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Equality in action: A conversation at the checkpoint

After we finished our visit to the tense West Bank city of Hebron, we made our way to Sderot, an Israeli town on the Gaza border. With me was Shira Nesher, an Israeli peace activist who used to be a guide in the Israeli IDF, during her military service. Both of us were leading a group of 36 American students and professors. The group was here to study conflict and religion and decided to do it through the dual narrative approach, which I developed with my colleagues.

Approaching the checkpoint of Tarqumia, we didn’t expect any special incidents. Our group has passed through multiple checkpoints and being an American tour group, we had no problems. Except at Tarqumia, the checkpoint that serves as the main passage for products from Israel to the West Bank.

Our bus driver, a Jerusalemite Palestinian, was asked to park the bus and get off for extra checks. The extra checks were similar to an airport security check, which tour bus drivers don’t normally undergo. Soon after, as the only other Palestinian on the bus, I was asked to join the bus driver.

Shira, our Israeli guide, asked the soldiers about the details and reasoning behind this selective treatment. The following conversation then took place between the checkpoint head of security and Shira Nesher:

Security: We need to check Aziz and the driver. Both of you, take off  your shoes, jackets, belts, bring your bags…etc

Shira: Fine. Starts taking off her shoes and belt

Security: What do you think you are doing?

Shira: I am going through the same security checks they are going through. Is there a problem with that?

Security: What reality are you living in? You wouldn’t have done this if you were in a New York airport and the security pulled a Muslim guy in front of you for extra checking, would you?

Shira: My reality is different than your reality. These are not strangers in the airport. They are my coworkers. I didn’t ask you not to check them; I will not interfere with your work.  However, you should check me too. I don’t accept you racially profiling my colleagues. We are one team, we spend 15 hours together every day, we work together, eat together and at checkpoints we should be treated similarly. We are equal in everything we do, why not here?

Shira then underwent the same security checks that me and the bus driver had to undergo. What she did was a brilliant way to force the security officer to reconsider his actions.

She could have yelled at him and pilled tons of accusations that would have made him angrier, but she chose a different path. She decided to force him to think about the objectives and practices of his work. Why did he racially profile the Palestinians? She showed him that she considers herself equal to the Palestinians in every way, and that there is no difference between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one can lose sight of what this struggle boils down to. It is not about what solution will work at the end – one state, two states or a bi-national state. Eventually, one of these options will be implemented. But what’s more important is the relational aspect of any solution. All these potential solutions will fail if they are not built on the notion of equality and human rights.

Shira Nesher demonstrated a new way to struggle for justice, human rights and equality. She didn’t just demand better treatment of Palestinians from afar, which is an easy thing to do. Preaching ethics and morality to others is not costly. When Shira couldn’t guarantee that her Palestinian colleagues would be treated equally, she gave up her privileges in a show of equality. That’s how this struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine can be won.

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    1. As one of the 36 Americans Aziz mentions, I witnessed this incident. Shira’s example was an inspiration to all of us, showing us how one can confront injustice in a nonviolent way, and how to bridge the gap between “us” and “them” that is often at the root of oppression.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Chsang


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    3. Elan Miller

      I’m right wing, but I fully support Shira here. The point undeniably valid. Just as importantly, it is well made. I think this is the way forward – not by being confrontational, but by exposing idiocy and mindless discrimination. That we can all agree on.

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    4. visitor

      Well, I agree that in an ideal world there wouldn’t be such checks… But I understand also that security concerns are very important, and one cannot always afford to not differentiate between people and take the risk to let an attack happen.

      So for sure the normality would be not to differentiate, but not to do it would leave a serious risk…Up to now only Palestinians have commited attacks against Israelis, and I have never heard of attacks made by Israelis against Israelis (this makes sense of course).

      I would also expect to be the only one to be checked when entering a Palestinian zone if I am the only Israeli, and I don’t think I would take offense in such a case…


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    5. aristeides

      And did the students and professors support Shira by insisting on going through the same security checks?

      Why not?

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    6. This article really brings out the humanity of the two peoples – Israelis and Palestinians – whose destiny is so closely linked. A solution to the conflict is a solution provided by positive interaction between both sides in common projects to achieve peace and understanding in an atmosphere of trust and forgiveness for the injustices that have occurred between both sides. There are negative forces coming from a right wing Israeli Coalition and Palestinian Islamist extremism. In this negative atmosphere, the challenges to achieve are even greater but not unachievable.

