Israel has recently come out with a number of humanitarian gestures in the territories, primarily the easing of conditions at checkpoints - such was the announcement made to the United States, and such was the announcement made Monday on one of the television news broadcasts.
Perhaps these gestures were put into practice after last Thursday; and perhaps before then, the Americans hadn't had the time to inform the commanders and soldiers in eastern Nablus that they must now adopt a welcoming approach to the pregnant woman who almost slips on the muddy slope, or to the elderly man who, on his way home from the doctor in Nablus, climbs over the piles of asphalt fragments that the Israel Defense Forces bulldozers have crushed.
Last Thursday, someone from the village of Salem, east of Nablus, called and said the soldiers had been holding "hundreds of people - women, adults and children - for the past three hours" and were not allowing them to pass. Rifles held at an angle of 60 degrees and fingers on the trigger make the soldiers' intentions clear.
It's almost standard practice, say residents of the three villages east of Nablus - Salem, Dir al-Khateb and Azmut: An IDF force positions itself at the foot of the hill of the new Askar refugee camp, alongside what was once a short asphalt road that reaches the three villages and is now a mess of mud and piles of torn-up tarmac. The force holds up people for no apparent reason, the residents say, from both directions - from the west, to Nablus, or from the east, from Nablus to the villages. The soldiers often force people to backtrack; and they frequently accompany their actions with offensive speech and insults. Some even use force.
A military source was convinced that the directives are to check only that men between the ages of 16 and 40 have permits from the Civil Administration to move from the villages to Nablus and vice versa, and that there are no intentions to prevent women, the elderly and children from passing through the checkpoints. The reality on the ground is different: Without explanation and without any apparent checks, the soldiers do indeed hold these people up - for 10 minutes, or an hour or two, and more, all day, twice a day - men and women.
This is the only thoroughfare for these three villages, and it's only for pedestrians (in fact, it's only for able-bodied pedestrians, as life-threatening danger lurks for anyone who has even a little difficulty walking). The sick and pregnant women also have to make the journey on foot, and go through a series of explanations and attempts to persuade the soldiers to allow them to continue to climb or wait for the ambulance that is slow to arrive.
There is no commercial way of ferrying agricultural produce and food to and from the villages because there is no authorized thoroughfare for Palestinian vehicles - contrary, by the way, to an explicit promise made by the IDF to the High Court of Justice some two years ago in response to a petition against the closure policy submitted by an association of doctors: The IDF promised that every blocked and enclosed Palestinian community has a thoroughfare for direct vehicle traffic. In practice, most villages are blocked to rapid movement of emergency vehicles.
The IDF is not honoring its promise to the High Court, and the soldiers are operating contrary to what their commanders are promising to the media. At most of the roadblocks that are manned by soldiers and include obstacles (mounds of dirt or ditches designed to prevent vehicular traffic), alongside which army patrols sometimes stop, the soldiers are adding to the institutionalized difficulty - the fruits of a policy from above - and are improvising insults and harassments of various kinds.
Assume there are 300 such roadblocks and obstacles between the villages and cities. Through some of them, a thousand people try to pass each day; through others, 10,000 - on foot, in the rain, and in the heat. Assume that each roadblock is manned by between four and 10 soldiers. In other words, some 1,200-3,000 soldiers are positioned at these key points, in constant, daily friction with 20,000-100,000 Palestinian citizens at least.
A few months after the outbreak of the bloody conflict, when commanders realized the roadblocks were being accompanied by the personal addition of insults and harassment, they tried to implement a system of internal checks, education and information. One of them admitted a few months ago that this system had failed, that there is in fact no way of preventing very many soldiers from coming up with various personal methods of proving who is "the man" in the field.
For us, the Israelis, reports on routine harassment at roadblocks in particular, and the distress of the closures in general, cannot be "news." It is difficult even to describe in words the depressing, degrading topography of the obstacles and roadblocks to those who keep out of the occupied territories. For us, the Israelis, the soldiers are our brothers, and sons, and spouses and neighbors.
The answer is that they are afraid, that there are terror attacks, that every pregnant woman could be a ticking bomb, that each child could be holding a knife, that it is hot, cold, rainy and muggy, that they are longing for home. It is difficult to imagine them as being cruel, heartless, just plain evil.
But this is the picture they paint at the roadblocks, and this is the picture of Israel. Even if the Palestinians are able to recognize the extraordinary "good soldier," even if only one soldier in every four is abusive, he is the one who determines what the day will be like. He is the one who is etched in memory. He is Israel.
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