Cry for Me, Qalandiya

As Lia Nirgad wrote her just-published book, 'Winter at Qalandiya,' about the checkpoints of Qalandiya and A-Ram in the West Bank, she carried in her heart memories of the daughter of Israel's ambassador to Argentina in that country's darkest period.

Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori
Aviva Lori

One day last November, Lia Nirgad drove to the Qalandiya checkpoint. She was curious. She had heard stories about what went on at such checkpoints in the West Bank and she wanted to see for herself. Nirgad, 42, a writer, editor and translator, had been active for many years in radical left-wing organizations and thought she had seen it all, that she was closely and intimately familiar with the wrongs of the occupation. She soon discovered that she was mistaken. Since then, she has been there every Thursday afternoon. Standing and observing.

Nirgad soon became involved in the women's organization Machsom Watch (machsom, which means barrier, is the Hebrew for checkpoint). Its 400 members of all ages, though mostly not young, do daily watches (in shifts) at Israel Defense Forces checkpoints in the West Bank with the aim of documenting and reporting on the events at the sites. The Qalandiya and A-Ram checkpoints are the almost regular sites of Nirgad and three friends, who join her on a more or less steady basis. The two checkpoints are a 10-minute drive apart. The Qalandiya checkpoint straddles the main passage to Ramallah; the A-Ram site, to Jerusalem. After each shift the participants are asked to draw up a report on what they saw, which is later published on the organization's Web site ( This was not enough for Nirgad: this week her book "Winter at Qalandiya" was published (in Hebrew by Xargol Publishers). It's a private summing up of her experiences last winter, involving the three-way encounter between Palestinians, Israeli soldiers and women from Machsom Watch at the two checkpoints.

Nirgad lives in the "old north" of Tel Aviv with her partner of the last eight years, Daniel Dor, a former journalist and now a lecturer in the Departments of Communication and English at Tel Aviv University. Together they are raising Nirgad's two daughters (aged 14 and 11) and his daughter (14) from their previous marriages. Her sister is the film actress Liron Nirgad ("The Chorus") and they look remarkably alike. The book, she says, was largely written on a high bar stool in a kiosk on the corner of Dizengoff and Ben-Gurion Streets in Tel Aviv. There, amid the hullabaloo and relentless noise, she prepared her weekly reports. Occasionally she would get into political arguments with the kiosk regulars.

What she wrote doesn't make for pleasant reading, irrespective of the reader's political opinions. It's simply not pleasant to think that this is what the soldiers at the checkpoints say and do: shout, curse, humiliate, ignore, patronize and abuse - verbally and physically. The status of the Machsom Watch women at the checkpoints is delicate. In fact, they have no status. They are allowed to stand there because the IDF thinks it's good for public relations. Their declared purpose is to document and report, but in practice they try to soften the orders and moderate the soldiers' behavior. To explain to them that if a Palestinian from Bethlehem has to get his son urgently to a hospital in Ramallah to have his eyes examined and they are preventing him from doing so because he lacks the right transit document, they can use their discretion and let him through. "It's humanitarian," they say. "Imagine if it was your father, or your uncle."

Why are only women involved?

Nirgad: "There is something about the presence of women that is less threatening from the soldiers' point of view. How did it happen that women created Four Mothers [the women's organization that opposed the Israeli presence in Lebanon]? And why was it that women stood in May Square in Buenos Aires? And Women Against Silence? I think that women are more connected to the moral side of the society. You meet a lot of grandmothers there, whose grandsons are serving in the IDF."

One of the impressive things that comes across in the book is the restraint shown by the women in the face of the events. Their tactic is not to criticize the soldiers but to stand behind them and whisper to them that they are not to blame for the situation and are no more than its victims. This often does the job: The soldiers relent and allow an old man or woman to pass without a permit. Sometimes, though, this cajoling doesn't help, Nirgad says, in which case the women move from motherly understanding to confrontation with the soldiers. That, too, sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

"The official aim is to show restraint, because we really want to document events and not act as a unit to reform the IDF that tries to make things a little nicer for the Palestinians," she explains. "But when we stand there, we are a type of mirror. However much we irk the soldiers, we also bring a certain sanity to the place, and show them how a person should behave. Sometimes it has no effect, sometimes it does the opposite - it has a negative effect and they get upset and become even more violent."