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    7. berl

      really great and inspiring

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    8. wonderweenie

      I watched a movie last night, a remake of the Diary of Anne Frank. I’m an American and I’d like to think I have an open mind. If the Nazi’s treated the Jews with such utter disdain and violence how come the Israeli’s do the same to the Palestinians most of whom are not violent. Please explain so I can understand.

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    9. sh

      Wonderful. That’s the way the struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine ***will*** be won.

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    10. Avi

      Very nice idea, but there IS a difference between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. None of the latter have tried to kill innocent Israeli civilians, and that’s what the checkpoint boils down to. It’s not there to make everyone’s journey a little longer and more annoying, it’s there to protect innocent civilians. And whilst I’m not in any way accusing Aziz of having any of those inclinations, racial profiling WORKS, and whether that may not be the PC thing to say today, it’s the truth.

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    11. Aaron

      I think the author and some of the commenters are seriously misunderstanding the causality here. This kind of thing won’t aid your struggle. If most Israelis were ready to act like this woman, then your struggle would *already* have been won, and there would *already* be no post-1967 occupation (or maybe even any post-1948 occupation).
      Israel is not the Soviet Union or Egypt. It’s not an authoritarian state suppressing the will of its people, where it’s a matter of bringing down an unrepresentative regime by acts of popular protest and solidarity like this one. The post-1967 occupation exists because a large majority of Israelis supports it. Do you think this woman’s actions are showing Israelis anything that they don’t know already?

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    12. AYLA

      thank you for the inspiring story and model. Avi–Jesus. Such a (american?) talking point response. They’re Mehdi (sp?) tourguides, leading a tour. For starters…

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    13. Steve

      This is cute, but pointless, and useless.

      Israel has security checks like this because non-Jewish, non-Israelis from outside of Israel spent many years trying to sneak into Israel to try to murder Jews.

      So they get treated differently than actual citizens of Israel.

      Living in some fantasy dreamworld that is totally cut off from reality makes for cute stories but does not address real life here on planet Earth.

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    14. @Steve,
      Just to be clear, being from Jerusalem both the driver and I had Israeli Identity cards and not Palestinian ones. Legally, we should have the same rights at a checkpoint. So the question here is do you think equality is subject to nationality.

      As for “security” or the “Holy Cow” do you understand that the driver and the guide have full access to everyone’s bag and items in the bus? So by checking only the two of us they didn’t achieve any security measures. They were making sure that we understand who is the boss here.

      I am amazed how the word “security” justifies anything without people being willing to take a closer look at what that even means.

      He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither. I truly believe in this statement. I assume this is where we disagree.

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    15. @Visitor
      You said
      “Up to now only Palestinians have commited attacks against Israelis, and I have never heard of attacks made by Israelis against Israelis (this makes sense of course).”

      Actually you are very wrong… Here are some examples:

      1- Prime Minister Rabin was murdered by a Jewish terrorist and not by a Palestinian.

      2- Just in the past few months they were attacks carried by Jewish settlers against the army and even against military bases.

      3- Israeli Jewish settlers attacking Palestinians or property in areas under Israeli control didn’t make the military check settlers when passing to these areas. There is no racial profiling when the perpetrator is Jewish. In the last few months many of these attacks have been recorded and the Israeli security openly admitted its inability to deal with it.

      I can write many more examples. but that’s not my point. Your post come across as a justification for discrimination.

      The idea that all terror attacks are carried by Muslims or by Palestinians have no merit and even the Israeli military would agree on this, unless you think burning mosques, murdering a prime minister, attacking a military bases and soldiers are not terrorism when carried out by Jews.

      You also said
      “I would also expect to be the only one to be checked when entering a Palestinian zone if I am the only Israeli, and I don’t think I would take offense in such a case…”

      I wouldn’t be. I would write a similar piece and would be happy to defend your right as well. I think it is sad that you are fine with racial profiling as a way of life.

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    16. @aristeides
      You said:

      “And did the students and professors support Shira by insisting on going through the same security checks?. Why not?”

      The answer is actually yes. You can read the comment of one of the students above.

      The tour leaders came down from the bus and joined Shira which was very impressive and bold of them considering that they have been in the country for only couple of days.

      I think they were able to understand that this was about racial profiling and not security which is important to distinguish.

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    17. Jane

      Thanks for your article Aziz… very inspiring. Reading some of the comments started to make me feel quite frustrated, so again I thank you for your responses to these.

