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In Memoriam R.

He was nineteen then, and had just begun work in the Palestinian police force, and was terribly proud. And I wondered why guys just love uniforms and guns so much, and was also a bit saddened because I wanted at least the victims - even just because they are victims of gun-bearing uniform-wearers - to be different, but I was also glad for him that he finally had a job and congratulated him, and meant it.

At that time Qalandiya Checkpoint was filthier than it is now, and less built-up, and there were no loudspeakers or clearly demarcated tracks or fences and green and red lights that go on and off intermittently, and the Israeli soldiers were not behind reinforced glass windows. And although, just as they do now, orders were arbitrary and kept changing as a rule so that one would not be able to get used to anything, even to things getting worse, still one could say in hindsight that as they were, they were better back then even though at the time it didn’t seem things could get any worse than they were. Perhaps because there was more laughter and because the improvised and neglected nature of the checkpoint held some illusion that it was not meant to stay there forever.

And first and foremost, of course, because back then Palestinians could at least theoretically sometimes get across the checkpoint, even at the price of being humiliated, and not just the Jerusalemites among them. Differently from the present, now that no one except Jerusalem residents can get through, except those whose “right” the Security Services have cleared and approved. And even they are treated by the soldiers like cattle, screamed at and scolded while this or the other track is closed so that the victims can scurry from to and fro like animals in a cage, because for the various Occupation forces a Palestinian is after all a Palestinian, regardless of the color of his ID, of his identity.

Because it just could not be any different. Because all of these soldiers have already crossed a moral line by the mere fact that they are standing there at the checkpoint, obeying and maintaining and carrying out racist apartheid laws, and all the rest of their harassment is just an extension of the inherent. Otherwise, they would simply not be there.

I used to go to Qalandiya Checkpoint back then, just as I go there nowadays, with the ease of those who are over-privileged there and anywhere else between the (Jordan) river and the (Mediterranean) sea, namely anyone not Palestinian, be their origin what it may.
I like going there also because of the people I have gotten to know over the years and am happy to meet.
As well as to see and know and then tell about it outside. Tell about it – also – to people who do not want to know and to hear.
Because of my inherent over-privilege I have an obligation, or so I feel at least.
Anyway, back then, in those days when it seemed that nothing could be worse,
I met him, R.

R.’s house was in A-Ram where he lived with his parents and younger brothers and sisters, but his work in the Palestinian police was in Ramallah and he had to cross the checkpoint on his way home. A checkpoint located between one part of his life and the other. And there was that day when he was waiting in line and we were chatting and laughing, because the line was long and he was young and optimistic and without hate, only wondering why they were like that, those soldiers his age, with whom he so very much wanted to make friends, and whom he forgave, and again and again he recoiled from their tough faces, yelling ‘get back!’ or ‘go away!’, or some other checkpoint words which were the only words they could utter in Arabic, except - of course – for ‘hand over your ID’ and ‘the checkpoint is closed!’, words they were taught, I think, just as they were taught to fire a rifle, and all the other things that soldiers are taught.

Anyway, at some point I must have walked elsewhere, while he was still standing in line, and didn’t notice what was going on with him. And then I suddenly saw him walking back, away from the checkpoint, his face fallen, and he said: “I wasn’t allowed through”. I asked, “Why not?” Not because there is any reason, no way is there a reason with any measure of justice or logic, for there is no logical or just reason to cut people’s lives in half and condition their passage from one part to another.
And also because the lack of reason – even in the sense of the Occupation – is an end in itself, just as the words on the plaque at the headquarters of the former head of the civil administration, Ilan Paz, said it, the motto for his soldiers: “The Palestinians must be held in a state of constant uncertainty”.
So, not that I thought there was any reason in the world that could justify why R. is not allowed to go home to the other side of the checkpoint at the end of a workday. But I asked, in order to say something, In order to hear what they had chosen to tell him.
“The soldier said that only people working in the Palestinian police are allowed to pass, and I told him I am in the Palestinian police, and he didn’t believe me”, he said, disappointed. And I didn’t say anything, for there is nothing to say, and after a few moments more we parted ways. And he didn’t look too depressed. Because this was so usual. And had happened so many times. And I knew that he would proceed through the quarry. Or at least try. Because he had to get back home somehow, after all.
And the wall was not yet built back then, and although it was dangerous, it was rather easy to try and get through, and I was hoping that he’d be lucky and no soldiers would be there waiting to catch the dozens of rejects who the soldiers knew would try to get through there, because they had no choice, because their home was on the other side of the checkpoint.

And so several days went by and every now and then I wondered whether he had managed to get through, and I wasn’t too worried, because he was nineteen, and even if he hadn’t managed, he had family in Ramallah and could sleep over.

And then that Wednesday. I remember it was a Wednesday although it’s been a few years since then, perhaps because everything that day was etched, singed and hard.
I was at Qalandiya Checkpoint again and from afar I noticed R. who waved at me, and was also waving something that looked like a sheet of paper, and he ran towards me, and I saw he was in a good mood and I smiled. He reached me, asked how I was, and said “look”, and was beaming, because he had a printed certificate confirming that he was a member of the Palestinian police. With his picture. A handsome nineteen-year old, smiling.
Because he is young, and he is in the police force, and that’s something to be proud of.
And because, so he thought, now he could get through without any trouble.
And I already had this gut feeling and I cringed but said nothing. And we talked on a bit, and then R. stood in line. And I got closer. Maybe I foresaw what actually did take place. It took a long time, it always does, and finally he got to the head of the line, and handed the soldier his certificate confirming that he belongs to the Palestine police, smiling to the soldier, to the Jewish youngster his age whom he didn’t hate, because he is young and in uniform like him, and he understands him, or so it seemed.
The soldier looked amazed at the certificate that R. handed him. With a look of slight disgust that turned into light derision he said flatly, “get back”. And R. didn’t move, he just couldn’t believe it. And then the nineteen-year old Jewish youngster with his uniform and rifle raised his voice and said, “Get back, I told you. Get back”.
And I saw R. cave in at once, like a tower of cards collapsing, turned around and left, bent over in spite of his youth, walking slowly, his eyes quenched, turned in and lost. He passed by me without seeing me, and I said to him, “R.”, and he stopped, looked up at me with his beautiful soft eyes, under his thick lashes. Right at that heartrending point between the final moment of childhood and the start of adulthood, in this captivating wordlessness, and didn’t say a thing, nor did I, because everything was obvious.

