Maybe it’s because I am reading Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Maybe it’s because I have a beautiful tapestry of Trayvon Martin hanging in my home. Maybe it’s because the majority of the reading I’ve done while I’m here has been about racism.
When I saw the young man stopped at the Ibrahimi Mosque checkpoint, gray sweat suit, hood up, I just kept thinking of Trayvon, the violence of racism - and close relative, Islamophobia - and its pervasiveness in the U.S. and in Israel/Palestine.
Shortly after they took his ID, they searched Gray Hoodie’s small black plastic bag, which likely had food from the souk he’d just come from. They made him wait a half hour before they gave his ID back.
We were in the area monitoring as people, mostly men, were going to the Ibrahimi Mosque for Friday prayers. Members of other monitoring organizations were at the checkpoints closest to the mosque, so we went to monitor two other checkpoints nearby.
Just around the corner from the mosque area, three soldiers were stationed. As we watched, they stopped every third or fourth young Palestinian man. The routine went something like this:
1. Stop the young man or men.
2. Ask for ID.
3. Motion for him to throw ID on the ground when he tries to hand it to you.
4. Pick up ID and briefly glance at ID or stare at it and ask other soldiers to also look.
5. Motion for him to lift his shirt and turn around.
(Maybe at this point, hand back the ID and let him go. Or…)
6. Motion for him to lift his pant legs. If he has high socks on, motion for him to lower the socks.
(Maybe at this point, hand back the ID and let him go. Or…)
7. Make him turn to the wall, spread arms and legs; thoroughly pat his body down.
8. Give him his ID back and let him go.
Between the farthest place we were monitoring and the mosque, there are four checkpoints. To walk from the first to the last takes no more than four minutes, and probably more like two and a half or three. IF the soldiers don’t stop you.
If they stop you, the walk could take ten minutes. Or 20. Or 40. Simply to attend Friday prayers. If you are stopped multiple times, you may well miss the prayers.
We saw one young man stopped at the farthest checkpoint. They held his ID for at least 10 minutes (they stopped him before we arrived, but we witnessed him waiting 10 minutes before he got his ID back). When they let him go, we followed him. A minute later he was stopped at the next point where the three soldiers stood; thankfully they stopped him only briefly. We didn’t follow to see if he was stopped a third or fourth time.
As prayers were ending, we went back to the main mosque area. That was when the Israeli border police stopped Gray Hoodie.
Why did they stop him? Because they can. Because he’s a young male Palestinian, which seems to mean, as it does for young black men in the U.S., that he’s worthy of suspicion. Gray Hoodie, like all those other young Palestinian men we saw, was doing nothing more than walking through a place where there happened to be checkpoints.
Personally, I don’t like walking through the checkpoints. I’ve never been subject to a body search or a bag search at a checkpoint and I still don’t like walking through. I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through every day, or multiple times a day, knowing that I may have to take off a belt, lift my shirt, pull up my pants legs, or have someone feel my body up and down. Knowing that I may be insulted or yelled at or detained or arrested because...
Recently, as some young women have tried to carry out knife attacks (and others have been shot dead for alleged intent to do so), young women have also been subject to search. An American who was in Hebron doing research told me a story about her female translator and the Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint going into her village who made her lift her shirt up higher and higher until it was up over her chest. They were male soldiers.
For any woman, this would be a demoralizing experience. For a conservative Muslim woman who keeps her body well-covered, even more humiliating. She didn’t file a complaint about it for fear that Israeli forces would make her family pay for it.
They didn’t body search Gray Hoodie, which, I guess, was a good thing.
After the Israeli soldiers took his ID, he stood waiting to get it back. Occasionally, he said something to the soldiers and, when they didn’t return his ID, went back to waiting. He smoked a cigarette. Some friends stopped to talk to him.
Knowing that our own presence in the area is precarious – we are sometimes allowed and sometimes not - we did not try to intervene, since the Israeli border police were not physically or verbally aggressive with Gray Hoodie. However, their assertion of power, we-can-keep-you-here-as-long-as-we-want, is its own form of more subtle aggression, the slow wearing down of a soul.
In Stand Your Ground, Kelly Brown Douglas uses Michel Foucault’s analysis of power to talk about the deep-rooted racism in the U.S.:
Foucault argues that unjust social relationality is not effectively sustained solely, if at all, through the use of brute force. He stresses that power, particularly inequitable power, is not coercive or even repressive. Power’s productive character begins with a “will to knowledge.” That is power itself generates the kind of knowledge it needs to be sustained. It enlists various communities of authority, such as scientific and religious communities to provide the knowledge base to legitimize the social, political, and institutional constructs of power itself.
The ”will to knowledge” here is that this land belongs to Israelis, or more broadly, to Jews. In Hebron, home of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, that story is particularly potent (see Genesis 23 for a little more insight). Israelis who use this narrative refer to Palestine as Judea and Samaria. More than once in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israelis have told me, “Welcome to Israel,” though no other country in the world recognizes the OPT as part of Israel.
Though not all Israelis say it, Power here says that only Jews belong. Before Israel became a country, as the narrative goes, Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” This phrase denies the presence of the people who lived here. When Israel was created, over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. Hardly “a land without a people.” But if one believes that this land is only for Jews, then that means that non-Jews, aka Palestinians, are unwelcome (to put it nicely) and the only right thing to do is to get rid of them.
Thus, as threats to Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, as threats to its claim on land that the State is occupying, young Palestinian men and boys going to the mosque, to school, to anywhere, are dangerous.
Gray Hoodie is dangerous.
Thankfully, Gray Hoodie walked away unharmed, at least in the physical sense. Who knows what a pattern of being stopped and checked, stopped and checked, over and over (because this is the norm) does to one’s psyche.
When I return home and look at my beautiful tapestry, I will no longer see only Trayvon Martin. I will also see the young man at the mosque and be reminded of the shared struggles that people of color in the U.S. and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine endure. And I will work to amplify the voices, the stories, the inherent dignity of both.