Checkpoint

by Jessica Heaton '01

If you grew up on a ranch or have ever seen the film Fast Food Nation, you understand how a cattle chute operates. Cattle chutes are designed to keep cows — herd animals — in a single file as they are moved from one area to another. Narrow and confining, the chutes effectively prevent cows from spooking; they are designed so that the animal cannot see what comes next, whether it is a milking machine or the slaughter house. Israeli checkpoints throughout the occupied Palestinian territories operate the same way, with one significant difference: the checkpoints are designed to spook you.

For the past five years, I have taught high school social studies. Each summer, I have traveled somewhere new to learn more about the world and to enhance my 9th grade world studies curriculum. I have been to East Africa, Central America, Europe, and Asia, but only my Scripps education could have prepared me to spend time in Israel and Palestine this past August.

I went as part of a delegation to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the people living there. Our group met with about 30 different organizations representing people from all walks of life: Israeli Jews, Christians, and Muslims, as well as Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Jews. What I learned has forever changed my understanding of the conflict; there are two sides to this story, two sets of aggressors, two sets of victims, and two groups of people who equally deserve peace. However, the physical experience of walking through an Israeli checkpoint was a trauma that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

There are more than 600 checkpoints along the border that Palestinians must cross to get to work each day. The checkpoints are designed not only to monitor or intimidate Palestinians, but to terrify them. As you approach and move through one of these concrete and steel mazes, you are under constant surveillance. Armed guards and cameras follow your every step. Sometimes it can take up to three hours to be “processed” at a crossing. Moving single-file through the narrow steel caging in the rising heat, you begin to feel less human, more like an animal. You can’t see the guard station ahead, but you can hear muddled orders over a loud speaker. The speaker system wears on your nerves — you know there is something you must do, but you don’t know what it is, so you await the consequence of your inaction with a growing knot in your stomach.

When you finally reach the search point of the station, you wait for a shrill beep that indicates a narrow revolving gate will rotate once to let you through to the guard station. Sometimes people get stuck halfway through; I watched the guards let people remain stuck for minutes at a time. Once you do make it through, you take all extraneous items off your person and send them through a metal detector to the left. You walk through a large metal detector and then approach a bulletproof glass wall to your right. Although the Israeli guards are protected by that glass, they are still armed to the teeth. There is nothing like a young, frightened soldier pointing an automatic weapon your direction to make you appreciate the youthful merriment of senior brunch in Margaret Fowler Garden. Here, Israeli girls are conscripted into the national army and Palestinian girls learn to throw rocks.

On the day of my journey through the checkpoint, the guides decide for no apparent reason to turn back the Palestinian man in front of me. He is irate. They laugh. He asks them how he is supposed to return through the chute. Although there is another passage they can allow him to exit through, they laugh again and tell him to turn back. Here, you do what you are told. He is a big man, and we twist and turn so that he can pass us and exit back down the tunnel. It is embarrassing for us. It is humiliating for him.

It’s my turn now. The guards shout directions at me over the loudspeaker. They know I am American; they know I don’t speak Hebrew. When I look at them in confusion, they laugh at me. I am not human — I am just another head of cattle passing through. Faced with hundreds of angry, humiliated people each day, afraid for their own safety, this is how the soldiers must approach their job. The cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine creates systemic desensitization.

I read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in Core, and I know the philosophy and purpose behind the checkpoint’s design is intimidation. But by the time I exit, I’m beyond rational thought, and I’m shaking. As I near the tour bus that will carry me to safety, I’m crying. While my education at Scripps prepared me to dissect, analyze, and reflect on the world around me, it also prepared me to do something else: to care.

At Scripps, I was empowered to picket for campus workers’ rights to unionize and to protest my own graduation speaker, a representative of the World Bank. In a world where most people do not have such freedoms, I am reminded by my experience at an Israeli checkpoint that I have a larger responsibility. We cannot give up on peace in the Middle East, because we cannot give up on people in the Middle East. We cannot simplify a complex problem or demonize the “other.” Having learned this at Scripps, I know I must teach this to my own students.

So, we will read the stories I collected from Israeli Jews, Christians, and Muslims,as well as Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Jews. And I will do my best to help my students understand that every person involved in this conflict is a human being — even if it would be easier to forget.

 

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