Late at Night at an IDF Checkpoint, One Palestinian Finds a Little Hope

The experience of a B’Tselem field researcher began in great fear, but ended with rare dialogue.

Alex Levac

It was long after midnight. The last car had passed by three hours earlier, and since then the road had been empty. Neither settlers nor Palestinians dare any longer to drive here at this hour. It’s as though a voluntary nighttime curfew is in effect. It’s dark here, and scary.

Suddenly a car approaches. The three soldiers at the checkpoint tense up. Seven Israel Defense Forces soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed here in the previous intifada by a Palestinian sniper who picked them off from the hillside across the way. The soldiers who are here now were just children then, but they know that it’s dangerous on Highway 60 these days, dangerous for everyone.

The highway runs through the center of the West Bank along its entire length, and this Haramiya checkpoint used to slice it in two. It was unmanned for some years, but now the army is back at the checkpoint, which lies on the main road between Ramallah and Nablus, between the settlements of Ofra and Shiloh. The car approached slowly. The soldiers cocked their weapons. The driver was afraid; the soldiers too, it seemed.

Abed Al-Karim a-Saadi is the northern West Bank field researcher for B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. A 52-year-old father of four, Saadi still lives in the same village – Atil, north of Tul Karm – where he was born. He holds a degree in psychology from An-Najah National University in Nablus, and is perceptive and sociable. His professional career is marked by interaction with both Israelis and Palestinians: He worked on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in the District Coordination Office as a liaison with Israel, at Allenby Bridge, in Palestinian and international human rights organizations, and for the past decade has been with B’Tselem.

Saadi is that rare and endangered breed: a Palestinian who has never been arrested. Last week, he decided to go to Ramallah to see a play. The events of that night, which he related to us vividly, still visibly moved, are a minor tale of West Bank routine, without blood or violence, though perhaps with a moral.

On Tuesday morning, Saadi investigated complaints about settler violence in the Tul Karm area. After he got home that afternoon, a friend, a German photographer and journalist, called to say that he and his wife were going to see “Hamlet” that evening in Ramallah, in a local production in English, and that they wanted to invite Saadi’s son Osama, a construction engineer in the city, to join them.

Saadi had an idea: He would surprise them by joining them. “I thought I would kill two birds with one stone,” he said. For the past few weeks, fear of driving on the roads had prevented his son from visiting his parents, and he himself had not gone to Ramallah unnecessarily.

He showered, changed clothes, said goodbye to his wife and set out for Ramallah. “It’s the first time in my 29 years of working in the field that I’ve been afraid to drive on the main roads,” he admits. “I have never been so afraid, of both the settlers and the army. It’s so easy to kill now. But I told myself: Have no fear.”

After consulting with a taxi driver about the safest route, Saadi opted for Highway 60. He got to Ramallah toward evening, met his son and his friends, and went to the theater with them and afterward to a restaurant, the Ziryab. He and the German couple were there until after midnight, when the visitors went to their hotel; his son had left earlier.

What to do now? Saadi didn’t want to trouble his son by asking to sleep over, and in any case Osama did not have a spare bed. Saadi’s friends in the city didn’t answer the phone; they must have gone to sleep already. He considered sleeping in the car, but was afraid of the Palestinian police. Finally he decided to pluck up his courage and drive home, to Atil. To be on the safe side, he called a friend in the village of Turmus Aya, which is halfway along the road, and asked him to be in touch with him by phone to ensure that all was well.

He left Ramallah a little after 12:30 A.M. The road was deserted and threatening. “There weren’t even any dogs out, just me alone.” Soon he came to Wadi Haramiya, where the checkpoint was manned. He immediately slowed down. From a distance he made out three soldiers, who signaled him with flashlights to stop. He pulled over on the right side of the road. Their rifles aimed at him, they ordered him to stop on the opposite side of the road, turn off the engine and get out of the car.

