Palestinian Women Are Harassed And Humiliated At Checkpoints. Here Are A Few Of Their Stories.
Since 1967, about 40% of the Palestinian male population has been detained by Israel. With their men in jail, Palestinian women are left to continue surviving and ensuring the well-being of their families. From confronting increased Israeli violations to earning a living while also being caregivers, Palestinian women have had to pick up twice the weight, while living under the pressures of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.
One aspect of this occupation are the military checkpoints. As of 2017, there are 98 fixed Israeli checkpoints around and within the West Bank. This is discounting the hundreds of flying checkpoints that sporadically erupt across the region. According to OCHA, more than 2.4 million people are affected by the physical restrictions in the West Bank.
While Israel claims these checkpoints are necessary for security reasons, Palestinians say that this is another measure to further inhibit any control they have over the little space afforded to them. Rather than security, many Palestinians view the checkpoints as a way to humiliate them, and further diminish their dignity.
Checkpoints are also destructive to Palestinian economy and welfare, and women and girls were no exception to the negative consequences of checkpoints.
These are some of their stories.
Maysanne Murad, 13 years old, Qalandiya Checkpoint
I was so excited to see my best friend. By the time my parents agreed to let me sleep over at her house, I was already packed and waiting by the door. I walked to the main Ramallah bus stop next to my school and hopped on a #119 bus. I wasn’t nervous at all. I always did this, since my friend lives in Jerusalem and I live on the other side of the checkpoint in Ramallah. It usually takes me a little over an hour to get to her house.
There was lots of traffic that day, usual on a Saturday. But I didn’t mind because I always read a book. As the bus got closer to the front of the line, I unfolded the koshan that I kept in the back pocket of my light-pink wallet. Someone next to me asked me what the paper was, and I explained that since I wasn’t old enough to have an identity card, I had a legal document confirming that I was allowed to enter Jerusalem.
An armed Israeli guard wearing a green uniform stepped onto the bus, and I felt a little nervous. He held his gun tightly, and suspiciously inspected everyone’s cards.
When he finally reached me I prepared myself for a flood of questions. I was usually asked lots of questions, since my picture wasn’t on the koshan. It contained information like my name, birthday and place of birth. I never really understood why the koshan was so important, since anyone my age could easily memorize the information and sneak into Jerusalem.
The soldier took my paper and looked at me. Here I was, at a crossroads; I could squint my eyes slightly and purse my lips to defy him, or I could widen my eyes to appear innocent. I decided to go with the latter, safe choice. I knew that if I defied him I would just delay the bus and it wouldn’t help my case. He beckoned his partner and they asked me the routine questions: my name, age, birth place, where my parents’ were and where the original koshan was. I got a little nervous because usually only one soldier asked me questions while the other checked other passengers.
This time, after asking me the questions, they kept my paper. Then they told me to get off the bus.
As I stumbled off the bus. My overnight bag threw me off balance. I glanced back at the driver and I recognized his scared yet menacing eyes trailing after the soldiers from glances I always see Palestinians give soldiers. I tried to breathe. This had never happened before. Usually they asked me questions and then let me through. But here I was, standing in the middle of the checkpoint.
I looked around and saw a blur of black and green. The camouflage uniforms and large guns made me dizzy. About five soldiers swarmed around me. They didn’t offer me a chair, and I felt very out of place.
I was hot and my clothes clung to my skin. I felt trapped and terrible because I had delayed the bus. I couldn’t help but think of the people who were tired and just wanted to get home to their families. I felt like I was at such a disadvantage because all the soldiers spoke Hebrew while I tried to decipher what was being said.
One of the soldiers looked at me sympathetically but then turned away and laughed as another soldier told a joke in a loud voice.
Here I squinted my eyes at the soldiers. How could they be so comfortable holding their guns and interrogating a child? This was the first time I had been forced off my bus. I felt unsafe and violated. I was being interrogated for wanting to see my friend.
After 20 minutes, my koshan was returned to me, and I quickly got back onto the bus, suddenly exhausted from the weight of my bag. I didn’t read my book. I was overwhelmed with sorrow and exhaustion.
