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Al-mahsum, mahsom, checkpoint 


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By Yitzhak Laor
Ha'aretz, December 2, 2004

Every so often, ghosts from "the Jewish past" are summoned by a contemptible action in the occupied territories. Someone manages to photograph it. There are dramatic headlines about it, as in the case of the young Palestinian ordered to play the violin, but then the affair quickly becomes "an exception." Most of the soldiers do not compel violinists to play at the checkpoints. Most of the soldiers do not kill little girls. Most of the soldiers do not confirm the killing. But the melodramas help to conceal the larger truths. Israelis do not like the truth. And the truth of the Israelis can be found deep inside the occupied territories.

If not for the self-deceit of the Israelis, they would have succeeded in reading a long time ago what every Palestinian knows and has added to his vernacular during the past 13 years as al-mahsum (plural: al-mahasim) - the Arabized version of the Hebrew word for checkpoint (mahsom).

The fact is that the checkpoints are not a product of the intifada. When the truth is written about the history of the checkpoints, and not from the chronicles taken from the desk of the army commanders, it will become clear that the checkpoints gave birth to the intifada. They were born in 1991, two years before the Oslo Accords, and were greatly reinforced after these agreements were signed. Only complete blindness on the part of Israelis - who know more about the chic restaurants in New York than they do about the checkpoints in the West Bank, the checkpoints that divide and slice it, turning its citizens into the victims of good or sadistic soldiers - only this blindness could have begotten the "surprise" of Autumn 2000: What did they want? After all, everything was already OK.

But from the perspective of someone waiting long hours in line, it does not matter whether the soldiers standing facing you is a sadist or a nice guy. Ask any Israeli who is forced to wait 15 minutes in line at the bank if there is any difference whether the teller is nice or not when his turn finally comes. But something more important can be learned from the Israelis' hatred of lines: they have no idea what the Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

The checkpoint system is not part of the intifada, but it did grow and strengthen "thanks" to it. The checkpoint system is also not going to end when the intifada is over. The checkpoint system belongs entirely to the Israeli unwillingness to give up all of the territory of the West Bank, including all of the settlements. The checkpoint system is aimed at ensuring Israeli control over the lives of the Palestinians. Thus, it was strengthened after the signing of the Oslo Accords.

From this perspective, the settlements are not the reason for the checkpoints. The "isolated" settlements and the settlement blocs - part of the "new" consensus of the Oslo era - are the pretext for the checkpoints, but they reveal their real function: We are present everywhere, we will split the Palestinian territory in every way, we will control them.

Anyone who knows the West Bank since the Oslo Accords knows how much humiliation tens of thousands of people have experienced at the checkpoints. Anyone who knows the Oslo Accords from the Palestinian side knows how they looked there: Besides the expropriations, the bypass roads and the expansion of settlements, the checkpoints were their nightmare, a nightmare we knew nothing about.

Melodramas about the hard-hearted soldiers who forced the Palestinian to play his violin compartmentalize this as an exception, and again conceal the system. Again, "the generations of Jewish people" return to the center of the picture. Again, the Jews will remember their past. Again, it will be about our lives, our decline, and not about Palestinian suffering. And again the tabloids will set the "lynch-like" tone of our lives in their pornographic headlines. But the truth is stronger. Whoever is unprepared to separate from the West Bank, with all of its settlements, does not understand that he is paving the way for generations of checkpoint soldiers, sadistic or friendly.

The chief of staff is again giving a "completely frank" speech now. Again he will say, "We failed," and we will understand that his failure is our failure. So there is actually no failure because if the chief of staff had truly failed, he would have had to go, like the commander of the Gaza division. And we will continue to hear occasionally about what each Palestinian child is experiencing daily at the checkpoints, with or without the soft-hearted military volunteers who come to create a humane checkpoint, because the decision about who may or may not pass is made by foreigners, not by the people who must traverse these checkpoints. And this is all under the auspices of the only democracy in the Middle East.

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