After all when the soldier had told him before - that same soldier who now drove him away, or perhaps it was another – that only Palestinian police gets through, in all likelihood he had made up that instruction on the spot just to drive the fellow away, to humiliate him, and maybe there was such an instruction, indeed, and even if it was issued officially, the point was the same: to be arbitrary and detached and confusing, and leave the Palestinians in a state of constant uncertainty as that senior commander had once put it, and could have been that order as well as any other.

And I knew again that he would probably be able to get through to A-Ram, but I also saw, even though I didn’t want to see it, that something momentous had happened.
Something momentous had happened in the life of young R.
Not because there was anything exceptional in this event, the likes of which had already happened before. But I saw that for him this event suddenly marked everything anew.

There are such moments.

For all of us. Moments when even if that which happens is just like whatever happened often before, still something happens as a result which is different. Just as this small instance, the extra one, in spite of its resemblance to others before, suddenly signifies and defines everything anew.
In love, there’s that moment in which nothing happened that hadn’t happened before, but after it suddenly you’re no longer placed softly in the eyes of the beloved, and that’s that. And like other crossroads in life where there is that moment when suddenly the system can no longer contain something although it could before, and the irreversible happens, the point of no return is crossed.
And this is what happened to R. that day, I saw it.

I never saw him again after that.
Occasionally I thought about him. And then I didn’t and I wasn’t really worried. Or I didn’t want to worry. And sometimes I worried. And the years passed, and my memory of him got swallowed up in the whirl of others, and at some point I stopped thinking about him altogether.

Then a few weeks ago while I was at the Qalandiya Checkpoint and just began to walk towards the refugee camp because I had made a date to see a friend of mine there, I suddenly noticed a young man and thought to myself, Wow, that’s R.! and I was so glad, and wanted to run to him, and then I thought it actually couldn’t be R. because R. must be older than this fellow now, who looks just like R. did back then. Or maybe it’s his brother, I thought, and again I was glad because I meant to ask him about R. whose memory flooded me again, and as I took a while to deliberate whether to ask or not, and whether this could be R.’s brother or not, the young man vanished.

At home that evening I got online and looked for R.’s name which I don’t fully mention here on purpose, even though now perhaps it’s possible.
I read that Israeli undercover agents went into a cafe in Ramallah a few years ago and murdered a wanted man who had been on the list for three years. I also read that Israel had announced that he’d belonged to a terrorist ring that meant to blow itself up in Jerusalem, and that this wanted man was R.

The first – or nearly first – thing I thought was that I don’t believe them. Israel’s spokesmen. I don’t believe he wanted to blow himself up and kill and die. Because it’s R. And because they distort everything. And because what they say always serves the system, usually warped and false and purposeful, and it simply cannot be, and that’s that.
But I also knew that whether Israel sent its skilled murderers to a cafe in Ramallah to shoot an occasional Palestinian, free game that happened to be R., or because they claim he was about to go blow himself up in Jerusalem and murder others who hadn’t necessarily done him any harm, just because they happen to bear the same identity as others that had harmed him, it’s not true that what they are saying is impossible.

And then I thought again. God. He’s dead. He was alive and now he’s dead. R. is dead. And I recalled his beaming, proud, happy young face.
And I also tried to recall the faces of those soldiers back then, the guy who told R. that only the Palestinian police gets through that day, only to humiliate him or because of blind obedience to cruel arbitrary orders which he naturally followed, or the one who told him, after seeing his police service certificate, ‘get back’, and I couldn’t recall them. Nor was I sure whether these were two different soldiers or the same one.

And all I want is to drip into the past, and peel away time, and tell that young Israeli soldier, the guy with his gear and gun and insolent smile, who today is already in his mid-twenties, it’s your fault.
Not the Occupation, not the State, not your parents who raised you to want and desire and go and be proud of that wrong thing, joining the army, no matter what the army does, as if this were the nature of things.
You are to blame for R.’s death.
You, the soldier whose name I don’t know, whose looks I cannot recall, you are the guilty one.
You are to blame for R. having lived the way he did, he and his family, trampled and caged and humiliated and deprived of human rights. You are to blame for the fact that at one certain moment something in his life had been cut and split, subsequent to which he died. Because of you. Murdered by the likes of you. And you are to blame for the possible death of those he may have intended to murder, and had he murdered them, they too would have been murdered by you.
You, the soldier from back then, you and only you are to blame.

But I know that even if by mere chance that soldier would read my words, he would probably not even remember or realize that he was the one.
He wouldn’t remember that he was the soldier who had once told one Palestinian that ‘today only Palestinian police get through the checkpoint’, or said ‘get back’ some days later, because what he did was so very routine and normal and unexceptional, and that was what he had been sent to do there.
To harass.
Just like everyone else.


Aya Kaniuk. Translated by Tal Haran
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