Checkpoint Cheek: Confronting Israel’s Green Line Racism

Israeli female soldiers man an army checkpoint at the borderpoint between Israel and Egypt, north of the Red Sea town of Eilat. (Photo: AFP - Menahem Kahana)

By: Nasser Rego

Published Thursday, May 31, 2012

In late March, Umm al-Hieran resident and Israeli citizen 'Abdesallam Abu al-Qi'an resolved to practice some checkpoint cheek on the armed Israeli soldier stationed at the Green Line border crossing of Shani, in the Negev. The permanently staffed crossing is named after the Israeli Jewish settlement that straddles the Green Line with a nonchalance that suggests its residents' obliviousness to the fact that a good chunk of them sit in the West Bank, and in transgression of international law.

'Abdesallam invited me to see him. His aim was to confront the racism he encounters in oft unsuccessful attempts at crossing into Israel from the West Bank on his return from Jerusalem, where he works. Regularly turned away on account of being Palestinian, he is forced to detour via the Meitar Green Line checkpoint, taking him three times as long to reach his home in Umm al-Hieran, one of three dozen Palestinian Bedouin “unrecognized” communities in Israel. He planned on confronting that racism in the company of a third person. I needed no convincing to be brought along. What made 'Abdesallam's story remarkable was that he is a citizen of Israel, like the other 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of the state. Yet, he is denied entry into “his country” at this Green Line checkpoint a few kilometers from his home of 56 years.

Checkpoints

There are around 622 obstacles, among them roadblocks, earthmounds, earth walls, trenches and road barriers, that restrict freedom of movement for West Bank Palestinians in order to ensure the security of Israelis, settlers and within-the-Green Line citizens. The present system of checkpoints and obstacles are grounded in the Oslo Accords, drilled out during peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The obstacles, however, seem to have negotiated around peace, as they have had very tangible debilitating effects on Palestinian livelihoods and their ability to access basic services, such as health, education and water. The Shani checkpoint is one of 37 Green-Line checkpoints, not included in the above figure, that inspects entry into Israel. West Bank Palestinians without an entry permit are not allowed passage.

Cheek

We take off from Umm al-Hieran, inside Israel. The checkpoint's gate was open. 'Abdesallam donned sunglasses like your average checkpoint patron and we pass uneventfully into Area C of the West Bank.

At the fork with Route 317, we u-turn back to the checkpoint, sunglasses off. 'Abdesallam attempts to show me that at this locus on the Green Line, his citizenship as an Israeli collapses before the potential “security threat” he poses as a Palestinian. We pull up to the armed soldier, whose pubescence appears more striking in his exchange with the elderly 'Abdesallam.

'Abdesallam, pointing ahead of him, says, "To my family here... is it possible?" The soldier asks if he has an ID card, and 'Abdesallam promptly produces it. Reading the ID card, the soldier can tell that 'Abdesallam is an Israeli citizen. He can also tell he is Palestinian. "You need a permit." To which 'Abdesallam responds, "No permit, huh? I understand..." In sentences that taper off prematurely, we understand from the recent-immigrant soldier that the next time 'Abdesallam is attempting entry, he should do so at Meitar, which with its individual scanners and biometric system is a more appropriate crossing for 'Abdesallam. "Those who drive by here are residents of Shani", clarifies the soldier.

With a smack of crass and a dollop of indelicate, 'Abdesallam feeds the soldier his racist logic. "Do you get what is happening here? I brought this doctoral student to show the discrimination between Bedouin and the residents of Shani". To which the soldier, embarrassed, retorts, "But there is a possibility for a few...". Chuckling, "I know, I am from the family, I know there is a possibility for a few to pass [referring to those who “work with” the government]. But I brought him especially so he can see the face of things. What kind of thing is this? Israelis should be Israelis." Still blushing, the soldier insists, "I know, but it has nothing to do with me personally."

Alongside the 600 odd checkpoints within the West Bank, 'Abdesallam's racialization at this locus may seem mild. For West Bank Palestinians, not fortunate to hold blue-IDs of Israeli citizenship, bodies like "slave flocks" are channeled at snail-pace through metal turnstiles that echo humiliation at each click. The checkpoint's function of ensuring the security of Israelis, and in particular the settlements, has had the effect of imposing mass insecurity among West Bank Palestinians subject to their logic.

'Abdesallam's cheek metaphorically dissolves, or defoliates, the Green Line, allowing for the differentiated spaces, and differentiated subjects, across the Green Line to be exposed for their commonality. That commonality is the lived experiences of Palestinians, citizens and occupied subjects, under the same sovereign.