Some 20 minutes later, I reached my destination. I walked into the home I knew so well, and sat down for a bowl of soup as I told my story to the wide-eyed family before me. They weren’t surprised by the strange incident, but were surprised that it had happened to me.
I’m only 13 years old.
Samar Ahmad (pseudonym), 29 years old, Qalandiya Checkpoint
The process of going through checkpoints doesn’t begin at the checkpoint for Palestinians with West Bank IDs. It’s a process starting with applying to the Israeli District Coordination Offices and picking up a permit.
I remember going to Beit El DCO to pick up mine. It was winter, cold, and I was there alone. It’s a process I’ve done many times because I work in Jerusalem.
Each time I go, I walk into a room. It’s empty, but there are cameras, and guards speak to you through speakers.
One time, after I put down all my things on the belt and approached the metal detector, a voice started screaming at me from the speakers.
“You have metal on you!” the voice kept shouting.
I was alone. Afraid.
“You have metal on you!”
I kept wondering why they had to keep screaming. I kept saying, “I have no metal.”
It’s strange — you feel like you’re speaking to yourself, trying to convince some disembodied voice you have no metal on you.
Suddenly, a door opened and a man walked in. He had a gun. It was pointed at me.
“You have metal on you!” he screamed.
I was confused, and all I could think of doing was looking at him to calm him down and reassure him that I had no metal on me. This was at a time when Israeli forces were shooting Palestinians point-blank. Had I not remained calm and spoken in English with him I could have easily been shot, because he was convinced I was a suspect.
I just saw a man with a gun, ready to shoot, and the words kept echoing: “You have metal on you!”
I kept telling myself to remain calm, and also to calm him down. I had to make sure he didn’t pull that trigger.
I made a joke and pointed at my nose piercing and said, “Is this maybe the metal you’re talking about?”
Or maybe it was my bra, I suggested. I asked him if he wanted me to pull up my shirt to prove there was nothing there.
He stopped screaming for a second and looked at me. “You women are always trouble,” he said. He returned his gun to its holster and went back to his office.
This is where the journey of checkpoints begins for many of us.
The actual passing through Israeli checkpoints is a whole other world. Because I work in Jerusalem, I have to travel through Qalandiya every day. It’s the worst part of my day.
The walking checkpoint includes Palestinians from all margins of society, and I see it bringing out the worst in all of us. The heat hits you. The cold hits you. There is filth everywhere. The whole area is just a blob of gray. It’s completely polluted. We’re crowded in these small places, with these metal gates that are usually present in farms for livestock. You begin to feel like an animal in a cage. Going through this process every day is exhausting, and you don’t always succeed in blocking this experience. Sometimes they just stick with you.
I remember an older man who clearly just got out of surgery at the checkpoint. The soldier did not let him through, and it’s clear that the man needed medical attention. He was old and exhausted. I looked at him and at the young soldier who was refusing his entry. I couldn’t help but break down at that moment. It was so painful. I just kept imagining my own father having to be in that position.
It’s like a lost humanity. All that was left to do at that moment was cry.
Nora Lester Murad, 53 years old, Ben Gurion Airport
I step up to a podium in the departures terminal behind which stands a security official. I hand him my passport. Smiling, he opens it, looks up at me, and asks: “Why is your name Murad?”
It’s a question I expect whenever I pass through security upon my departure from Ben Gurion Airport. It’s the same profiling and harassment that is routine at checkpoints across the West Bank.
It may seem counterintuitive, but I have more difficulty leaving Israel than I have entering. I think the people who are harassed, delayed or denied entry when they come in are those who are easy to target because they need a tourist visa. I, too, have a visa that is issued at Israel’s discretion, but since I am the spouse of a citizen, Israel needs a pretty good reason to deny me entry. Notably, I get a high level of security scrutiny only when I travel alone.
Why is my name Murad?
I have no way to answer except by telling the truth: It is my husband’s name. I added it to my maiden name several years after we were married so that I’d share the same family name as my children.
But I don’t go into that detail. I just confess that I am married to a man with the family name of Murad.
