Last Friday morning they hiked in the village of Ein Qiniya, west of Ramallah in the West Bank, and practiced yoga and meditation there. In the afternoon they set off in a good mood for an engagement party of a friend in Bethlehem, but an incident with Israeli Border Police at a checkpoint dragged them back down to reality.
They are Asil Baidoun, her husband Amir Malhis, and their friend Wisam Husseini. All three are in their late 20s and met about five years ago in a group of Palestinian marathon runners called Right to Movement. Wisam teaches yoga, Amir is a guitar player in the Ens O Jam group, and Asil studied journalism and now works for the World Health Organization and for a nonprofit group based in London, Medical Aid for Palestinians. Asil and Amir live in Kafr Aqab, north of Jerusalem, and Wisam lives in Ramallah.
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Asil is the only one of the three who has a car. It has an Israeli (yellow) license plate because Asil, who was born in Jerusalem, is an Israeli resident. Because Amir and Wisam are residents of the West Bank and carry Palestinian identity cards (even though Wisam was actually born in Jerusalem), they are not allowed to drive through Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem. Instead, they must take the long route through Wadi Nar, driving a winding road east of Jerusalem that is the only north-south route open to Palestinian residents of the West Bank. A permanent vehicle checkpoint is located south of Abu Dis, manned by the Border Police. The Palestinians call it the “container” checkpoint – and for Palestinians, a Border Police officer is also called a soldier.
Asil was driving. “When we reached the checkpoint, there were only a few cars there and they drove through without the soldiers stopping them. A soldier directed us with a hand motion to drive in the right lane,” she told Haaretz. “It was not the first time they directed us to a different lane, we are used to it because we are in a car with a yellow license plate,” added Amir. Asil moved to the right lane, slowed down, waited and glanced through the mirror. She did not see any police approaching them or showing any interest in them. She slowly began driving again.
“Suddenly four soldiers, one of them a female, started running toward us, shouting: Come, come," said Amir. He recalls the word “come” in Hebrew. This is one of the checkpoint words that even Palestinians who do not speak Hebrew have had no choice but to learn. The four police officers stood around the car, and yelled at them in Hebrew.
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The efforts of the three people in the car to understand a few other words among the shouting was stressful, said Amir. They discovered that at least one of the police officers spoke Arabic, and the three concluded he was Druze. They thought that maybe another of the police officers spoke Arabic as his mother tongue too, but they are not sure.
“I tried to explain to the soldier who was standing next to my window that we thought they ordered us to move to a different lane and drive,” Amir continued. “I tried to explain that we didn’t understand their intentions. I said it a number of times, but he didn’t listen and only shouted at me. They asked who the car belonged to and demanded ID cards, which we handed to them. Asil, nervous, told me something, I don’t remember exactly what, and then the soldier next to my window – playing with a cigarette between his fingers – asked in Arabic, angrily: ‘What are you saying?’ She answered him: ‘I’m speaking with my husband.’ I tried to calm things down, I told him: ‘Everything’s okay, do what you need to do.’”
Asil remembers what she said in the car: “If only I could beat them, that’s what I said. When the soldier asked what I said, I answered that I was speaking with my husband and that it's none of his business.” The policeman got even angrier. He, or another policeman, asked Amir to empty the glove compartment. Amir emptied it, and among the papers and CDs was also a corkscrew. When they saw the corkscrew the police officers shouted again: “'What’s that, what’s that?' Asil told the Arabic-speaking policeman: 'It’s a bottle opener, don’t you know what it is?'"
Amir realized that his wife’s assertiveness was angering the policeman. “The Druze told Asil, ‘This is your husband, you said? I’ll show you what I can do to your husband.'” The police officer told Amir to get out and led him behind two small structures at the side of the checkpoint. There are no cameras there, thought Amir. And Asil and Wisam, still in the car, could not see from behind the structures.
“The soldier grabbed me by the neck, pushed me against the wall while facing me, and started shouting and swearing, all in Arabic. He was violent and rude, he said to me: ‘Tell your wife to shut up.’ He kicked me and hit me in the stomach.” Amir couldn’t believe it was happening to him. “I didn’t understand why he was acting that way, I couldn’t understand all the hatred, I didn’t know what to say, it was the first time that a soldier beat me. One soldier beat me, and another was there watching.”
