by Esther Mack
For the past few weeks, Free Jerusalem activists have been monitoring temporary checkpoints installed between East and West Jerusalem. These checkpoints were set up in mid-October following several attacks in West Jerusalem by Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. (These checkpoints are not to be confused with the checkpoints in the West Bank that have been in place for years.) The East Jerusalem checkpoints are ostensibly in place to prevent terrorists from East Jerusalem from entering the western (and Jewish) part of the city. In reality, the checkpoints serve as an extension of the national mission to humiliate and dehumanize Palestinians—collective punishment against tens of thousands of Palestinians for the crimes of a few dozen people. Free Jerusalem’s aim is to provide a sliver of security for the Palestinians by documenting instances of border police harassment and humiliation of Palestinians during searches and letting our presence be known.
My shifts covered the checkpoints at Issawiya and A-Tur, near Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus. There were three to four activists present each shift. We went out during morning and evening rush hours, when traffic was heaviest, and stationed ourselves across the street from the heavily militarized border police. The border police is comprised mostly of young men who serve in the force as part of their mandatory army service. There are some older officers for whom this is their regular job. The border police are heavily militarized, carrying machine guns (which, per army orders, are not allowed to be set to automatic) and dressed in olive green police fatigues.
We arrive and stand fifty meters from the blockade. After a couple of minutes, the commanding officer approaches us and demands to know why we are there. We say: “We’re here. We’re watching.” The officer instructs us to move away from the blockade because we are interfering with the checkpoint. We comply, retreating another fifty meters, cameras at the ready. Sometimes the officers take pictures of us with their phones.
The blockade at the checkpoints are made up of concrete blocks, arranged in such a way that only one car can drive through at a time, and buses barely make it through without getting stuck. Sometimes the police stop cars that are entering Palestinian East Jerusalem, but mostly they focus on the cars and pedestrians who are exiting East Jerusalem and entering the western part of the city. They go for stretches at a time without stopping anybody, and then they stop five cars in a row, demanding to see ID papers, occasionally making the driver get out and open the trunk so the police can rifle through it. Then the driver gets back in the car and continues through the checkpoint. Never once, through all the shifts I had, did the police refuse passage to anyone.
Last Thursday, I was on duty in A-Tur with two other activists: Guy, a seasoned Israeli activist; and Bryan, a rabbinical student from Hebrew College in Massachusetts. Usually we stay on the West Jerusalem side of the checkpoint, but that day we decided to watch from the Palestinian East Jerusalem side. When our shift was over, we had to cross through the checkpoint to leave. Bryan and I walked through the checkpoint without any problems.
The border police, who had been watching us watch them for the past hour, stopped Guy as he drove his car through the checkpoint and demanded to see his ID. Meanwhile, another border guard ordered Bryan and me to leave the area. We stopped a hundred meters from the checkpoint to video the officers. They let Guy go after a couple of minutes of harassment, demanding to know why he was there and where he was going, and questioning the validity of his Israeli identity card.
One of the police officers filmed the interrogation, too. He sent his video to ultra right-wing Israeli rapper The Shadow. The Shadow posted the video on his Facebook page. He attached an explanation saying that Guy regularly comes to the checkpoints to harass, heckle, and interfere with the “heroic police”. The police officer passed along Guy’s full name and his license plate was caught on video. Since then, Guy has received dozens of death threats from the rapper’s fans. He and his lawyers have filed a complaint against the officers involved, and the investigation is ongoing.
The border guard who harassed us the most happened to be wearing a yarmulke. Earlier that morning, he donned his tefillin[*] and tallit[†] and prayed shacharit, the morning prayers. He was still wearing his prayer shawl and tefillin as we left. He called after us, telling us we were disgusting, and that he hoped we would be stabbed by a terrorist.
A-Tur’s checkpoint near Mt. Scopus was taken down last week. There is another checkpoint in the middle of A-Tur that is still active. Issawiya’s checkpoint is still up; for a few days last week, it was closed to vehicular traffic. People had to abandon their cars and walk up the hill to cross the checkpoint, or they had to drive to the exit on east side of the village, near the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, and circle around to enter Jerusalem. There are still blockades at four of the entrances to the village of Jabel a-Muhkabar, close to the West Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiyot (Armon HaNatziv). Most of the other blockades have been dismantled, the concrete blocks pushed to the side of the road, ready for future use.
For more information or to join the checkpoint watch, send Free Jerusalem a message on Facebook.
[*] Phylacteries containing scrolls of the Torah that Orthodox Jews attach to their heads when praying
[†] Prayer shawl