Repeatedly, Nirgad saw how the friction with the local residents, combined with the women's presence and intervention, affects the soldiers. "You see how each of them undergoes a kind of dynamic. One of the officers was extremely inflexible and did everything according to the book, but last week he softened up. On the other hand, there was another soldier who was forced to open fire on children who were throwing stones at the checkpoint. In my first shift at Qalandiya there were terrible shouts. One of the soldiers screamed at a Palestinian man who didn't want the soldier talking to his wife and asking her for documents. `I've had it up to my dick with their self-respect. Who do they think they are, anyway?' We shouted at him to stop talking like that, but it didn't help. The man and his wife turned around and went back to Ramallah."

Every soldier a dictator

Nirgad is aware that standing at the checkpoints is an act of limited power. "I was looking for the thing I wanted to do politically," she says. "I went there and it was terribly clear to me that this is what I was going to do. It's amazing how, suddenly, in the midst of all this despair, you discover that you can act and have influence."

One example: On February 25, at the Qalandiya checkpoint, a soldier who had been on the watchtower came down and forbade the Palestinians to smoke until the check of their right to pass was completed. Nirgad went over to the soldier and tried to find out the source of the order. The reply she was given: "They don't deserve rewards." Not giving in, she tried to cajole a few more soldiers, until one of them had enough of her and said: "Ya'alla, let them make bongs, let them smoke joints, just don't come in here anymore."

The detainees lit up, and then were hit with a new order: They had to put the butts in their pockets. "Not only is the whole checkpoint filthy," Nirgad says. "Not only is the garbage mixed with the mud of the last rain, but the observation area is strewn with refuse, including aluminum trays from one of the soldiers' last meals. There's always some new regulation, and when you try to find out its implications, who decided it and how long it will be valid, no one knows. It's indescribable chaos, replete with documents, forms and bureaucracy. Not a shift goes by without one of the Palestinians passing by and saying: `Look what you're doing. You're bringing this hate on yourselves.' People who pass by with small children point to them and say: `Look at them, what are they learning here? Do you see these children - they're scared to death.'"

Back home after a shift, she says, she is seized by depression and sadness, and sometimes cries for hours. "For the soldiers it must be a lot harder. They're there every day and I don't know what the violence they are exposed to does to them. Everything rests on the ordinary soldiers. They are loaded with tremendous responsibility. `Use your discretion,' they're told, but many times they exploit that power. I really think something will happen to these soldiers after their discharge, whether it takes a month or a year or 10 years. The immediate trauma is that of the Palestinians, but on the other hand the soldiers there are also caught in the system."

What do you base that on?

"On the fact that they are compelled to behave in an inhuman way. There is no way to carry out the checkpoint procedures and remain a human being. There is no humane way to tell someone who wants to get home, even if it's done politely, that he can't go home today. Because the checkpoints have become a major issue at the international level, there is a tendency in the IDF to teach the soldiers how to behave at them, but paradoxically, there has been a change for the worse. When the soldiers were less orderly in their work, they cursed and humiliated people, true, but sometimes they also bent some procedure and let people through - everything was more humane, for good and for ill. Now, while the behavior at Qalandiya is far more correct and according to the book, the checkpoint is more cultured and less human. There is no more bending of regulations."

According to your observations, what sort of person is the Israeli soldier at a checkpoint?

"Even before he has seen a Palestinian, he is shot through with layers of racism and loathing for the Palestinians. That helps him very much to do his job. Dehumanization is part of the story. After we convinced the Israeli public that the political process fell apart because of the Palestinians, another layer of enmity was added because terrorism was presented to the Israelis as a permanent trait of the Palestinians. They're terrorists: We gave them everything and they launched the intifada. That's what the soldier at the checkpoint carries within him, so he treats every Palestinian as a terrorist. When a 2-year-old Palestinian went through the checkpoint, I said to one of the soldiers, `Is he a terrorist, too?' And he replied, `It's a possibility.' Every pregnant woman might be hiding who knows what there, and every old man is a potential planner of terrorist attacks.