The Lived Experiences of Palestinians from Umm al-Hieran

So, what do Palestinian citizens from Umm al-Hieran have in common with the “harsh” reality of military occupation that is the experience of West Bank Palestinians? Under the imperatives of the Israeli military government, after the 1948 war the Abu al-Qi'an family were expelled from their historical lands in Khirbet Zubaleh (presently Kibbutz Shoval) and forcibly relocated to various sites in the Naqab, until finally being moved to Umm al-Hieran in the mid-50s.

Although the State placed them there, it refuses to recognize them as a legitimate community, and like nearly 70,000 other Palestinians in the Naqab, they are deliberately not provided basic services, such as water and electricity. In November 2010, the Prime Minister's office wielded undue political influence to cancel the planning authorities' partial recognition of the village. Soon thereafter, planning authorities drew up a detailed masterplan for the Jewish village of Hiran, superimposed on the 500 Palestinian residents of Umm al-Hieran. Conscripting the law to evacuate and demolish, the government aims to replace Umm al-Hieran's Palestinian residents with 10,000 Israeli Jews by 2030.

Similar to the experience of West Bankers is the Umm al-Hieran experience of having Israeli Jewish settlements setup in its vicinity, with the difference of being “legal” since it happens within the Green Line, though ostensibly so, because discrimination in planning and service allocation is blatant. Before we left Umm al-Hieran, 'Abdesallam was eager to point out how at within a two kilometer radius of the village lie three “individual settlements,” which are several hundred dunam allotments to single families, setup in the 1980s, and connected to various state infrastructure. Yehudah, Tsan Ya’tir and Shoham together amass nearly 8,000 dunams. In the Negev, there are five dozen such “individual settlements.” Tsan Ya'tir's dog cemetery brings home to 'Abdesallam that dead dogs have more right to occupy a space than living Palestinians.

CheckpointCheek - AudioExchangeonGreenLine - May 2012 by NRego
In early 2012, Ha'aretz reported government plans to establish ten new Jewish villages, among them Hiran, on a 180 square kilometer stretch of land along the Green Line, between Arad and Meitar. According to Lia Tarachansky, the Settlement Department at the World Zionist Organization is at the heart of the plan, seeking to create a contiguous Jewish bloc from the West Bank settlement of Susia and across the Green Line to the Israeli town of Arad.

The Prawer Plan, approved by the government in September 2011 and directed by former military and police elite, attempts to execute dispossession, displacement and evacuation à la Umm al-Hieran for all the other thirty-five “unrecognized” Palestinian villages of the Naqab.

"What is the Green Line?"

And yet, the Green Line, in real terms and without 'Abdesallam's intervention, seems to have already been erased. Conceptualizing the space of Israel/Palestine as an archipelago system, where movement is fluid and rapid between the well-connected Israeli settlements linked to the mainland (Green Line Israel), Alessandro Petti contrasts the space with an alternate system of enclaves, which are Palestinian zones isolated from one another. The enclaves cohabit alongside the well planned cartography of privilege. In fact, the vast majority of Israeli university students were not able to sketch the Green Line's contours, and it is common to hear the quip that an Israeli weekend frolic in West Bank territory is often concluded unawares of ever having left Israel.

Nevertheless, the frames of public and official discourse remain obstinately structured around the elusive Green Line. 'Abdesallam's bluff allows us, and should allow those in clean shirts and pressed suits, who arguably exert most influence in determining the shape of the Israel/Palestine space, to conceptualize it for its unequal force relations by speaking of the lived experiences and suffering of those living in it and subject to its logic. The future 'Abdesallam imagines is one where power is not allowed to racialize and dehumanize and where racist outlines of societies and spaces are deconstructed, with the lofty aim of eventually being erased.

Humor confronted racism that Shani Friday and called it out. Humor also gave 'Abdesallam the strength to not being resigned to self-constraint. "God forbid I said you were to blame" was 'Abdesallam's sympathetic response to the soldier's embarrassment, "but citizens should be citizens".

And yet, imagine that 'Abdesallam were to pass for Jewish and be allowed passage that day. Ten kilometers later, he would turn off-road down the dirt path sprinkled with cheerless, desiccating olive trees, to a vista of tin roofs crowning homes facing imminent demolition, and metal swing frames without swings or children, and he would see, citizen or not, “a Palestinian is a Palestinian.”

Nasser Rego is a doctoral candidate in Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. He is currently conducting fieldwork towards his PhD, studying the socio-legal relationship between the Israeli legal system and Palestinian citizens from the Naqab within the frameworks of critical race theory, postcolonial theory and critical legal studies.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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