want to commit suicide. It is caused by the nearly daily attacks on the city's neighborhoods and refugee camps, which each week add up to the deaths of civilians, and at its checkpoints: the fainting women, the crying children, the factories empty of workers, the tank aiming its cannon at the elderly.