“Where is he from?”
“From here,” I answer.
“From where exactly?”
At this point, they are already glancing behind them to get the attention of the supervisor. My husband is from a Palestinian village in the Galilee. The villagers are all citizens of Israel, but there are no Jews there. By telling them the name of my husband’s village, I am now labeled a security risk.
There was a time when travelers with the highest security risk got a red sticker on their passport and on each potentially explosive piece of baggage, but now they use stickers with numbers. As a six, I used to get full VIP treatment, including a strip search, a special check-in line and a personal escort through security. These days I don’t get the strip search and I have to walk myself through security. But I still get the defining question: “Why is your name Murad?” and all the racist questioning that follows.
When I travel with my husband, we are treated much better. We get searched like everyone else and they don’t harass us with ridiculous questions. They are not even discourteous. The difference in how I am treated when I travel alone compared to how I am treated when I travel with my husband has been consistent over many years, even decades.
I believe that Israeli security forces have a fantasy that my husband (because he is Arab) will try to blow up the plane and that I (because I am a foreign woman) could be easily tricked into carrying the bomb without my knowledge. This profiling doesn’t consider the fact that I’ve been married for nearly 30 years, that we have 3 children together, that we both have doctoral degrees, that I travel alone in and out of Ben Gurion Airport several times a year, nor the fact that we are both widely known as nonviolent and peace-loving people.
Profiling dehumanizes me. And the problem with dehumanization is that it’s impossible to make peace with someone that you have dehumanized.
Name: Sireen Amra, 15 years old Qalandiya Checkpoint:
“This isn’t right,” my mother explained to the Israeli soldier, who said that I could pass only with a permit.
I focused my eyes onto the cracked concrete beneath my feet to avoid looking up at either of them. It was beginning to feel odd to me that just that morning I was so keen on visiting Jerusalem that I practically begged my entire family just so we could have a nice day. This proved to be harder than I thought it would be.
“This isn’t right,” she said. She pointed at the birthday on my passport to indicate that I was only 8 years old.
Still, Israeli dominance has always been much older than I, so it had seniority in situations like these. Again, I was denied. My shaky hands impulsively fidgeted with the ends of my dress, which I bought especially for that Eid holiday.
“But, this isn’t right.”
My mother searched for better words, ones that would magically fix what seemed to be an interminable struggle, but she could not find them. Perhaps it’s because there weren’t any.
I stared back at my sisters for reassurance and was instead met by the sight of dozens of Palestinians cramped by what now seemed to be much more than mere metal detectors. They were piled on top of one another in the confines of steel bars, and for the first time, it felt like a zoo.
Watching from afar were soldiers who held tightly onto their guns as if they thought one of the animals might strike. It didn’t seem like they would, though; their faces looked too empty and exhausted to fight.
People were staring at my mother and me with pity, except there was something in their eyes that told me this was not an unfamiliar scene. My 8-year-old mind could not focus on my mother’s argument with the Israeli soldier who sat leisurely behind the glass window; I was far too busy trying to piece together the arbitrary, incomprehensible force that echoed in the cries of the 3- or 4-year-old before me who also was not accepted to pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint.
With my knees almost impulsively bent and my back hunched, I hoped that I would appear as less of a threat. Unsurprisingly, this method didn’t work. The checkpoint went quiet for my mother, as if their silence would make her words louder. They thought that maybe, just maybe, if none of them said anything, the soldiers would have no choice but to listen.
I tugged on my mother’s sleeves to grab her attention, but every brief eye contact we shared only seemed to fill her words with even more urgency.
News headlines about Palestinians who were shot dead for fighting against the same unexplainable force my mother was facing now flashed through my memory. They were no longer just stories, because in that moment I could see it. All that I had heard about the Palestinian-Israeli struggle throughout my childhood was becoming a reality, but it felt like it arrived too early. The hot summer sun was urging me to break the glass window that separated the Israeli soldier’s world from mine. It said to run outside the checkpoint, where it was much less dark and cold. Maybe, if I was a few minutes younger, I would have.