"I think the most accurate description of what goes on there is that the soldiers are doing dirty work and it doesn't seem to be hard for them to do it. I don't see the agonizing, and if here and there I saw someone who was embarrassed, after a week or two things had become easier for him. You don't meet great pure souls there."

Memories from Argentina

Lia Nirgad was born in Belgium, where her father was the Industry and Commerce Ministry's attache to the institutions of the Common Market (as these two bodies were then known). The family returned to Jerusalem when she was still an infant. Her father was born in Krakow, Poland, her mother in Vienna to a Jewish family of Polish descent. Following Germany's annexation of Austria, in 1938, her mother's family fled to relatives in eastern Poland, and when the war broke out they found themselves under Soviet rule. "When the Germans occupied the region," Nirgad says, "my mother remarked that at least they were cultured."

The two families spend the rest of the war in ghettos: her father in Krakow, her mother in Bronislaw (now in Ukraine). Her father escaped from the ghetto and joined the underground resistance. In 1943 he succeeded in reaching Turkey and from there went on to Palestine. Here he joined the civil service and changed his name from Roman Enisfeld to Ram Nirgad. In 1966 he was appointed Israel's ambassador to Nigeria. "It was during the war in Biafra," Lia Nirgad says. She was then four years old. "I remember walking through the streets of Lagos and seeing people without legs lying everywhere, disabled and miserable. My mother told me that when she told a friend there that it was horrible, that it was impossible to walk in the street and see those things, the woman said, `I always walk erect and see nothing.' Here, too, there those who don't see."

They returned to Israel after a three-year stint in Nigeria. Her father left the Foreign Ministry temporarily to manage the American firm that built the satellite station in Ha'elah Valley. Returning to the foreign service in 1974, he was posted to Argentina as ambassador. Two years later the army seized power. The dark period of the generals' junta in Argentina was called the "dirty war." Thousands of people were murdered and thousands more were "disappeared" without a trace.

Last week in this magazine ("The battle still rages" by Avihai Becker), Yitzhak Pundak, who was working for the Jewish Agency at that time, claimed that your father asked him not to intervene on behalf of Argentinian Jewry. Was your father asked to intercede to save people who were "disappeared"?

"The relations between my father and Pundak were tense. Over the years things were said but I can say that I remember phone calls in the middle of the night, threats on my father's life because he was getting too involved with things he should steer clear of, and was interceding to rescue people. I also heard it from my mother and other people. And at the same time, official relations between Israel and Argentina continued."

How did your father take that?

"A few months after we returned to Israel he was diagnosed with cancer and he died a year later in great torment. People who believe in a connection between body and soul will say he took it very hard. I also think it was very hard on him, but thanks to his official connections, he could call the commander of the Navy or some other officer and find out what befell those people, because if you didn't succeed in finding out within the first 24 hours, after that it was already too late. It was impossible to find them after that. I remember people hiding in our house, Jews and non-Jews. There were people whom my father helped escape. I think it was an impossible situation for him."

He didn't think of resigning?

"No. he was a good soldier, imbued with faith and mission, a Zionist, and having come out of the Holocaust, he truly wanted to serve his country, even the right-wing government, because we were there after the `upheaval' - the election of the first Likud government, in 1977.

"Over the years there have been various allegations made about Israeli policy and about the embassy in Argentina, but because my father died a year and a half later I couldn't talk to him about it. I can only attest that as a 17-year-old girl I remember that he would run around frantically at night, rush to prisons and get people released, and that's also what I heard from my mother and from others."

Do the memories from Argentina influence your political behavior today?

"Not only Argentina. The Holocaust as well. When I see people behind fences and soldiers shouting at them `Come here and leave the child there,' I am appalled. Besides that, because of Argentina, I internalized suspicion of the despotism of regimes, of the ability of an army to seize control of civilian life, of power and the ability to abuse it. And unfortunately, the present reality provides me with raw material for that suspiciousness. Suddenly it's possible to disappear people and hold them at installations whose existence is unknown, or place them in administrative detention [arrest without trial]. That power scares me."

Not just aunties

Nirgad was 17 when the family returned to Israel, but she had effectively completed high school in Buenos Aires. She moved up her induction into the army and intended to request service in a combat unit. "As a girl, as the daughter of an ambassador, I was on duty, too. Activist Zionism with a sense of responsibility. I was supposed to represent the state with honor. That was what was expected of me. We received a pamphlet from the Foreign Ministry and memorized it. One passage, for example, said: `What will you answer if you're asked about the Palestinian people? There is no Palestinian people.' That's how I grew up."

