1. Jalia Suleiman a-Shtayeh
August 20, 2006 started out like any Sunday. For most people in the West Bank, Sunday is simply a work day, the first of the week. For Jalia Suleiman a-Shtayeh it is the hardest day. If she can get through it, she can breathe easy. After a long Saturday with her sons at home, it was Sunday, four a.m., and she sent them off. Two hours later she got a phone call. It was too soon to bode well.
To judge from the lines of her face, Jalia Suleiman a-Shtayeh must be around 50. In the Israeli hospital where we met, she preferred to talk as little as possible about herself. She kept trying to reconstruct for me what happened that Sunday morning. The phone call had come from her brother-in-law. He was calling from the checkpoint, and he told her that both her sons had been lightly wounded. At Rafedia Hospital in Nablus she found the younger son, Kayis, 25, who had taken a bullet in the leg while trying to get around the checkpoint on his way to Israel. Under the circumstances, you could almost say he’d been lucky. Though wounded, he could still call his brother Burhan and ask for help. Burhan, 26, was near enough to see it happen. As to what happened to Burhan, there were terrible rumors. It was said he’d been wounded in all parts of his body. Rumors are the only things that move at all easily in Nablus, a city under lock and key, where imagination swallows reality. Kayis could only report to his mother about the last phone conversation at the checkpoint. That was the last he knew of his brother. In any case, he was always careful about what he told her. Ever since she was widowed, he prefers to keep bad news from her for her health’s sake. Before he was shot, when he was living as an illegal sojourner in Israel, he never told her how he lived during the week. As far as she knew, he spent the week in a decent place, and from his point of view, it was better that she thought so. He slept, in fact, with hundreds like himself, underground in an unfinished, abandoned shopping mall. The bits and pieces she heard from the other workers were not enough to give her the full picture.
Jalia Suleiman a-Shtayeh left her younger son in Nablus and went to search for the older, retracing his journey to the first checkpoint, Hawara. It was just a few hours since the incident, but no blood was to be seen. The Occupation cleans up quickly. It cleans up blood and conscience. It likes to snap back quickly and cleanly into its accustomed bureaucracy, the dry official words. A Palestinian left wounded too long at a checkpoint is potential for trouble.
Jalia Suleiman a-Shtayeh traced Burhan to Beilinson, an Israeli hospital. He was sprawled on a bed and surrounded by soldiers. They let her have half an hour with him. Then they sent her back to Hawara to get an entry permit. Since that day, for more than a month now, Jalia Suleiman a-Shtayeh is an illegal sojourner at Beilinson. She has the same status now as her sons. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor beside Burhan. She doesn’t dare go home for fear that she won’t make it back to take care of her son. Without her he is lost in the hospital, an invisible patient. There is no one who will be there when needed to arrange the pillow beneath his wounded leg or to help him move between bed and chair. There is no one who will take responsibility for him. In just letting him lie there, after all—not to mention his mother beside him—the State of Israel is doing them a favor.
2. Burhan Hani a-Shtayeh
August 20, 2006 started out like any Sunday. Around four a.m. the Shtayeh brothers set out from their home in Salem, a village next to Nablus, toward the checkpoint. Shortly before it their ways parted. Burhan, a taxi driver, waited in line. He has a permanent route from Nablus to Jericho and back. It was a very popular route before the Intifada. Most people used to continue from Jericho over to Jordan. Since the Intifada, the number of passengers has dwindled. Most people don’t dare to leave the West Bank for fear that they won’t be able to return. As for Jericho itself, it’s no longer the Palestinian resort town that it was. It is surrounded today by a mound of dirt and a trench.
