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Ronza Al Madbouh, Student, R2E Campaign, Bethlehem University, 5 November 2008
I was really shocked when my friend told me that she’d just arrived home to Jerusalem from university. It was 7pm when I phoned her two days ago. I asked her why it took her that long to reach her house although she’d left Bethlehem University at 3pm. She answered, “It was because of the Israeli checkpoints, my dear friend. The Israeli soldiers delayed us at the checkpoints. They were checking us as they always do. They always humiliate students and Palestinians at checkpoints. That’s why it took me long to reach my house in Jerusalem coming from Bethlehem University.” She was really upset and tired. I didn’t know what to tell her or how to make her feel better. I wanted to help her change her mood and make her feel better because she needed concentration to study for her exams, and work on research papers due over the next two weeks.
This incident took me back some years to when a group of Israeli soldiers showed no mercy and no humanity when they pointed their guns at a group of us trying to get through a checkpoint, forcing us to get out of the bus we were riding. They prevented us from sitting down or moving. We had no choice other than to stand and wait for them to return our ID cards. It was a hot day, and we melted under the hot sun for three hours.
In September 2006, Bethlehem University arranged an educational visit to the Arab American University in Jenin, a city in the north of the West Bank, about 100km from Bethlehem. I was so excited about this educational visit, for it was the first time I’d had the chance to go to Jenin. As a Palestinian trapped inside the separation wall surrounding Bethlehem, it is rare that I get to travel anywhere to other West Bank cities. Besides, there are more than 528 permanent and temporary checkpoints and physical roadblocks created by the Israeli government throughout the West Bank. As a result, it is very difficult for Palestinians to travel from once place to another.
At 7am we left Bethlehem by bus and headed for Jenin. Shortly after leaving, we faced the first checkpoint, called ‘the Container’, which is in Wadi Annar, about 30 minutes from Bethlehem. Israeli soldiers, who were at the Container, stopped our bus and two of them entered it and, one-by-one, began checking our Palestinian ID cards.
One of these two soldiers loudly read one of our Palestinian student’s names, Nakhlah, from his ID card. Nakhlah means a palm tree. The Israeli soldier started laughing when he read the student’s name, Nakhlah, and he started making fun of his name by saying, “You Nakhlah, let me see if you are as tall as Nakhlah. Is that your real name? Or you are just kidding me! Come on tell me you fool, stupid Nakhlah. You are a fool and stupid as a Nakhlah tree, right? Tell me, where are you going, stupid Nakhlah tree? I will not let you go until you tell me that you are a fool as a Nakhlah tree, and tell me where you are going.”
Nakhlah was so embarrassed, and got very angry. He didn’t know what to do with that Israeli soldier, who was holding his gun, and ready to shoot him at any moment by one click. He told him that we were going to a university in Jenin, and he was not stupid like a Nakhlah tree. We also felt mad and disappointed, for some young Israeli soldiers, holding guns, could make fun of our friend, and they had the power to decide whether to permit us to pass the checkpoint or not.
Both Israeli soldiers took our Palestinian ID cards and began yelling at us, “Come on, all of you get out of the bus. Wait for us on the side of the road until we return your ID cards and allow you to get back on the bus.” They prevented us from sitting down or moving. So, we had no choice other than to stand, waiting for them to return our ID cards, and sweating under the hot sun. One hour later, one of our group volunteered to go to the soldier to ask about our ID cards. When the soldier saw the student walking toward him, he went crazy and started shouting, ordered him to go back, and aimed his gun at him. The student was forced to return to us. Two hours later, the Israeli soldiers finally returned our ID cards, and allowed us to enter the bus and continue our journey to Jenin. We were so exhausted and thirsty. Our legs and backs hurt from standing so long. What happened to us felt like torture. In many ways, I believe, under international law, being forced to stand in the hot sun at gunpoint for three hours would constitute torture.
A few kilometers from the Container we picked up the rest of our group – holders of Jerusalem ID cards – who were waiting for us on the side of the road. Palestinians with Jerusalem ID cards are not allowed to pass through the Container to get to other parts of the West Bank, such as Jenin. They must travel through Jerusalem, which means any group leaving from Bethlehem to travel to the north parts of the West Bank usually has to separate for segments of the trip, making any excursion even more time-consuming. This Israeli policy seems to be used to separate Palestinians – holders of Palestinian ID cards and the holders of Jerusalem ID cards – from one another, and to make their lives harder and more frustrating. However, we didn’t surrender to these cruel and inhumane policies. Instead, we asked those students who were holders of Jerusalem ID cards to wait for us a few kilometers after the Container and then we met up with them so we could go to Jenin as one united Palestinian group.
A big smile appeared on our faces when both groups succeeded, were reunited, and the others were able to get back on the bus and travel with us the rest of the way to Jenin. We tried to soften the tense atmosphere on the bus after the humiliation at the Container. Some students imitated university professors, poking fun at the way they walked, the way they explained materials in classes, and the way they pronounced words in different Palestinian accents.
Our enjoyment lasted for one hour before it was interrupted by the second checkpoint, Zaatarah, about 80km from the Container checkpoint. Our bus driver was ordered to park on the side of the road by Israeli soldiers at Zaatarah checkpoint. Two soldiers entered the bus and began shouting at us, forcing us, once again, to get out of the bus. They made us stand in one line close to the bus. One of them took our ID cards, and counted them. Another counted us to make sure that there were as many of us as there were ID cards. A third soldier checked our ID cards one-by-one on his computer to make sure that none of us was a “terrorist”. The soldiers made us stand still in one queue outside the bus for an hour, preventing us from making any movement or even sitting down to rest. After taking an hour to check our ID cards, they finally permitted us to go back to our bus and continue our long trip to Jenin.
Despite these many setbacks, we didn’t lose hope. We were determined to reach the university in Jenin whatever it would take us. Innab, the third checkpoint, was waiting for us further along the road. The Israeli soldiers at this checkpoint repeated the same horrible and nasty actions that we were already all too familiar with from Zaatarah checkpoint. Once again, we were made to wait for another hour outside the bus before we were allowed to leave.
Finally, at 2pm, we reached Jenin. A 100km journey took us seven hours. We were stopped by Israeli soldiers at three checkpoints on the short distance to Jenin. For what purpose? Was it only because Bethlehem University students wanted to go to the Arab American University in Jenin for an educational visit? Was that a crime? Our crime was being a Palestinian, and our punishment was torturing us at three checkpoints. Whether we were going on an educational visit, a church visit or a family visit, we would have been exposed to the same cruel treatment. We missed the entire day of our educational trip because we were held up at three checkpoints. Where is our right to education?
We are now in the year 2008, and this type of hellish action is repeated at different checkpoints throughout the West Bank every day, to all Palestinians – students, children, workers, young, old, men and women. Just one month ago, a baby died at a checkpoint near Nablus after a mother was forced to give birth there after she wasn’t allowed to cross. The woman and her husband were stopped by soldiers at Huwwara checkpoint, 25 kilometers from her village, on their way to the hospital. Their baby, a son they had named Zeid, died during labour at the checkpoint. Would this horrible crime be permitted anywhere else in the world? Until when will these mean and malicious actions against Palestinians continue? Until when will our right to education be abused by Israeli soldiers? When will the world stop being blind to our suffering?