The next seven to 10 seconds were the longest of his life, Saadi says now: “I said to myself: This is the moment to be killed. They will find a reason to shoot me. There are three of them, there are no eyewitnesses, they will always be able to say that I tried to attack them, even show a knife. No one will ever know what really happened.” Then he adds, “But I was lucky.”

He got out of the car and immediately greeted the soldiers with the gentlest “Good evening” he could come up with under the circumstances – he illustrates for us. They told him to open the trunk. Already he felt a sense of relief: There was talking. “I felt more at ease, because I’d succeeded in calming them.” Everyone who’s experienced the fear of checkpoints knows that the most frightening stage is the one before the talking starts.

The soldiers’ suspicions surged when they found a gas mask in the trunk. “What’s with this?” they demanded. He showed them his B’Tselem ID card and explained that the organization’s field researchers travel with gas masks for protection. He told the soldiers that B’Tselem is a human rights organization, using the Hebrew term for “human rights.” The conversation was conducted in three fragmented languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.

What does human rights mean, the officer asked. “That was an opportunity for me to talk as much as possible,” Saadi relates. A dialogue then began that lasted deep into the night. An IDF officer and two soldiers on one side, a Palestinian civilian on the other. The soldiers were trying to relieve their boredom, he was trying to dissipate his fear. He also knew that opportunities like this almost never arise.

Saadi explained to the officer the meaning of the term “human rights” and told him about the Geneva Conventions and about international law and Israeli law. He said he himself was a nonpolitical observer. The two soldiers drew closer to listen. They could have been his sons. At first they looked at him blankly and menacingly, but their expressions gradually mellowed. He sensed that they were starting to take an interest. Then one of them asked what it means to be a shahid, a martyr.

“That was a tricky question for me,” Saadi says. “I asked them if they wanted the short answer or the long one. Both, they said. The short answer was: ‘If you shoot me now, tomorrow morning a poster will appear stating: “Abed Al-Karim a-Saadi – shahid.”’ The long answer: ‘My God and your God and the God of the Christians are the same God. I believe that he created us and that only he can put an end to life. Therefore he alone will determine who is a shahid.’”

The soldiers seemed to like the answer, he thought. They started to address him as “Mr. Saadi.” But the next question wasn’t any easier: Why are you people stabbing us?

“I asked them if they wanted me to be honest with them, and I said: ‘I don’t want to defend people who stab civilians or soldiers, but by the same token, I cannot defend you, who kill Palestinians, sometimes even after subduing them. But I would like you to put yourselves in the shoes of a young Palestinian of your age. Imagine that you are ‘Mohammed.’ You’re unemployed, there’s no chance of finding a job, you have no hope, the soldiers spray you with tear gas, sometimes inside your house.

“What are you going to do – blow kisses at the soldiers? Love them? Yesterday someone was killed who had taken part two days ago in the funeral of another young man, and he saw how he was honored. And the young man who was killed today probably attended a funeral yesterday. What do you expect from a young person like that, who has nothing?’”

They told him that no car had gone through the checkpoint since 9 P.M., and asked how he had dared to drive there. “You’re not the only one who’s afraid – we are, too,” they admitted. They wanted to hear about his children. He told them about the play he’d gone to. The conversation went on until 2:30. Then something rare occurred, Saadi says, something that had never happened before: The soldiers shook hands with him.

“I felt as if I had shattered something inside them. It was a strong handshake. I told them that they are victims just like me: I am a victim of the occupation and they are victims of their government; that the separation fence isn’t only intended to separate us physically but also to separate between our mentality and theirs. They didn’t know the first thing about us, only that we stab people and blow ourselves up.”

Afterward, Saadi decided not to go on to his village, because you don’t get lucky twice in one night. He called his friend in Turmus Aya and went to his place. They went up to the roof, had a cup of coffee, smoked cigarettes and talked and talked about the curious incident that befell Abed Al-Karim a-Saadi at the Haramiya checkpoint in the middle of the night.