Middle East — 21 May 2005

The ride to Jerusalem, through the alarmingly named ‘Valley of Fire’, in a shared taxi with six other passengers, might well turn out to be interesting. The hills above the Valley of Fire, so named perhaps because of its low altitude and truly hot aridity during summer, looked now more like the green hills of Derbyshire in England sporting impressive craggy outposts amidst a sea of spring greenery.

The precipitous road that snaked its way down into the depths of the valley before lurching its tightly packed wayfarers upwards again provided the only hint of a hell that might be worthy of the Valley’s ominous name. This is the route travelled by Palestinians from the south, hopeful of a glimpse of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, which delivers them, short of their aspirations, ultimately to a forbidding thirty foot high wall of concrete that slices through the outskirts of the city; claimed by Israelis and Palestinians alike as their capital.

Between the summer hell of the valley and the year long hell of the wall lies, however, another adversity: the ‘container’. Driving up to it our car slows to a halt behind a queue of other taxis that may clear the container in minutes or hours: a known unknown as they say in some corners of the world!

Today’s unknown turned out to be a young Palestinian woman, sitting forlornly on a low concrete barricade. Her presence seemed a strange contradiction for she might have been sitting for the sheer enjoyment of the warm spring-time sun, were it not for the well armed Israeli soldiers around her at the entrance to the checkpoint known as the container. As my car crept in short steps towards the front of the queue I studied the curious scene ahead for clues, hoping to be able to ascribe some meaning to the woman’s presence. The soldiers paid her no attention as she sat close by them, so they could not have perceived her as a security threat, but surely she would not, of her own volition, have chosen such an inhospitable place to sit? The despondent look upon her face as car after car passed her by was proof that she was not there of her own free will; I searched for the tell tale line of Palestinian men, with whom she most likely had been travelling in a shared public taxi just like mine, standing facing one of the walls, hitherto hidden from view. It would not be unusual to find men forced to stand in silence under blazing sun or freezing rain for an hour or more as punishment for some minor infringement of Israel’s restrictive travel regulations, and in such a case the solitary object of my curiosity may have been simply waiting for the soldiers to release her husband. There was no husband, however, and no line of men to validate my hypothesis.

I then saw another woman, quite different from the first; self assured and sitting, khaki clad legs stretched out in front of her, automatic rifle lazily draped across her lap making eye contact with my taxi driver as his turn for inspection finally came. ‘Do you have any women in there?’ she asked with a mischievous grin, while scanning the occupants of our car to verify for herself the negative answer given by the driver. ‘That’s OK then’ she said; giving all her attention now to the car behind us as she waved us, nonchalantly, through the checkpoint with a rapid flapping of her hand. The randomness with which Israel’s security seems to be maintained is bizarre; today it seems that Palestinian women, but not men, are the threat. I have since adopted the theory that the soldiers on each watch, while undoubtedly having some specific orders from their officers, are free to select categories of people or vehicle randomly for harassment and that they amuse themselves by competing with each other to see who can come up with the most inane categories: bald men, men with beards and today women.

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