On Our Way to America, a Race Against Time at an Israeli Checkpoint

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An Israeli Border Police officer standing guard at the Qalandiyah checkpoint in the West Bank, December 7, 2020.
An Israeli Border Police officer standing guard at the Qalandiyah checkpoint in the West Bank, December 7, 2020.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

I’m an Israeli lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah. After years of wandering throughout the world, we returned to the West Bank with our two children, 6-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam. We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you here. (Click to read all previous posts.) I have changed the names of people in the blog, including my own. “Umm Forat” means “Mother of Forat” in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com

“I knew you would clean again after I finished,” Osama said, looking offended as he peered into the refrigerator.

“I made a New Year’s resolution,” I replied as I wiped away crumbs from the corner of the shelf. “I will continue to vacate apartments in excellent condition, and I will forgive the people who leave us dirty apartments to move into.”

“For my sake, please don’t do such a good job,” he asked. “It’s 2 P.M.”

Our flight to the United States was due to leave at midnight. I reminded Osama that we were on schedule, but he wasn’t reassured: “You’re assuming everything will go well,” he said.

For the first time, Osama, the children and I were to travel abroad together, after Osama got a rare permit to travel via Ben-Gurion Airport for a sabbatical year in North Carolina.

‘Baba will cross on foot’

We picked up the children from friends and drove to the Na’alin checkpoint, inside the West Bank, near the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Ilit. Osama got out of the car to walk across the checkpoint, and the children and I drove to the settlers’ vehicular crossing. Three-year-old Adam cried when his father left.

“No, Adam, Baba’s coming back,” said his sister, 6-year-old Forat. “He’ll cross on foot and meet us on the other side, because he’s Palestinian.”

The guard from the private security company passed me through with a wave of her hand, without even checking my accent. On the other side of the checkpoint, I parked in a lot filled with minivans waiting to take Palestinian workers to their jobs in Israel the following morning. Twenty minutes later, Osama called. His voice was terrible.

“They won’t let me cross,” he said. “They told me, ‘Coronavirus closure.’”

“Did you show them the permit?”

“Yes. I made it to the last stage, and then they looked at the computer and sent me back. Aggressively.” My stomach turned over.

“Wait,” I told him. “Let me check.”

“Maybe you should come back, and we’ll try another checkpoint?”

“Wait.”

I called my colleague, Idit, a lawyer who had helped us get the permit. She didn’t answer. I called an officer in the Israeli army’s civil administration, who had once helped me. He didn’t answer. Forat and Adam were hitting each other in the back seat. I asked them to walk with me to the checkpoint. I didn’t want to drive back across, for fear they would associate me with Osama and search the car. The last time that happened, the search took two hours.

Outside, in the dark parking lot, a bitter wind whipped at my face and almost blew Adam sideways. It was 7:15 P.M. As we approached the inspection area, a security guard stopped us, startled.

“Halt! What are you doing here?”

I asked to speak with the officer in charge of the checkpoint. Cars whizzed past us on the dark road.

“Adam!” I yelled. “Stay on the sidewalk!”

Dror, the checkpoint manager, shared my anxiety about the children’s proximity to the road and walked us to a bus stop where the children could sit. But he was adamant about their father.

“He has a coronavirus block,” Dror said. “Only the district coordination office in Beit El can remove it.”

“But he doesn’t have the coronavirus,” I protested.

“No, that has nothing to do with it,” Dror said. “They impose the block on a lot of people. But only the district coordination office can remove it.”

Idit called me back and sounded uncharacteristically worried. “It’s a big problem,” she said. “To remove a coronavirus block, you have to show a negative coronavirus test. But I’ll try.”

“Forat, stop pushing Adam!” I yelled and pulled them both back to the sidewalk.

“Where’s Baba?” Forat asked. “You said he had a permit.”

Back in the parking lot, the children chased each other, laughing. I thought about the groceries I had ordered from the supermarket in North Carolina, that would arrive tomorrow, three hours after our flight was due to land. I had ordered dairy products that would spoil if left outside our new apartment. And the children were due to start school and preschool there.

I called Osama and updated him. “If it doesn’t work – let’s think whether I should travel alone with the children and wait for you there.”

Adam announced that he had to poop. The toilet in the bathroom was a kind of dirty hole, with no seat. Despite the cold, I undressed Adam outside, under a tree. I gave him confusing instructions, and he peed on his pants. I changed his clothing. Idit called: “I spoke to the most senior officer who would answer me at this hour,” she said. “He said he would try.”

“It’s encouraging that he said he’ll try,” I said and then screamed, “Forat! Get off Adam! His nose is bleeding!”

I put the children into the car and continued my round of telephone calls, trying to reach someone in the army who could lift the block. Forat yelled at Adam, and I gave her a bag of Bamba. Adam tried to grab it from her, and she pushed him. He kicked her, screamed, and then crawled into the front seat and put his head on my shoulder. I lifted my head from the telephone screen and suddenly remembered that he was 3 years old and very, very tired. Osama called: “Sweetheart, it’s too much for you and the kids. Bring me my suitcase. Imad will pick me up.”

Adam heard Osama’s voice and started to cry. “Baba! Baba!”

I called my brother and asked him to see if he could change Osama’s plane ticket. I tried to put Osama’s things into one suitcase. I cursed myself for the optimism that had led me to pack everything together, as if we would all arrive together. I felt guilty for scrubbing the refrigerator despite Osama’s pleas to leave earlier. I took the children out of the car and started to drag the suitcase toward the checkpoint.

“Carry me!” Adam demanded.

“On the way back,” I promised.

The road was empty. Adam was scared in the dark and clung to me, getting his feet caught in the wheels of the suitcase. Forat cried that it wasn’t fair for me to carry Adam and not her, and why do I love him more than her?

As we approached the checkpoint, Dror came out to meet me.

“Where’s your car?” he asked.

“In the parking lot. I don’t have time for your searches.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll let you drive back immediately. But tell your husband to come back to the checkpoint. We’ll check if it’s resolved in the computer.”

I called Osama.

“I can’t go back,” he said. “They were aggressive. They kicked me out of there.”

“Dror, the checkpoint manager, says it’s OK. Don’t be afraid.”

Ima, what is Baba afraid of?” Forat asked.

“Baba is afraid the soldiers will be angry at him, but they won’t be angry at him,” I said.

“What do they do when they get angry?”

Suddenly, I saw Osama’s silhouette, approaching the vehicle inspection area of the checkpoint, 200 meters (about 650 feet) from us. I waited 10 minutes, but he didn’t emerge. It was 9:15 P.M. I was afraid to surprise the security guards, if I were to drag the suitcase to the checkpoint in the darkness. I decided to trust Dror and to bring it to Osama by car.

We returned to the parking lot. I buckled the children into the back seat and then suddenly Osama was running toward us, smiling.

“They let me through!” he yelled. “They let me through!”

“Quick!” I said. “Put the suitcase in the trunk, we don’t have time!”

I opened the car door, and the sound of the children’s crying swept over me. When they saw Osama, they went silent and stared. Adam was the first to recover, a huge smile on his face.

“Baba!!!”

Passengers waiting to check in for their flights at Ben-Gurion International Airport, January 2021. Credit: Moti Milrod

Ben-Gurion Airport

We were the last ones to board the plane. The flight attendants reminded passengers to keep their masks over their noses and mouths. The children looked for animated movies on the screens in front of them, Osama sitting between them.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” I told Osama. And then I added: “I hate them.”

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