Friday, May 23, 2003

Macho Posturing

It’s been years since I have been violently shoved in the chest. That peculiarly macho act of aggression, usually a precursor to a fight or flight, a statement of dominance, I’d left behind in the playgrounds of my youth. It is such a boyish thing to do.

Returning from Jenin yesterday, we happened upon a so-called pop-up checkpoint. Usually a tank or an armoured personnel carrier pulls up and blocks a road, while soldiers check IDs and decide on a whim whether to let people pass or not. This one was not accompanied by the vehicle, though as everyone in the area knows it is not far from a military encampment. This encampment is close enough to our house for us to hear the low pitched grinding of tank engines as they come and go every night, bound for points unknown. Approximately 6 soldiers were visible, two sitting down in the shade, relaxing, the other four checking ID’s and stopping traffic. We joined the long line of cars, trucks and taxis waiting in the midday sun to reach the front of the queue. As we waited, a bedouin man on a donkey ambled past, along the line, skirting the road. One of the lounging two soldiers stood to check his ID too, the odd sight of a very young man, dressed in body armour and weighed down with high-tech weaponry, holding out his hand to stop an whiskery old man, dressed simply with the typical bedouin headdress, atop a donkey weighed down with bags of vegetables brought back from the market. Truly the meeting of the old and the new.

As we inched forward it became clear that no-one was actually being stopped from passing this checkpoint, no-one was being turned back. It was maybe a show of strength, a reminder, as if reminder were needed, that the army was still here, and still had total control over the population. Ahead of us a shared taxi full of men, women and children had stopped and the soldier checking it was aggressively forcing only the women to get out of the car. Only 10 feet in front of us, Ziad, Suzanne and I could easily see the fear and distress on the women’s faces. I left our car and walked forward, to see if there was anything I could do to help. Sometimes the presence of a foreigner is enough for the soldiers to tone down their actions.

I got to the car and the women outside pleaded with me to help. The soldier, who I could now see was very young and very aggressive looking shouted at me in Hebrew. I asked if he spoke English, and explained that I didn’t speak Hebrew. He came round the car towards me and shouted again, looking very belligerent. I stretched out my arms in the universal gesture of non-understanding. That was when he transported me back to the playground, pushing me roughly in the chest back towards my car. I took a step back and tried again “Is there something I can do to help? Is there a problem? Do you spea…” Another forceful shove accompanied by harsh tones. “What’s the problem?” A third shove and a gesture with the gun intended to convey that the shoving may now be at an end. I slowly walked back to the cab, feeling a whole mixture of emotions, from anger to amusement, from bitterness to resignation. It’s difficult to imagine a worse person to hand out weaponry to than a teenage boy, but unfortunately, all over the world, it is precisely these people that do walk around tooled up.

As I reached our cab, another soldier, motioned us forward. He took our IDs and had just begun inspecting them, when my new friend, flushed, possibly, with the success of his antler bashing shoves earlier, came over to us. The solider with our IDs, an Ethiopian, said something to him in Hebrew and he barked back at him. Ziad, our cab driver and friend who speaks Hebrew, told me later that the Ethiopian has told him that he should return to the other car and leave this one to him. The kid told him to fuck off, in that tone that the superior reserve for their perceived inferiors. It was fairly clear to me that despite the Ethiopian’s greater age, it was his skin colour that made the white kid feel that he was in charge here. He snatched our IDs from the African’s hands and came over to the passenger door, where I sat. I once again asked what the problem was, and spat something back in Hebrew. “He wants to know why you were interfering in military matters” said the Ethiopian. I told him that I was only asking if there was a problem, and if I could do anything to help. The kid pulled the door open and put his foot on the seat next to me, pushed his face an inch from mine, his gun pressing against me, trying to intimidate me. Unexpectedly I did not feel intimidated so much as mildly amused. The posturing of macho teenagers is not so much scary as comical – even (to my surprise) when they are carrying a gun. I wish I could say the same about Ziad. He sat motionless in the driver’s seat. Having spent 3 months detained in an Israeli prison without being charged for a crime, he knows that these young boys with guns have the power to destroy the cab, take his keys and toss them in a field, imprison him – or shoot.

Susie, in the back seat leaned forward toward the soldier and interjected. She protested about him being so aggressive and told him that he needed to remove his foot, since this was not his car. He glared at her and hissed angrily. Now it was my male instincts which reacted.. I returned an equally hard stare and raised my voice menacingly for the first time, saying, “That’s my wife.” He muttered something in Hebrew (later not-translated by Ziad, as being too crude for him to say in front of Susie). Suddenly, he threw our passports back in the cab slammed the door and kicked the cab. The Ethiopian waved us through, and also the other cab that was still sitting next to us, doors open, abandoned by the kid. A brief smile played across his lips. Then I realised the reason for the unexpectedly abrupt end to this brief encounter. The captain was coming across to see what was going on. Suddenly the surge of power that he had felt around these unarmed people, and his black colleague, was coming to an end, and perhaps he didn’t want us to be there to see it Or maybe he just wanted to make sure we didn’t complain. Either way we left, soon to be passed by the other cab, beeping happily.

I was left with feelings of guilt for the trouble I could have caused Ziad, anger at this jerk and the situation that gives him control over peoples’ lives and puts a gun in his hand, and frustration that I didn’t have the skills necessary to deal better with the situation. My conflict resolution specialist in the back seat gave me pointers on what to do, next time. What the Israelis are now calling "interference" by foreign observers, is really just questioning injustice. But they hold the guns.

1 Comments:

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