The Checkpoint, the Rabbi and the Goat

The Surda roadblock, like many others, became a symbol of the intifada

Sunday, July 27, 10 A.M. Military bulldozer no. 911985 pushed two cement blocks away from the center of the Surda road, north of Ramallah, and placed them on a narrow security road, which is closed to Palestinians. Afterward, it turned to remove two other cement blocks and moved them towards the Beit El military base, east of Ramallah.

In front of the bulldozer stood a soldier who directed its backward movements, between military jeeps, a jeep of the Civil Administration and the first Palestinian cars, which celebrated the reopening of the road to vehicular traffic with long blasts of their horns and with the smiles of the passengers.

About 15 minutes earlier the bulldozer had swept up the mounds of earth on the road and moved them to the shoulders. About a dozen television and press photographers recorded the event. Reporters interviewed the VIPs in attendance: the governor of Ramallah, Mustafa Isa; the director-general of the Palestinian Public Works Authority, Salah Hanieh; the president of Bir Zeit University, Hanna Nasser; and the deputy head of the Civil Administration, Major Yitzhak Deri. They all intermingled, unarmed Palestinian security personnel with armed soldiers, Fatah activists just released from administrative detention, a military bulldozer with two bulldozers from the Palestinian public works authority.

Deri, surrounded by reporters, waited for the approval of the spokeswoman for the Civil Administration before answering - in Arabic - the questions of the Palestinian journalists. About an hour earlier, two Palestinian bulldozers had gone down to the road and started to move away the mounds of earth. Immediately military jeeps appeared at the site. The soldiers forbade the bulldozers to continue their work, and detained the two drivers. The tension between the two camps rose. Two soldiers rushed to ascend the hill and to train their rifles on the people, who ridiculed them, saying, "Why are they already aiming their rifles?" Afterward the tension dissipated, and the soldiers lowered their rifles. The reporter from the Abu Dhabi television station asked Deri, with obvious anger, why the Palestinian drivers had been detained. And why the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] had brought its own photographers.

The Palestinians assumed that the IDF is using the pictures of the evacuation of Surda for foreign propaganda purposes, and therefore didn't allow the Palestinian bulldozers to clear the road before the arrival of the cameras of the IDF spokesman and the military bulldozer.

Deri requested that they continue the interview on a positive note, as it had begun: "We hope that the place will remain open, a great responsibility is being placed on the Palestinian Authority, and it must use every means to ensure that no security problem develops here, and that no terrorist activities emerge from here. Our bulldozer came to help, this was preceded by many discussions with the governor of Ramallah regarding coordination, in order to solve problems." When the reporter remained insistent, Deri replied, somewhat angrily: "Do you want to argue?" And he went on to the next questioner.

Off the record, he told the reporter that the Palestinian bulldozers had appeared too early, although the IDF had clearly informed the Palestinian side that the roadblock would be opened at exactly 10 A.M. Somebody added that maybe it was the senior Palestinian officials who wanted to present this as their victory, in front of the cameras.

The Surda checkpoint, like the more than 100 roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, turned into one of the symbols of the present intifada. In the IDF they explained once again how necessary the roadblocks are for security reasons: They make escape difficult for anyone who tries to shoot at Israel cars on the nearby bypass roads. This is how wanted people are caught, too, the military men promised. This means is considered more humane that full detention. The Palestinians consider it a means for mass harassment, and have a hard time understanding the security logic that lies behind the placement of checkpoints that are far from the Green Line and from the Israeli settlements.

Sad celebration

The irony was not lost on those present: With every movement of a cement block, everyone felt as though the world had suddenly opened. As though the entire intifada, the victims, the blood, the slogans, the curses, the clashes, had taken place only so that the checkpoint - which in any case wasn't there three years ago - could be opened. "What a sad celebration," said a lecturer from Bir Zeit University, who looked at the students who smilingly filled the cabs. "Once we wanted a state, now we celebrate the opening of the Surda road."

