One armed soldier showed up and stood behind an Israeli Army barricade: A roll of barbed wire in the middle of the road and a few light removable plastic barriers. Drivers backed up cautiously. I, like them, thought the military sovereign would show some mercy on the holy Sabbath and open the barrier east of El Bireh, the Beit El checkpoint.
We were wrong. The convoy of cars clearly bothered the soldier, who maybe thought some kind of revolt was evolving before his eyes in the form of an initiative to move the barriers (an “escalation” in the Shin Bet security service’s lingo that has conquered our brains and language).
The soldier was wrong too. The Palestinians grit their teeth and waste huge chunks of time waiting at checkpoints or using bypass roads, rather than fight to restore their freedom of movement. This has been the case for 30 years since Israel began implementing its regime of obstructing freedom of movement that very much resembles what existed in South Africa under apartheid.
There was so much humiliation going on in that quiet scene; one armed soldier, a frightful pillbox, cameras, metal and plastic barriers control the time of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. They have the power to determine whether a person will waste four hours of his day or maybe less. Will the society lose 60 percent of its labor productivity due to this lost time, or just 50 percent?
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The collective revenge for the killings of two soldiers near the Givat Asaf outpost has now lasted more than two months: The Beit El checkpoint, whose regime had gradually softened, was completely shut and a few weeks later was only partially reopened, and not to everyone. The southern exit from Ramallah via the Qalandiyah refugee camp has turned into a mishmash of creeping metal, honking horns and smoke. The Ramallah enclave has been choked off, more than usual.
The helplessness at the Beit El checkpoint exists in hundreds of variations. Israel is a master at blocking off and reducing the expanse of the Palestinians. Passing from one defined and controlled pocket to another always entails fear and trepidation mixed with acceptance, humiliation, pent-up anger and wonder at how little the occupier must do to rob people of an individual and a collective resource that, unlike land, is impossible to retrieve: time.
What hasn’t been triggered by checkpoints that sever villages from nearby cities, their land and springs – checkpoints that isolate Gaza from the West Bank and everyone from Jerusalem – is being done again by Al-Aqsa. The mosque keeps alive the natural response of a people living under hostile rule: Popular resistance. The timelessness of five daily prayer sessions imposes their agenda on the occupier, and also liberates space, even if only partially, such as at the building at the Gate of Mercy, the Golden Gate – and even if it’s only fleeting and symbolic, a breaking of the gate’s chains. These are moments that the Palestinians love to remember and reenact.
But the power of the religious site is also a weakness. Its magnetic holiness draws energy and the attention of the masses, and the rest gets neglected: Freedom of movement; the right to shepherd one’s flock, plow and enjoy unobstructed travel to friends and family in another city; the right to travel to the sea and the mountains; the right to freely produce and market; the right to put up buildings and pave roads; the right to travel; and the right to creativity.
Israel’s Civil Administration and settlers’ endless gobbling up of land meets no worthy, collective response by the Palestinians. From the outset, Jordan refrains from voicing a position. The collective struggle for Al-Aqsa is mainly a spontaneous one, circumventing the Palestinian interfactional conflicts. It’s very Jerusalem-centered, too much so. By comparison, the weak resistance to settler colonialism is the work of individuals, though this should be done in an organized and a coordinated way, by all political groups.
The mosque is again showing the potential of unarmed mass struggle and the Palestinians’ ability to unite. But unless resistance is secularized and organized, Al-Aqsa will also remain just an isolated symbol.