January 24, 2008

Making It Through Without Stopping



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Yesterday, in my haste to address the breach of the wall in Ramallah, I posted the top photo, above.  I accompanied it with a comment from a well meaning reader likening the scene to the fall of the Berlin wall.

Well, not long into the comment thread, it was pointed out — with complete justification — that this analogy, relative to the immediate Israeli/Palestinian situation, was as much uncomplicated as it was random.  On reflection, I could see how my impulsivity (and attraction to the analogy) had been motivated by the sudden release of pressure following Israel’s five-day total blockade of Gaza.

From that point, taking the opportunity to look further, what stood out was the documentation of a rare collective moment.  No, the world didn’t change, or anything even close.  But for an afternoon, at least, a mass group of Gazians were able to suddenly pass freely — to escape, to run the checkpoint — without repercussion.

What the image also caused, in my case, was to remind me of a shot I saw about two weeks ago.  Fixed in my mind was a scene from January 10th involving George Bush’s visit to the West Bank.  That morning, because of heavy fog, “43” was forced to forsake his helicopter and travel by ground, via motorcade.  Although the press was highly tamped down throughout Dubya’s entire Middle East trip, the NYT managed to publish the photo above — taken by a photographer for European Press Photo Agency — of the motorcade passing unhindered through an Israeli checkpoint.

It was the catharsis in the top image that allowed me to more finely appreciate the cutting nature of the bottom one.

Although completely invisible to the West, this scene turned into a thoroughly painful and controversial one for the Palestinians.  The reason, not surprisingly, involved what that insensitive bumbler had to say during his appearance with Abbas after his chain of SUV’s finally reached Ramallah.

With that half-goofy, half-cavalier tone he is famous for, Bush gave a one-sided answer, with a quip on the end:

“He’s asking me about the checkpoints I drove through and my impression about what it was like to drive through checkpoints. I can understand why the Palestinians are frustrated driving through checkpoints. I can also understand that until confidence is gained on both sides, why the Israelis would want there to be a sense of security. In other words, they don’t want a state on their border from which attacks would be launched. I can understand that. Any reasonable person can understand that. Why would you work to have a state on your border if you weren’t confident they’d be a partner in peace?

And so checkpoints create frustrations for people. They create a sense of security for Israel; they create massive frustrations for the Palestinians. You’ll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped. (Laughter.) But I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person.”

To get the fuller dimension of Bush’s tone that day (a day, by the way, also marked by several Israeli air strikes on Gaza), you can watch the al-Jazeera clip of the event, which includes a summary report on what life is like having to navigate through a daily, interminable hell of fixed checkpoints and surprise checkpoints, interspersed with suddenly-closed checkpoints.

If the President, however, isn’t sure whether free passage happens to “the average person” around those parts, we have yesterday’s photos to prove it — at least once.

(One other aspect about the second photo:  You might notice the giant posters on the wall up the street on the left.  These are part of an art project by a group called Face2Face.  These posters, placed in various locations on both sides of the Israeli wall, are meant as a peace gesture, documenting the paired, and photographically exaggerated faces of Israelis and Palestinians, each sharing the same vocation.  I applaud the spirit of the project, even if I’m not sure — especially for Palestinians — whether the images don’t feel a little mocking.  …In this case, however, what’s more relevant is whether Bush noticed them or not.  If he did, though, I’m certain he saw no irony at all.  Rather, I’m sure they seemed light and funny, just like the Palestinian’s commute.)

Al Jazeera analyses Bush’s checkpoint gaffe – 10 Jan 08 (via YouTube.  Start at the 2:40 mark and watch through 7:55)

Mr. Bush’s trip to Ramallah (Electronic Intifada)

As Bush Sows, So Hamas Reaps? (Helena Cobban on the Bush trip)

This Week In Palestine – week 3 2008 (violence report – International Middle East Media Center)

Face2Face trailer (video – daily motion)

Face2Face project (website)

Palestinians Topple Gaza Wall and Cross to Egypt (NYT)

Gazans Cross Border Wall (NYT slide show)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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