On that same Sunday, at 8 A.M., the road that links Ramallah and Kfar Surda looked exactly as it has for the past two years: Hundreds of yellow taxis and private cars parked on the shoulders, several dozen cars that had arrived from the nearby wadi parked among the cultivated agricultural plots and the orchards, thousands of people climbed the road on foot and got off it near Ramallah, or in the direction of Birzeit and the other villages in the area.

Among them, rolling stalls carried heavy objects, wagons harnessed to horses or donkeys, covered with colorful canvas, transported the elderly and the sick a kilometer or two or three that separated one taxi from the next, or the taxi from the ambulance. Those same kilometers that turned the Surda road into a "checkpoint," on which vehicular traffic was prohibited.

Over time, a multicolored market of vendors of fruits and vegetables, coffee, sundries and felafel developed on the shoulders of the road. If the checkpoint was a symbol of the occupation, it also became like other checkpoints a symbol of resilience. People bypassed checkpoints, went through them in sun and rain, arrived at work and at school and returned home, despite the exhausting and frightening daily journey, where some kind of run-ins with soldiers were always expected, and the sick were transported on small wagons. The checkpoints were seen as a means of disrupting normal life, that's why there was a desire to maintain normal life at all costs.

On Sunday afternoon the road turned back into a road instead of a parking lot. By evening the wadi had also become empty of the cars parked there. Hundreds of residents of the neighboring villages, whose cars had been stuck in Ramallah for two years, rushed to bring them back. At 4 P.M. the workers from the Palestinian Public Works Authority came and tarred over the sections of asphalt that were scarred from all the ruts and digging. All night trucks were heard traveling the road with a loud and particularly joyful sound.

On Monday, people traveled to the pretty village of Jifna, which stretches between Bir Zeit and Jelazoun, in order to mark the expansion of the borders of Ramalllah to the planted slopes of the Christian village. The stalls on the road were dismantled as though they had never existed. The donkeys and horses went to find work at the many other checkpoints remaining in the area. One of the teachers reported that the students and the teachers arrived a Bir Zeit relaxed and smiling. Suddenly they could all concentrate better on studies and teaching, after two years of arriving nervous, tired, dusty and usually late. "Suddenly I have gained two to two-and-a-half hours a day," calculated one of the lecturers.

Luckily for him, he was not among those who returned home at 8 P.M. on Sunday evening: A military jeep very slowly checked the cars passing there. R. called her parents and informed them that she would be returning late from Bir Zeit; The taxi she was in had been waiting in the growing line in front of the jeep for an hour-and-a half. The sight repeated itself on Tuesday, July 29, at 8 P.M. The snake of light on the winding road lengthened in both directions. In the middle: the strong lights of one military jeep, whose soldiers checked each car and each passenger with excruciating slowness.

Meanwhile a stubborn rumor has been spreading in Ramallah, to the effect that now the Qalandiyah checkpoint will be dismantled. Everyone swears that he heard from a Palestinian or Israeli security source that now is the turn of the checkpoint that borders the Ramallah enclave on the south. That we are returning to the situation that existed before September 29, 2000. Military sources explained to Haaretz that the rumors are unfounded. The intention is only to renovate the checkpoint, to add checking lanes, to improve its appearance, "because it looks terrible." Definitely not to remove it.

This false hope testifies to some sort of remove from the political reality, to an unfounded idea that the wheel can be turned back. But on the other hand there is an opposite mood, which is very skeptical regarding Israel's steps. It's true that Surda and another checkpoint west of Ramallah, Ein Arik, have been opened, but this has only increased the radius permitted to Palestinian traffic in the Ramallah district by a few kilometers, people said. About 10 other checkpoints and roadblocks in the Ramallah district still keep the surrounding villages away from the central city, and require their residents to go on foot and to travel on long bypass routes. And most important: Traffic between one district and the next on the West Bank is still prohibited without hard-to-attain permits.

It seems that there have never been so many Palestinians who have shown such expertise in Jewish folklore: In order to analyze Israel's policy and to explain the significance of the opening of the Surda checkpoint, all the skeptics mentioned the story of the rabbi who suggested to an extremely poor Jew who felt crowded that he bring a goat into his crowded house, and afterward take the goat out.