Because of her father's illness, Nirgad was posted close to home, working with street gangs in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood and in the town of Or Yehuda. "When I position myself opposite the soldiers at a checkpoint, I recall those street gangs," she says.

Where's the resemblance?

"At the checkpoint and in the street gang, the key concept is honor. One of the things I learned from them was to uphold my honor and show a little toughness. One of the people I worked with taught me a trick - how to behave with them. We took them on a trip to Nes Harim [a village in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem] - there were kids who didn't get to travel in the country - and there was a hill they had to climb, a hard patch. I was in the lead, and when I got to the top, choking with pressure in my chest, I struck a pose and lit a cigarette. Not that I could smoke it because of all my huffing, but when they got to the top, completely drained because they weren't in any kind of shape, and suddenly saw me standing there and smoking a cigarette, it made a big impression on them.

"One of the things with the soldiers, in those head-to-head bits, reminds me of that pose. When they see that we are not just left-wing aunties, but that we can also be tough when needed, that sometimes helps and always throws me back to the days of the Gadna [Youth Battalions]."

After her discharge Nirgad studied philosophy and history at Tel Aviv University, graduating cum laude and obtaining a scholarship to do a doctorate in history at Cambridge University. A handsome scholarship, she says, that would cover three years of studies. By then she had already begun to write stories and was delighted by the idea of sitting comfortably at Cambridge and writing in a pastoral atmosphere. She fled after a week.

"It wasn't totally clear to me that this is what I wanted to do," she recalls. "I was given a room in the dorms and it all looked like a movie set. Every two minutes bells chimed, and on my first morning someone knocked at my door and said: `Good morning, I am Janet and I am your bedder' - she had come to make the bed. I saw that it wasn't for me. I went to New York and married an Israeli who was with me in high school in Argentina. We returned to Israel and I started to write seriously."

Her two novels appeared under the imprint of the veteran Am Oved Publishing House. She also wrote a children's book and started to work as a translator on the foreign desk of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. She also did editing for the paper's weekly political supplement.

Nirgad was divorced in 1994 and two years later left Yedioth Ahronoth to devote herself full-time to writing, editing and translating books. She translates into Hebrew from English and Spanish (she is the translator of the Hebrew versions of Charles Frazier's bestselling novel "Cold Mountain" and of Lorrie Moore's novel "Birds of America"). In 2002 the American publisher Overlook Press published her novel "As High as the Scooter Can Fly," a kind of adult fairy tale. The book has been translated into Greek and will soon appear in Hebrew as well. At the moment, between her sorties to the checkpoints and writing up her reports, she is working in a new translation of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

In her book, Nirgad tries to restore the discernment of details to the Israeli gaze. She sees a colorful kerchief, ribbons in girls' ponytails and wrinkles at the corners of old people's eyes; she sees people with tears, illnesses, anxious relatives and lots of self-respect. "I really and truly believe that there are a great many Israelis whose worldview would be completely reversed if I took them to a checkpoint once," Nirgad says. "Part of what I am trying to say to people is that the Palestinian woman at the checkpoint is not just a Palestinian woman at a checkpoint. In the morning, in her home, she is a human being. She dresses elegantly. Tries to match her kerchief to her sweater, dresses the children nicely and sets out to visit someone. In the morning she is a human being, and in the evening, when she returns, she is again a human being. But on the way she played the role of the Palestinian woman at the checkpoint who implores the soldiers and is humiliated by them, and that's how it is day in and day out."

Why do the soldiers pay any attention to your requests - after all, the General Staff Orders don't state that the women of Machsom Watch are part of the army procedures?

"They don't have to pay any attention at all to us, but our presence sets them a type of challenge. Even though they see us as elderly aunts who are driving them nuts, we bring to the checkpoints an effect of sanity, something extra-army, and that stops the knee-jerk reactions for a moment. They are compelled to stop for a moment. When a soldier tells us `I can't do that,' we say `Yes, you can.' At that point he has a choice."



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