Palestine - Tribulation at Surda checkpoint

The routine violence of Israel's occupation of the West Bank takes place at military checkpoints and roadblocks. There are more than 600 of these and they exert a stranglehold over the Palestinians living in the region. The most benign everyday activity - getting to school or work, reaching doctors and basic services - suddenly collides with a control system manned by 19-year-old Israeli soldiers.

Even so, checkpoints have not succeeded in paralysing Palestinian movement within the West Bank. "Al-hayat lazim tistamirr", life must continue, is the constant refrain. But making it continue depends on more than will or ideology. It requires systems. In the absence of any real authority from the Palestinian Authority, networks of informal workers have stepped in, creating the means for an entire economy and society to survive.

In March 2001, the Surda checkpoint appeared as a bulldozed trench in a country road that linked Ramallah with a hinterland of 30 or so villages, plus Birzeit University. Until it was dismantled last month, it mutated, turning into a bizarre obstacle course of concrete blocks and rubble mounds that condemned everyone travelling along the road to get off or out of their vehicles and walk for two kilometres. Each day, thousands of students going from Ramallah to the university passed a stream of roughly as many villagers going the opposite way to the city. In between stood the soldiers. Sometimes they would limit themselves to a few random checks. At other times, they decided to stop the flow, leaving everyone stranded on the wrong side of home or work.

On each side of the mounds of rubble that marked the no-drive zone, Ford transit vans crammed into the narrow road. This was the drop-off and pick-up point to other destinations. Mass transport is made up of thousands of these owner-operated vans. The no man's land of the checkpoint played havoc with the finely tuned system that linked the right to carry passengers with a specific place. Anyone with a van could arrive at the checkpoint and carry away regular drivers' livelihoods. The queue-jumping at "rush hour" created impossible jams.

The ad hoc solution on both sides of the checkpoint was to bring in a local zu'araan, or thug. Ziad, in his late thirties, a former cowboy driver himself, was brought in to handle the village side: "They asked me to deal with the thugs, because I'm the biggest thug of all." Besides keeping order among the drivers, Ziad had to deal with the soldiers' pursuit of "rule breakers". Drivers caught dashing across the no-drive zone might be rammed by a jeep or, at best, have their keys and identity cards confiscated so that a workday was lost.

The solution for people who couldn't walk, or goods that couldn't be carried, came in the form of porters from the Ramallah vegetable market with three-wheeled wooden pushcarts. On a recent morning, these carried meat from the Birzeit slaughterhouse, fresh mulberries, glasses and plates for a hardware shop, the day's edition of al-Quds newspaper, as well as children too small to walk the distance, the elderly and the sick, including six dialysis patients from the villages.

Although three mass demonstrations by the university seemed only to increase hostility, as did an attempt to negotiate with the soldiers over detained students, in the end, without explanation, the Israelis closed down the Surda checkpoint.

Palestinian workers cannot afford to risk confrontations that might destroy their livelihoods. And yet, in their own way, as their behaviour at Surda showed, they pose a significant resistance force, constantly subverting the permitted boundaries of the checkpoints.