Sha`ar Shomron (Qasem), Sun 6.4.08, Afternoon
Shomron Crossing Checkpoint, Sunday 6.4.08 PM
(on road no. 5 after it crosses the 'green line' and heads into the West Bank)
We never made it to our usual Huwwara and Beit Furiq Checkpoints vigil.
The sight of 46 Palestinian men and boys ages 14-50 who had sought livelihood – standing with their backs to the checkpoint and the traffic speeding by as the Israeli (only) drivers turn their heads, glad to see the 'terrorists' that our army manages to catch so successfully – life couldn't be better…
We stopped for ten minutes, and as the facts began emerging we could no longer leave.
14:45 – 46 Palestinian males detained standing at the side of the checkpoint. Some since 4 a.m., others since 7 and 9 a.m. Standing all the while. The checkpoint commander (a first-sergeant) says he got here not long ago, inherited them from the morning shift and did not ask since when they'd been held. They are not allowed to sit down because "when they do, they make trouble." As we complain, they are allowed to sit down, and forbidden to ever get up. Or turn around. Or lean back or lie with their head on their pack and close their eyes. Or try to feel good. Only to sit upright. And never turn their heads back to the checkpoint. Nor use their cell phones, since those are all confiscated. Captives with no rights whatsoever, hostages in the lost battle between the livelihood seekers and the uniformed hunters of "illegal-aliens".
The Palestinians we spoke with said they were caught inside the West Bank, suspected to be on their way to work inside Israel.
The stony area where they are now seated turns further into a field of thorns and behind them, a fence. The field is the only view they are allowed to look at and that is where they must go relieve themselves, although the toilet nearby is for everyone – only not for Palestinians. They will urinate among the thorn bushes in view of their detained mates and the myriad Israeli driving by. From 4 in the morning until 8 in the evening.
As we arrive, the CP commander tells us "I was just going to let them go." Perhaps he was hoping that would make us disappear right away. Then Captain Shlomi arrives, his company commander, interrogates some of the detainees, and says that here, they are just about to be released. And vanishes. In fact no release takes place. Only 45 minutes later the Checkpoint commander hands over the whole pile of IDs to the police car parked across the road. From there the IDs travel back to the hands of a Border patrolman who manually copies the ID data onto a sheet of paper. One by one.
As a separate, smaller, group of detainees – 5 transit-cab drivers are held, suspected for having intended to transport 'illegal aliens' in search of work. The worst of the worst. They claim that as no sign in sight forbids their driving on road no. 5, they took a wrong turn and had nowhere to make a 'u-turn' and drive back. We would have reached the checkpoint anyway, they say, and would not be let through. "Throw them in jail!" the regional command spokesman cries on the phone shortly before 7 p.m. Until then he was not available to our calls. Then he deigns to listen to the details, and promises to look into the matter. Their five vehicles are parked at the edge of the checkpoint car-park. All 20 tires are flat, having been cut. Towards 8 p.m., the deputy company commander Elad says that indeed there had been instructions given to empty the tires, and the soldiers just went too far. It was a 'misunderstanding' or 'misinterpretation of the order'. On the morrow we discovered that misinterpretation had gone even further: a clutch was ruined and loudspeakers broken. 5000 NIS damages for one of the cabs alone.
15:00 – telephone to Qalqiliya DCO who promises to look into it.
15:45 – people ask for some food. They have only had water (from the local cooler) since 4 a.m. Their request is totally ignored. Later a Border Patrolwoman says that 'If they were my detainees they would long ago have had two meals".
16:00 – we call the Efrayim (regional) brigade spokeswoman, who promises to look into it.
16:04 – the longhand copying of all the IDs is finished and the documents go back to the police car to be checked against the computer. Then they are returned to sit as a pile inside the checking shack. The BPwoman says that "after checking all the IDs the men are officially neither to be detained nor to be taken into custody, and as far as the police is concerned, they can go home. But it's in the hands of the army and I don't interfere with the army."
16:44 – the checkpoint commander goes over to the men to make sure they all sit up straight. Whoever leans back is scolded.
One of the cab drivers asks permission to go to his car to get his medication. Only when he asks again, towards 7 p.m., does he finally get permission to do so, when the deputy company commander is present.
16:30 – we call the brigade commander's office. They will look into it.
16:31 – almost two hours after the commander said "I'll soon start releasing them"… their release begins. Slowly. The CP commander calls them to him one by one. Waves their IDs in their faces and lectures them in warning before he hands them their documents. All the cell phones are piled in one large plastic bag inside the shack, and they have to dig into it to find their own in the pile. After four men have been released, the commander takes a break. Walks away to smoke, to chat with the MPwoman, help her roll up her sleeves, stalls some more. Any Palestinian who turns his head is scolded again.
16:40 – following several complaints to the army hotline, we hear that the regional brigade HQ has not heard of any detention of 46 illegal alien Palestinians at the Shomron Crossing Checkpoint. Actually they don't even know where this checkpoint is (!) and therefore cannot take care of the problem. We explain where this is located on the map.
16:48 – the release continues at the end of which 27 men are still left sitting waiting, and the 5 drivers who are being 'dealt with' separately.
17:00 – the remaining Palestinians are ordered to stand up straight – probably as punishment for something they or one of them has done.
An SMS is sent directly to the regional brigade commander. The spokeswoman announces that he is taking care of the matter and was sure it was all over long ago.
We update them that nothing is over yet.
17:11 – Release re-continues of the men still left.
17:32 – 11 men remain, another break. We leave temporarily and drive along road no. 5 to see whether the released men are re-detained as they are forced to commit a 'violation' by walking back along the road that is forbidden to Palestinian feet. They must walk about 5 kilometers to Zawiya which is the closest point from which they can take a taxi further on to get home. About 3 km from the Shomron Crossing Checkpoint some soldiers are stationed in a small black tent on the roadside, stopping the men who arrive on foot, and check them: ID inspection and a threat that if ever they are seen around there again, they will be shot etc. Because of their growing number, a waiting line is formed. We drive back to the checkpoint.
19:00 – there are still 11 men waiting. It is feared that one of the IDs was lost. On the phone with Qalqiliya DCO apparently the DCO have no idea what we're talking about. "How did 'they' get there?! 'They' must not even be there!"
The missing ID is fond when the pile diminishes and the owner is released.
19:45 – the spokeswoman says an officer has been sent to the spot and an investigation will be made.
Indeed an officer arrives, the above-mentioned deputy company commander, to hear
"all your complaints". We told him, and he gave an order to release the men still left. After everyone is released, comes the drivers' turn. He gives an order to release them as well. And what about the cars? First he said the cars were confiscated. Another inquiry on his part indicated they actually aren't, and the drivers are allowed to take them. Upon receiving their cell phones back, they call tow trucks in order not to leave their cabs at the checkpoint overnight. Where will find the money for this, they ask. The officer promises to stick around to make sure the tow-trucks will be allowed to cross the road over to the checkpoint in order to pick up the cars.
The drivers who were 'caught' at 04:00 were released at 20:00, after 16 hours of detention, their cars sustained damages costing thousands of shekels. The insurance companies declared they will not cover the damages. And Israel will declare them to be 'war damages'…
20:00 – we passed on the vehicle-vandalism particulars to our friends of Yesh Din for further attention.