A Question of Humanity

After the death of Nasser Abu Hmaid, a Palestinian freedom fighter who had been denied cancer treatment while in an Israeli prison, much of the occupied West Bank went on strike. CPT volunteer Louis Bockner, who was in Hebron on Dec. 20, the day of his passing, reflects on that morning and the events that unfolded.
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Palestinians wait to be let through Israeli checkpoints. A soldier is visible through the rungs of the turnstile.

I’m on the morning school run, monitoring the Abu Rish checkpoint with Ahmad, when we find out about Nasser Abu Hmaid’s death. Kids start pouring out of the schools they had just entered, amassing in the street joyously before slowly scattering in different directions. Word of a strike spreads quickly. The whole West Bank is rising in protest of Nasser’s death, schools and businesses will close, speeches and marches will be organized. Ahmad knows immediately what this will mean: actions and altercations across the city. We had planned to travel to the South Hebron Hills that afternoon but instead decide to stay in the city to document whatever unfolds. 

It starts on the way home when the sting of residual tear gas hits our eyes and throat. We pull out handkerchiefs to cover our mouths and Ahmad dips into a pharmacy to buy alcohol swabs. As we approach the Al-Salamayeh checkpoint we find it closed with a dozen men and a few school children waiting. After 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, they grow restless, demanding answers. 

“There were kids throwing stones so we had to close it,” the soldier in the elevated guard post yells down at them. 

“But the kids are gone,” they respond. “We haven’t done anything.”

They could let us through and avoid the inevitable conflict to come but instead they use this small act of harmless aggression by a few frustrated youths as an excuse to collectively punish the whole. Plus, provocation by an oppressor is a powerful tactic when the oppressed cannot fight back, cornered by a system that controls the law, the police and the judicial system. 

The back and forth continues. More people come, a couple leave. Aside from the soldier in the tower the checkpoint appears deserted. Then two soldiers arrive. If they’re 20 years old it’s not by much and they remind me of the popular girls from highschool who I never quite understood, only they have machine guns and bulletproof helmets. One comes forward and yells at a young man in Hebrew, reaching through the bars to grab him, trying to pull him into the steel gate. He pushes her away, tensions rise, the half dozen kids back away. 

The most vocal of the waiting men has been calling people on two cell phones. Now he starts speaking in English, maybe because he doesn’t speak Hebrew and she doesn’t speak Arabic or maybe because I’m there. He talks about human rights and how they can’t be treated like animals. Her hand reaches forward, fingers grasping a steel bar illuminated by a ray of morning light. She is wearing fingerless, black gloves, revealing green, pointed, claw-like gel nails. I hesitate taking the photo, not wanting to aggravate an already volatile situation, and then her hand is gone along with the moment, imprinted on my mind but not my camera. 

Another soldier comes forward, yelling at the crowd to get back but nobody moves. 

“We’re not doing anything,” the man says again. “We’re human beings, we have rights.” 

She’s losing her temper, threatening to use force, gesturing with her gun, pointing it through the bars and telling her companion to open the gate so she can come into the crowd. I raise my camera, hoping to capture her eyes, lit by the light piercing the slits in the bars. I take a photo. I know I’m not close enough but I don’t want to be closer. 

She yells at me in Hebrew. 

I shrug. 

“You speak English?” she asks.

I nod. 

“You want to take my picture?” she shouts. “You want to take my picture? Come here then.” She beckons me forward, daring me to move. 

“No thanks,” I say. 

“Come here, take my picture!”

“That’s okay, I’m happy here.”
I wonder what would happen if I move forward. Would she grab me? Pull me in? Take my camera? Who knows. 

Soon after they open the checkpoint, allowing a couple of people at a time to pass through. The adults are searched, their IDs recorded, while the kids walk in small groups and offer up their backpacks to be searched. I wonder what they’re thinking. Are they scared or is this so routine that it will hardly be mentioned when they get home? Ahmad and I wait until almost everyone has gone through before turning around. 

“We’ll take a cab around to the entrance of the old city,” he says. “We could go through but they’ll just harass us.”

I nod, thankful we didn’t get detained. The drive around, through the winding streets of the Palestinian-controlled H1 district, takes longer than if we had walked, giving me plenty of time to reflect on what just happened. Above all I’m amazed by the composure of the people waiting outside the gate despite threats of violence and provocation. On one hand I see the simple act of peacefully standing their ground as an incredible and virtuous feat of humanity. On the other, I see their restraint as evidence of the incredible power imbalance they live beneath and understand deeply; where fighting back, even in self defence, can only lead to being detained, arrested or killed.    

I think about the words of the man, spoken calmly yet with the obvious frustration of someone who has dealt with these arbitrary acts of oppression for decades. “We’re human beings, we have rights.” It’s a statement that should be undeniable in its truth, but here, in this military-controlled, segregated city, on occupied ground, the sentence rings hollow. In the machine of the occupation, a person’s humanity is reduced to a plea and a dream, rather than a reality. 

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