by Ferry Biedermann
(IPS) RAMALLAH --
the hell back if you don't want to get hurt," an Israeli soldier shouts through a megaphone at a group of Palestinians gathered at the Qalandia checkpoint, between Jerusalem and Palestinian controlled Ramallah.
The men and women who are trying to get through quickly obey the order: they know that the soldiers these days only need the slightest of reasons to fire teargas or shoot in the air, or worse.
"They shot over my head when I tried to approach the checkpoint in my car," says Muna Khleifi. She lives in Ramallah and went early in the morning to see her doctor in Jerusalem. "They let me through because I had a medical certificate but now they won't let me go back. I cannot even get near them to explain my situation. My husband and children are in Ramallah, what am I going to do?"
The soldiers at the countless checkpoints surrounding Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank have become noticeably more cautious, not to say jumpy, since a spate of lethal attacks. Last week, two pregnant women were shot within two days at the same roadblock in Nablus. The husband of one of them was killed.
At Qalandia, soldiers even fired at the car of the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Qrei'a, who is involved in peace negotiations. Israeli Foreign Minister Peres apologized and assured Qrei'a that nobody wanted to shoot at him.
The army admits that the soldiers may be more cautious because of the specific threat that seems to have emerged lately. The Palestinians have, in recent weeks, concentrated their fire on soldiers and Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.
"We were always in combat mode, since the outbreak of the violence in the territories," says the army spokesperson, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz.
He denies the soldiers have become more nervous because of the attacks last week and he says the shooting instructions at the roadblocks have not changed.
Human rights organizations have been complaining about the often lethal incidents at the roadblocks from the very beginning of the intifada.
"The situation now has become totally insufferable, though," says Mustafa Barghouti, the head of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. "Until last week, most of the checkpoints were open, meaning they could be approached. Now they have become closed, which means they shoot if you come too close without their specific permission."
That is what probably happened in the case of the pregnant women, Barghouti explains. Their families were taking them to the hospital. "They didn't have a choice but to approach the soldiers and explain what their situation was. They were in a hurry and had to use a car but the soldiers shoot at anything that comes near."
He calls the situation unprecedented and says it shows the failure of the Israeli policies. "If the soldiers get nervous they should finally realize that it is time to get out and end the occupation. This way they only create more hatred."
The army has said it will investigate the shootings of the pregnant women in Nablus but the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem has little faith in the outcome.
"The army has allowed soldiers at roadblocks to act with impunity from the very beginning of the intifada," says Ron Dudai, a researcher who monitors the checkpoints. He says the soldiers have not received firm open-fire instructions either and this makes them shoot more quickly when they are nervous or under pressure.
"Before the outbreak of the intifada, every soldier serving in the territories received several printed sheets of paper with specific instructions for opening fire. Now the commanders brief the soldiers and that doesn't work."
One of the results is unpredictability. It is totally unclear when, and how far, people can approach the Qalandia checkpoint, for example. At times it is completely closed, even for pedestrians who are then not even allowed in the vicinity of the heavily armed and protected soldiers. Many people have decided to avoid the checkpoints altogether because it is so dangerous or humiliating.
This week soldiers at Qalandia made people wanting to cross to either side take off their coats and turn slowly around to show they were not carrying arms or explosives.
A few hundred meters from the checkpoint, out of the sights of the Israeli soldiers, most people cross into Ramallah and back on foot, through an unused quarry that is being used as a garbage dump. "I find it too scary to even try and use the regular crossing nowadays," says Jamil, a greying accountant, standing in the middle of the dirt track.
He works in Ramallah but lives in Jerusalem. "You used at least to be able to talk to the soldiers, but now they just shoot."
A loud bang comes from the direction of the checkpoint and shortly afterwards a cloud of teargas drifts over the hill of garbage onto the path through the quarry. Dozens of people start gagging and running. Later an eyewitness explains that the soldiers had ordered a group of people back from the roadblock. "When they didn't move fast enough, the soldiers shot teargas and fired in the air."
In heavily blockaded Ramallah, Mustafa Barghouti calls the checkpoints "collective punishment." The fact that people go through the hills to enter and leave the town is proof of that, he says. "This has nothing to do with security. If they wanted security, the Israeli's would withdraw to the old borders and have only a couple of hundred kilometers to defend. By surrounding each Palestinian city and village they have created more than three-thousand kilometers of border and they are finding out they can never defend it."
March 4, 2002 (http://albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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