Friday, September 02, 2005

Final Weeks of Abu Holi Checkpoint


photo: Mohammed Omer
Taken without a flash during the long, long night waiting for the Abu Holi checkpoint to open. In these last weeks of the Israeli Army presence in Gaza, the situation is as tense as it has ever been, and a camera flash could easily draw sniper fire from the soldiers manning the checkpoint.

Mohammed spent long hours waiting at Abu Holi checkpoint last weekend to travel from Gaza City to see his family in Rafah, and return. Here's his report (published today in Norwegian in Morgenbladet)

One Last Chance to Torment the Occupied
It was half an hour past midnight; the sky was pitch-black, but the concrete-walled roadways leading to the Abu Holi checkpoint were bumper-to-bumper with cars and taxis holding thousands of passengers. For nearly five years of the Intifada, this checkpoint would be closed whenever the Israeli settlers wanted to use the nearby "settlers only" road. Or as a punitive measure. Or—as the Israeli Army always put it—for "security reasons." Now, though, the settlers had all been evacuated. Soon, the Israeli Army is going to leave Gaza—but the checkpoint still had been closed all day. And hundreds of vehicles lined up in the hope that sometime during the night, the checkpoint would open.

Some of the travelers got what sleep they could inside their cars; some in crowded taxis stretched out on the road beneath the rear bumpers, while others made the ground their mattress and the sky their blanket. Then the light-signal changed—the Israeli soldiers were opening the checkpoint. One man who'd been waiting all day to deal with business in Gaza City could only sigh "Finally!" Another more energetic driver yelled, "When will this shit disengagement actually end? When will they leave us?" while a man stretched out near him slept on, oblivious.

Many of Gaza's citizens have spent as much time in the last five years sitting at checkpoints with taxi drivers as they have in their own homes or workplaces. That night my own taxi was fairly far back in the line; we wouldn't be moving for a while. One driver told me, "For five years we've been patient, given a lot but gotten little in return. All of us drivers were determined to do our jobs, even when we acted as ambulances, or lost more money than we made. We saw it all, all the suffering of this occupation. I'm afraid it's been engraved on the minds of the children even more than on us adults." Another driver, Samir Al Kurd, said he hoped for the day when he could drive from Rafah in south Gaza straight through to Jenin in the West Bank—no obstacles, no checkpoints. Then, he said, disengagement would be "real, not just a lot of political talk."

Ala Hanuka, a member of the Gaza Taxi Owners' Association, said the drivers by law have kept their fares reasonable, even as the price of gasoline skyrocketed and spare parts became harder and harder to find. Many vehicles were damaged trying to navigate roads ripped up by Israeli bulldozers. Still, the drivers have all tried to stay on the road to serve the people and offer their own small defiance of the Occupation.

Through the whole disengagement,the Abu Holi checkpoint was closed all day, every day, and occasionally opened for half an hour or so in the dead of night. This created a nightmare for university students, NGO workers, government workers and most especially for medical patients needing treatment at Gaza City's hospitals. Arej, like many other students at Al Azhar University, was forced to rent an apartment in Gaza City with several other young women. On Friday, she waited all night in a taxi at Abu Holi to get to her family in Rafah for the weekend. It was dangerous because while the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint often seem to ignore the waiting cars, sometimes they open fire on them—usually for no reason anyone can determine. Now, she was waiting again, to get back to Gaza City in time for the next week's classes. Her family, she says, is already sacrificing to pay her tuition. Add to it the cost of living away from home and the situation is an economic nightmare.

Arej was luckier than Umm-Ahmed Salaman who was holding her sick five-year-old. The little boy was actually supposed to be resting in a Gaza City hospital, not trying to sleep in a sweltering taxi. Life-saving surgery is scheduled for him at 9am—not even 8 hours away—but there is no guarantee the checkpoint will stay open long enough for her taxi to make it through. "I'm fed up complaining," she said, "I try to complain only to God. But my child urgently needs surgery our doctors can't do. We've been waiting since last fall for a foreign specialist to get to Gaza, and now when we finally have the chance, we may not be able to get to the hospital. Eventually, my son will die without this surgery." She had been talking quietly, but her grief broke through. "God help us!" she half-sobbed, half-screamed.

Entering a checkpoint is like finding yourself trapped in an Absurdist farce that could turn deadly at any moment. There is no shelter, you are worn out, hungry, thirsty, trying to offer a kind word to the exhausted old man or the mother with a crying child, but too often feeling useless to yourself as well as to the people around you. Around the time self-pity mixes with frustration, you notice an ambulance far back in the line and shudder—patients have died waiting in those ambulances. Arranging any kind of schedule becomes a humorless joke if either party has to make it through a checkpoint to reach the meeting place. Worst of all now is that just when the Israeli Army might relax its strictures—they are, we are told, supposed to be leaving these checkpoints in mere weeks—the situation is more tense than ever. Those faceless soldiers with their stranglehold on all our normal activities, can provoke us, control us, humiliate us and even kill us for revenge or even for amusement. Very possibly, many of the Israeli troops wish to be gone as much as we Palestinians will be glad to see them go. But a few, we fear, relish this last chance to torment us.

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