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    18. The idea that this is all for ‘security’ takes a further beating when you look at what happens to people who are trying to leave the country. The Holocaust survivor and known solidarity activist Hedy Epstein was taken to a police station, interrogated over her Palestinian connections, and internally searched before she was allowed to board her flight back to America. How ‘security’ was served by inspecting the anus and vagina of a woman in her eighties whose only crime has been to visit Palestinians is beyond me. That was a clear and deliberate attempt at intimidation and humiliation.
      The Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zaid, who runs a charity for children with cerebral palsy in the West Bank (a condition that she has herself), was strip-searched at the airport on her way out. So far, so routine (for Palestinians). But Maysoon was also menstruating, and the security officials took away her sanitary pad. They refused to give her another. One was laughing. She was left to bleed all over herself for several hours before she could board her flight. She reported that the attendants who had to lift her out of her wheelchair and into her seat were looking at her with such disgust that she started to cry all over again. In the end they provided her with some of their own spare clothes to wear on the flight. The ‘security’ personnel also refused to allow Maysoon to have the carry-on bag containing her medication with her on the flight. She was allowed no hand luggage at all. She became very ill on the journey and said later that at one point she felt so unwell that she thought she wasn’t going to make it.
      Closer to home, my colleague’s nine-year-old daughter was forced to remove her trousers, at gunpoint, at our friendly local checkpoint. In front of the entire queue.
      I am glad that Shira took the stance that she did. This sort of horrible humiliation is happening all the time and real solidarity means being willing to share in it as far as you can. (I was going to write ‘pointless humiliation’, but I stopped – it has a point all right, just not the one that the policy’s defenders assign to it.)

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    19. aristeides

      Aziz – I’m very glad to learn this. As an American, I would have been ashamed of them, otherwise.

      The comment above only stated that the poster “witnessed” what happened, not that he joined in the protest.

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    20. Aaron

      There seem to be two different points being made here: (1) Ethnicity is not a useful factor in security profiling in Israel, and (2) using ethnicity as a factor is immoral even if it’s significantly useful for security. I’m wondering, are there people here who believe the second but not the first? That is, that taking ethnicity into account is significantly useful in preventing terrorism and is also immoral, and therefore should not be done? I don’t think I’ve seen anyone take that position, a fact which is interesting in itself.

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    21. Irene


      Thank you for this article–this was one of the more memorable moments of the trip for me. With so many ideologies flying around, I think that many of us left feeling dumbfounded and unsure how to wade through such a mass burden. Yet, in that moment, Shira laid bare something clear and tangible through the confusion.

      @Aristeides, we hadn’t been invited to leave the bus; only a few of our professors were asked to answer questions from the IDF. We couldn’t really see what was happening–Shira and Aziz explained it to us when they got back on the bus.

      Hypothetically, even had we all been pulled down to answer questions, I still don’t think it would have been appropriate for all of us to take our shoes off and stand with Mejed (sp?), Shira, and Aziz. You seem to have a construct that Americans are inherently ignorant and perhaps a bit idealist–well, I think most of the world feels the same way. If we all would have taken our shoes off in a euphoric protest for something that we didn’t fully understand, I think we may have reinforced for the IDF guards that we didn’t understand what we were getting into. Which on some level, is true.

      I am proud of Shira and the event profoundly impacted me, my colleagues, and hopefully the IDP guards, too. It didn’t need to play out any differently than it did. Shira held a mirror up to a soldier’s soul and humanized him, as well as Aziz and Mejed, and she didn’t need any help from 36 confused Americans to do so.

      Thanks again for the article, Aziz!

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    22. Allen Vander Meulen

      @Aristeides, actually – and as @Aziz Abu Sarah said above, some of our leaders did get down off the bus and take off their belts and shoes as well. However, it is also important to note that most of this went on inside of a small shed 30 or 40 feet away from the bus, out of the view of us, the passengers. In other words, the guards did not try to do this where it could be witnessed by the “American Tourists.”

      I think that this “hidden” aspect to this encounter is an excellent example of how injustice is often hidden from view. So I ask you, given the (literally and figuratively) rising walls between the Palestinian and Israeli inhabitants of the land, is not the space where injustice can occur growing? Shira’s presence of mind and courage helped bridge that divide for both the guards and for us, and I hope for you too.

      I learned a lot from Aziz, Shira and others on that trip, as some of my fellow travelers have also noted above. We are deeply grateful, and I think I can truthfully say that we all came out of that experience both saddened by the pain and injustice we saw in many places, but also deeply in love with the spirit and the people we encountered on both sides of the fence.

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