It was about three years before I returned to the Qalandiya checkpoint. A few of my younger cousins wanted very desperately to see the Dome of the Rock in person and witness a world beyond the West Bank, just as I once did.
I didn’t mention to them what had happened the last time, only because I feared that my worries would weigh down their excitement. There isn’t much I remember from that particular day, except that there seemed to be an odd consciousness following me around. It constantly reminded me that my cousins seemed to be looking at an entirely different planet through entirely different lenses. Theirs were so colorful and vivid, but mine were still blurry from that Eid morning a few years ago.
When returning home, I was certain that it would be the last time I would ever have to pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint. It seemed useless to return when all it did was make me uncomfortably aware of how much had changed in just one day.
However, now that I no longer live in Palestine, I would give anything to see Jerusalem again, even if it means means getting the same fast heartbeat when walking up to the same glass window.
Umm Mohammed, 51 years old, Container Checkpoint – Bethlehem
I was on my way to Bethlehem from Ramallah with my son. We were driving, and when we reached the checkpoint a soldier waved us to stop. I stopped the car, prepared my ID and waited for the soldier to approach. My son, who was only 13, was in the passenger seat next to me.
When the soldier came he asked for my son’s ID. I explained that I am his mother and he still hasn’t been issued an identification card yet.
My son, who had been accustomed to hearing stories about his friends being strip-searched and detained at the checkpoint, was clearly afraid. His palms were between his legs, and his head low.
It seemed that was enough to make his a suspect.
“Out of the car,” the soldier said as he pointed at my son.
I looked at the soldier, young enough to be a son of mine, holding his gun tightly. I looked at my own son, wearing a navy T-shirt and afraid. I begged the soldier: “He’s only 13, what do you want from him?”
He ignored my plea and said again, “Out of the car.”
My son looked at me. As a mother, I felt so helpless. I didn’t know what to do. So I just said, “It’s okay love, they’re cowards, they just want to check.”
My son was taken out of the car and led to the booth near the checkpoint. They didn’t speak to him, they just made him stand under the sun. After some minutes, I decided to intervene.
“I want to speak to my son,” I said. “You’re just leaving him under the heat and he’s only 13.”
A soldier commanded me to shut up in Hebrew. I tried again, thinking that perhaps if I pester enough, they’ll let us through.
It worked; after several pleas and half an hour later, my son was returned to the car and we were waved past.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do for my son. I am his mother, I am supposed to protect him from men with guns. We were both silent the entire ride back. I looked at him, and I was grateful that he was returned to me. Some mothers were not as fortunate.
Yara Dowani, 25 years old, Qalandiya Checkpoint
I often drive through the Qalandiya and Hizma checkpoints. At Hizma, I am hardly ever asked to stop at the checkpoint. This is because it’s the one used by settlers, who have an arrogance because they don’t need to stop; if you carry yourself with the same arrogance, the soldiers won’t stop you, because they hardly check Israelis.
Qalandiya is another story. I was once returning to Jerusalem with some friends. We’d been having fun at a party in Ramallah and were in a good mood, blasting our music and driving. When we reached the checkpoint we didn’t consider that music would be a problem. We expected the routine check of our identification cards and then we’d pass through.
We thought wrong.
The soldier commanded us to stop our music, and when we refused they forced us to stop the car. A female soldier then came to yell at us from another lane. My friend responded to her, saying she should stay in her own lane.
The commander came and spoke fluently in Arabic. At that moment we felt fear.
“This is a military zone,” he said. “When you pass you have no music and you follow directions.”
I explained that there is no sign that says music is not allowed. At that point my friend interrupted with lines about human rights and international law. He completely ignored her. I tried to explain to her how that doesn’t work here. They don’t care about these laws. We finally tried to explain how we’re just trying to enjoy the holidays.
After a while of him trying to frighten us, to enforce his power and dominance, we passed through. What could’ve taken one minute of looking at our IDs took 20.
Music is enough to provoke them. The checkpoint is a dead zone.
Mariam Barghouti is a writer based in Ramallah. You can follow her on Twitter, @MariamBarghouti