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Authors: Amy Wilentz

Martyrs’ Crossing

BOOK: Martyrs’ Crossing
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For Nick and for Rafe, Gabe, and Noah


away from here by angels, plucked up into the empty sky. Failing angels, she would accept any transportation—no matter how mean, no matter how low. The crowd was squeezing the breath out of her, and Ibrahim's hand kept almost slipping away. Marina picked him up so that she wouldn't lose hold of him. He turned and twisted irritably in her arms. There was too much old sweat here, there were too many bodies close to hers, and the whole thing made her feel like retching, like running. Too many people were breathing down her neck, and whose breath was it? No one who knew her, no one she wanted to know. Strangers, foreigners, was how she thought of them, really, even though they were her own people, standing packed around her. Finally, she was sharing their predicament. She had always thought she wanted to.

They were all treading dust out here on the Ramallah road under the blue winter sky, and Ibrahim was inhaling it, too, like fire. It was scratchy air. He coughed and coughed again, and squirmed in her arms, trying to see what was happening. He was pale and feverish, but there was strength in those little legs. Marina looked down at his flushed cheeks. She looked through the dust up at the sky and saw a string of faded plastic flags fluttering over the road, crisscrossing it. There was a picture of the Chairman on one side of each flag, and on the reverse, a picture of a jowly commando who had been assassinated more than ten years earlier.

She felt an elbow grind into her side. No one liked to be this close to his fellow man—she could say that with certainty. A car alarm yowled. The crowd was approaching the yellow sign:
The sky overhead was clear, but there was a threat in the clouds piling up far out to the west over the distant sea. The wind whipped through the cypresses that scrabbled up a hill behind the low stores and houses. Straining toward the rickety watchtower that overlooked Shuhada checkpoint, the faces of the crowd, upturned and expectant, were like faces in religious paintings, the faces of believers waiting for a miracle. Just let me through, Marina thought. A man next to her coughed in Ibrahim's face.

Next time, get him out of there and over to us as fast as you can, Dr. Miller had said. He needs to be on the machines. He needs drips you can't always get at your hospitals. He needs our nebulizers.

She held Ibrahim tightly with one arm, and pushed his hair back from his eyes. He felt hot and he looked frightened, and this was a boy who did not scare easily. Not even when they went to visit Hassan in the prison on the other side. In order to see Daddy, they had to get through the checkpoint, find a taxi, drive into Jerusalem—and then, at the prison, pass through a reinforced steel door while men with big guns watched them and asked questions.

Marina was used to the rituals of crossing over. But today was different. The press of bodies made her feel faint. In the months since Hassan was arrested, she and Ibrahim had become accustomed to lining up. It was more or less civilized. With the right papers you almost always got through—if you had the patience. Sometimes the soldiers didn't check at all; they were naturally unsuspicious and lenient with mothers and children. But if they did run her through the computer, she was ready with her passport and with Ibrahim's medical file from Hadassah Hospital. There would be a few questions about Hassan, because prisoners always turned up on the computer. But then, right through. Marina looked like what she was, a Palestinian, but she was an American citizen, born in Boston, with what had always been a foolproof passport.

But nothing works forever, especially here. Early this morning, there had been two bus bombs in downtown Jerusalem. Bodies had been blown all over a square. These were the first attacks in a long time, and now the checkpoint was like a place she'd never visited before. Marina had never seen a complete closure before, a
it was called in Arabic. They hadn't done one in years, and she'd never believed they could do it, not really.

Could they? No one knew, not even her doctor in Ramallah. She had run to him this afternoon, when Ibrahim seemed to be getting sicker. The medications he had been expecting for more than a week had been delayed again. Get yourself into Jerusalem, the doctor told her. With your passport, it should be all right.

Turning away from his office door, Marina flagged a cab and headed for the checkpoint. Traffic to the crossing had slowed to a stop a half mile from the Jerusalem line. She got out to finish the trip on foot.

•  •  •

, in the shadow of the watchtower, Lieutenant Ari Doron flicked away his cigarette and tried to decide on a few next steps. In the old days, he might have panicked. But he was a harder man now, he didn't wilt when confronted. That's why his superiors used him for checkpoint duty when the situation got bad. And today it certainly was dangerous. The crowd had grown larger as more and more were refused permission to cross. It was hot out for this time of year, and Doron felt damp beneath his heavy bulletproof vest. He pushed his hair up under his cap and drank some tepid water out of a plastic bottle that was standing on one of the sand-filled, plastic roadblocks the army had set up at the intersection three years ago, as a temporary measure. By now, the checkpoint had become a permanent part of Jerusalem's geography. Since the peace was declared, Doron thought. He tried to brush some of the dust off his shoulders.

