SICK MAN DETAINED AT HUWWARA CHECKPOINT
by Anna Baltzer
After saying goodbye to Fadi and his family yesterday, I took a shared taxi to Zatara checkpoint where I received a call that a sick man named Jaber was being held at Huwwara checkpoint a few miles north. When I arrived I found Jaber and his wife waiting in the dark in a detention area next to the checkpoint. Jaber was clutching his stomach and coughing violently. When Jaber’s wife saw me, she sprang up and called out that her husband was very sick. I learned that he had been hospitalized in Nablus for over a week for serious chest and stomach problems, and he was on his way home to his village shortly after noon when the soldiers stopped them at the checkpoint. It was past 10 p.m. when I arrived. The couple had been held waiting for 9 and a half hours.
Jaber looked like he was ready to pass out. The soldiers manning the checkpoint yelled at me to stop talking to the detainees, but I ignored them. One soldier came over and asked who I was. I answered that I was a friend of the wife’s uncle (which is true) and that I had come when I heard her sick husband had been held without explanation or charge for more than 9 hours. I asked the soldier why they were holding him so long, and he said he’d tell me alone, away from Jaber and his family.
I told the soldier that I would not leave my friends and that I was afraid to talk to him alone. I said his gun and illegitimate power in the situation made me uncomfortable. I think it’s not a bad idea to remind soldiers that they are the biggest threat to my safety in the West Bank, after the settlers. They commit far more crimes in the area than Palestinians and have caused more serious injury to internationals than anyone else.
The soldier said he didn’t know why Jaber was being held but he was sure it was for a good reason. I was unconvinced. Meanwhile, Jaber had keeled over and was coughing. His wife was near hysterics. I told the soldiers that Jaber needed a doctor, and they responded by saying they were taking him away. Jaber’s wife began to cry. I stepped in front of Jaber and his wife to block the soldiers, who were coming with handcuffs. A relative asked if it was really necessary to handcuff a man in such agony, and they agreed not to. They pushed me and Jaber’s wife aside and threw him into a jeep. Jaber’s brother, who was standing with us, told me to let it go, that it was too late now. We all walked back to the car in silence except for Jaber’s wife, who continued to sob.
As we were walking away, two soldiers started chuckling and I turned to them, “Don’t tell me you think this is funny.” One soldier yelled out to me, “You’re just a little girl. You can’t do anything.” I turned and yelled, “I’m older than you, asshole” and felt ashamed immediately. It was the first time I had sworn in front of Palestinian friends. I apologized and they forgave me instantly. They thanked me repeatedly, which made me feel uncomfortable; this time I hadn’t been able to help, and for all we knew Jaber was on his way to interrogation.
I called the army’s humanitarian office for information, but as usual their “army” side was more pronounced than their “humanitarian” one. They would not tell us why Jaber was arrested, nor why he had been held at Huwwara for so long, nor when he would be able to contact his family. They knew, but they wouldn’t tell. I told them that where I come from you aren’t supposed to hold people without charge. I asked if Jaber had a lawyer and they didn’t understand the question. Most Palestinians don’t get lawyers or a fair trial; the army rules according to its best interests.
Jaber’s family and I drove together to the home of Jaber’s parents-in-law in Marda, where we drank tea under the moon. After perhaps the longest day of my life, it was finally time to go to sleep, but somehow I wasn’t tired anymore. I just sat there, thinking, watching the tired but resilient faces around me. One belonged to a good friend who invited me to stay the night with his family. I accepted. When I woke up the next morning, he announced that the family was throwing me a going-away party. I refused, but he insisted.
It is moving to know that I will be missed, and I am already wondering not if but when I will be back here. The truth is, I may be leaving Palestine in a week, but mentally I won’t be leaving Palestine for a long time. I know how hard it will be to readjust to “normal” life and social interactions—most people don’t want to talk or think about the atrocities that are being supported by their own government and permitted by their own apathy or inaction. Politically straightforward dialogue can be very socially awkward, and I know it will be a while before I can relate to most Western people of privilege in a normal way.
But the readjustment is not what scares me most. What I dread above all lies after I adjust, when I begin to—forget. I know it will happen. Of course I will keep Palestine in the back of my mind, but at the forefront will be my job, my boyfriend, and all the daily trivia that prevents most people from doing more to help those in need. And once I’ve slipped back into my ordinary way of doing things, what will make me different from the Israeli soldiers who serve because refusing would be too costly? I find inaction appalling in others, but most of all in myself. After all, like those Israeli soldiers and inactive citizens, or the Germans who remained silent during the atrocities in World War II, those with power and privilege are always, to some degree, responsible for that which they could help prevent but choose not to.
This piece was originally published on Anna Baltzer’s website: AnnaInTheMiddleEast.com on 4/22/05.