They ordered Amir to get back in the car. “When I got into the car and Asil asked me what happened, the female soldier began to shout in Hebrew: ‘What’s the problem, what’s the problem,’” said Amir. It turns out that “problem” is another word Amir knows in "checkpoint Hebrew." He told the policewoman, in an attempt to calm things down, “No problem.”
Amir couldn’t estimate how much time he was detained and beaten behind the two small buildings. “I was thinking to myself, we speak the same language, you speak my language, why are you acting with so much hate?” said Amir. “I tried to imagine myself in his place, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t explain this violence. And the female soldier, who was arrogant and full of hate. Why? I felt shame for the soldier. His work is to make people’s lives bitter. How does he perceive himself, how will he perceive himself in a few years, when he grows up?”
Wisam said that he could see on Amir’s face that “they did something to him.” And then his turn came. The police told him to get out of the car and led him, too, behind the two small structures. There were two or three policemen there, Wisam can’t remember exactly.
“They told me: ‘You’re happy? You’re happy?’ Because I kept a sort of smile on my face. I didn’t resist, but I showed them that I’m not going to be shaken. Someone grabbed my neck, another hit in the chest. They pushed my face into the wall and someone hit me in the back. They beat me with their fists and legs, very angrily, for no reason. Like crazy people. Like an electric fuse that suddenly blew. They swore. They told me: ‘Shut her up, shut her up,’ meaning Asil. And I was still smiling a little, and I noticed that it annoyed them. Maybe that’s why they beat me for longer than they beat Amir, I think. It was strange. Why? What did we do? What happened? What’s happening to you, soldiers?”
Wasim suffered from pain in his arm and back for a few days. He was afraid a bone had been broken, but a doctor’s examination on Monday showed that it was a hurt muscle.
Silence of the drive
“I remember they were shouting and shouting,” said Asil. “The female soldier especially, who insisted that I speak Hebrew. I don’t remember for how long they took Amir. I was in shock. I sat frozen in the car, I couldn’t get out because two soldiers were next to the door, I was too scared to move, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘What have I done.’
“I asked the woman in Arabic, ‘what did I do?’ and she yelled ‘quiet, quiet.’ And when they brought him back, I asked him what happened, and she again shouted ‘quiet, quiet, don’t talk,’” said Asil.
“When they brought Wisam back, the female soldier asked me something about my husband, I don’t remember what. I answered her in English. And then the Druze soldier was the one who shouted: Quiet, quiet, what are you talking about, you know Hebrew, you’re lying to us. And I said I was just answering her question. ‘What do you want from me?’ I asked him. After that the police officers threw our ID cards into the car and one of them, it seems the Arabic speaker, told us: ‘Get out of here, otherwise I’ll show you what I can do,’” said Asil.
The Israel Police responded: “Our examination shows that the claims are untrue, and the public should not be misled. Contrary to what was claimed, the vehicle was detained for a routine inspection at the crossing like many others every day. Due to the behavior of the passengers and their conduct when they were asked to present identification, the soldiers became suspicious and decided to conduct a more extensive check, including a body search of two of the people in the vehicle.
"As usual, in order to maintain privacy at the crossings, the body searches were conducted at a station adjacent to the road. No force was used during the search, and the security video shows that each search lasted only 30-50 seconds, after which the people returned to their vehicle with no signs of injury. We regret the attempt to cast aspersions on the actions of the fighters at the crossing, whose entire purpose is to protect Israel’s security and prevent terrorism.”
Asil estimates that the whole thing lasted around 15 minutes. They continued driving to Bethlehem to the engagement party. “As Palestinians, there is nothing we can do but continue to live as if nothing happened,” said Asil. But they were silent throughout the drive. Asil was filled with guilt, to the point "that I wanted to disappear, that I wished Amir and Wisam never knew me, that I decided I won’t speak so as not to hurt those dear to me.”
Amir told Haaretz that when he got back to the car he blamed Asil, saying that none of it would have happened if she hadn’t spoken. But later, he said, “I changed my mind. I realized that she did not make a mistake. We should not remain silent.”