Today's disturbance was going down like clockwork, each notch up in the violence coming according to schedule. It was like a drill for the checkpoint soldiers, the angry crowds of rock-throwing young men. Doron was used to it. It started with children, the little boys who slipped through legs and whipped around the crowd and were having the best time, you could see it. It was only a matter of minutes before the young men joined in. They used slingshots, which Doron considered fair practice in the land of David. He wondered whether these were the kind David had used to kill the giant. The contraption looked like a holiday noisemaker, and the Palestinians spun it from the hip so that if you were up close, which you tried not to be, you could hear it whipping the air. The slingshot could send a rock flying at what seemed like the speed of a bullet.

Usually, the soldiers waited until a rock hit its mark, until there were enough men throwing stones, so that they weren't firing into a gaggle of schoolboys. First they shot into the air. Rubber bullets. Then they tried tear gas. When the tear gas didn't work, the soldiers would shoot in the air again, which also never worked, and then they'd begin shooting in earnest, over the heads of the crowd if their aim was good, into the crowd if it wasn't. By then, the men would be angry and nervous and ready to shoot for real, but Doron always tried to avoid this stage. He had never used live ammo at a checkpoint, and could not imagine the situation in which he would give that order. Rubber bullets were bad enough. Or there were sound bombs, a kind of grenade that did not explode but could generally be counted on to send a mob hurtling away. Doron also tended to go extra heavy on the tear gas. He didn't want casualties on his record. Things could escalate quickly into something really bad, something he didn't want to see, didn't want to deal with, didn't want to be responsible for.

Doron had seen the crisis building today as the politicians pulled the closure tighter and tighter. The Palestinians here at the checkpoint were trying to get into Israel for all the usual reasons: work, work, and work. There had been closures before, as punishment for acts of terror, and yet they would still come, desperate to get through, and every day, some of them made it, because usually the closure was not airtight, and there was room for lackadaisical enforcement, there was room for leniency—even sympathy, on occasion.

Like most of the officers in charge of the checkpoints today, Doron had asked headquarters to loosen up—he could feel the place turning into a flashpoint as the pressure built. But Tel Aviv kept tugging on the drawstrings. Responding to terror, the government said, the two bus bombings all over the television, the two suicide boys, dressed up like Israeli soldiers, who packed their kit bags with explosives and got on the buses and blew themselves up. Whose brothers or cousins might explode tomorrow at the mall, the movies, the grocery store. Fifty killed and scores wounded, in two minutes. So. No passage between the West Bank and Israel. No movement among the towns and villages of the West Bank. Even the most urgent cases would be judged harshly today.

The stone throwers were close. Doron called in to headquarters. There was trouble at several of the other crossings. It sounded chaotic over the phone line. He heard other phones ringing and the sound of someone cursing loudly. He hung up and had his men advance a few more meters in front of the watchtower, hoping they would look tough and determined, even though right now he had only seven men on shift, if you didn't count the other two he had diverted to watch the dry, deserted wadi a hundred meters away. Sometimes enterprising Palestinians would walk or drive around the checkpoint through the dry riverbed behind it. The Israelis knew about these violators, but usually ignored them. Today, the wadi was off-limits. Nine men total, a reasonable number. The checkpoints were not supposed to be war zones.

Zvili came up to him. It amazed him that checkpoint duty always meant working with guys like Zvili.

“They're closing in,” Zvili said. He sounded excited.

“They are far away,” Doron said.

“We might have to begin firing,” Zvili said. He knew that Doron shied away from this.

“I don't think so, not yet.” Doron looked at Zvili. The little man had a hard look on his face, like a gargoyle. These little guys shocked Doron with their toughness. They were ready for anything. Unlike Doron.

“Well, what do
suggest?” Zvili asked him.

“Nothing,” Doron said. “Nothing yet.”

“So we're just going to sit here like target practice?” Zvili spat on the ground. He was a gremlin, but he was scared. Doron could see it in his posturing.

“No, we're just going to sit here like grown-ups until we see what's developing,” Doron said to him. His tone was condescending, the vocal equivalent of patting Zvili on the head. “For all we know, this is business as usual, but a little more intense. Anyway, they're still too far away to hurt us.”

Doron prided himself on his new maturity. He was an old hand, temperate and calm, having found himself—sometime after his twenty-eighth birthday—suddenly quite able to distinguish between a problem and a crisis. Was it a run-of-the-mill melee, or “a situation”? Making that judgment was the essence of Israeli military professionalism. Doron checked the time and calculated how long it would be until nightfall. Even the most violent crowds tended to disperse at sunset. It was a matter of keeping the boys at bay until the earth's rotation came into line with your military strategy. It would be almost an hour, not soon enough. He noticed the dust rising. It made his eyes itch. He sniffed at the air. He listened. A car alarm was going off. From this distance, about a hundred meters, he could only make out beetled brows, and kerchiefs around noses and mouths. It always looked in photographs as if they were seeking anonymity, but in fact it was protection against the gas. The gas slowed them down—it prolonged the time between the hurling of the rock that smashed a soldier's cheek, and the shooting that would repel the stone throwers. That was the only use for the gas, as far as Doron could see. It never really put an end to things.

BOOK: Martyrs’ Crossing
11.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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