Unlike Burhan, Kayis follows no regular route. The route he must take in order to reach work in Israel does not allow for any routine, unless he chooses to try his luck and wait in line at the checkpoints. During the long hours of waiting, the dimension of time disappears. Only some extraordinary event, like the volley of shots fired Sunday morning, August 20, manages to stir those waiting into wakefulness. At an early hour, a van climbed the hill just west of Hawara Checkpoint. The driver was trying to evade it. According to a recent IDF order, men younger than 25 are forbidden to leave Nablus. In the van sat fourteen workers, all young, Kayis among them. The bypass route is a stone’s throw from the checkpoint, but at Hawara, for the most part, where time has no importance, space doesn’t much matter either, nor what moves between them. Burhan saw soldiers in a jeep firing at the van and phoned his brother, who managed to tell him he was hit. Burhan left the line and ran toward the van, which by this time was full of bullet holes. To the soldiers in the jeep, apparently, the running Palestinian appeared more dangerous than fourteen young men stuck in a van. One soldier yelled to Burhan to get back in line, while another ordered him to approach for inspection. Burhan stopped in his tracks and raised his hands. For a moment everything stood still. Then, without warning, shots were fired. Seven bullets sliced through his right leg and shattered the bone. Another hit his left thigh. Burhan has no regrets about running toward his brother and does not intend to lodge a complaint. He just wants Israel to give him his right leg back.
3. Kayis and Jalal
August 20, 2006 started out like any Sunday. Jalal Husam Salim Auda, 24 years old, decided to leave home early to make up for the fact that he’d stayed through Saturday night, instead of heading for Israel, as most workers do, under cover of darkness. The ride from Dir Hatab to the checkpoint is short and secure. Ten minutes of calm. He waited patiently in line, hoping he might be lucky and the soldier would be a left-winger and let him pass, somebody with a conscience who believes in going to the checkpoint, rather than refusing, in order to make sure that Palestinians aren’t abused. Maybe the guy with the conscience was there, maybe not. In any case they did not abuse Jalal. They simply didn’t let him cross, because of the new order that forbids men under 25 from leaving Nablus without a special permit from the Liaison Office.
Rejection at the checkpoint can be a good excuse to return home, blaming the Occupation. But Jalal wasn’t looking for anyone to blame. He was looking for work. Nine people were waiting at home for the cash he could earn in Israel. The family depended on it for food, clothing, transportation, studies, and the wedding of his older brother (which has since been cancelled). For some years now Jalal has been setting out alone toward Israel. He has slept under trees or in abandoned buildings with hundred of others, Kayis among them. This is the situation of many in the villages of Dir Hatab and Salem whom Israeli regulations have turned into illegal workers. They live in the shadow of Occupation, hoping not to be caught and sent back. For Jalal and Kayis, this was the situation, and they had to get what they could out of it. Despite the miserable physical conditions they live in while in Israel, they at least feel relatively free there. As long as you aren’t caught, you don’t have the soldiers standing over you there. Once you’re in, you don’t have checkpoints to deal with. You screw the system that screws your family. You’re free to sell your labor power. All this, of course, on condition that there’s work to be had.
After being spurned at the checkpoint, Jalal and Kayis preferred two minutes in the van over a long roundabout hike. The last van in line was already full. Another two toiled toward the hill, jam-packed with young men like themselves, friends they would meet in Israel or at the next checkpoint. Five shekels apiece for a two-minute ride. Ten seats, fourteen passengers. That made seventy shekels—not bad for a driver willing to take the risk.
Kayis took the only remaining free seat in the back on the right side. Jalal sat on his lap. The economic distress of the Territories has created a sense of shared destiny among Palestinian workers. The rule is: you don’t leave workers behind, because everyone has the right to earn bread.
The workers took a last drag on their cigarettes, slammed the door shut and joined the line of vans churning toward the hill. Not a minute had passed when an IDF jeep had spotted their van from the checkpoint. It drove up and blocked the way. The van driver got flustered and made a quick U-turn, hoping to escape back to Nablus. From the jeep came burst of fire, and the van stopped. Jalal heard the shots. When he felt them hitting the van, he lowered his head between his knees. A bullet went in through his neck and came out of his head. Jalal Husam Salim Auda, a son of Dir Hatab, died at Hawara Checkpoint in the midst of his struggle for work.