Humanity Make It through a Checkpoint?
“Means of Suppressing Demonstrations,” a short story by 25-year-old
Israeli author Shani Boianjiu that recently appeared in the fiction slot
of the prestigious New Yorker magazine, has garnered plenty of attention
in the few weeks since it was published.
Set at a checkpoint on a closed, deserted road in the West Bank, it
explores a range of questions about human dignity and the effects of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict on both the occupier and the occupied.
Commentators are sharply divided on what the author intends with this
Some see it as Israeli army propaganda while others think, as I do, that
it instead encourages the reader to reflect on the common humanity of
Palestinians and Israelis in the face of an Occupation that dehumanizes
Israeli-controlled checkpoints and road closures in the West Bank, and
their attendant restriction of movement for Palestinians, have long been
a source of tension. In 2011, the Israeli military reduced these
restrictions slightly, following elimination of some of the main
checkpoints in 2009. But Palestinians are still unable to move about the
West Bank freely. At the end of 2011, there were 102 checkpoints inside
the West Bank, 76 of them—like the one in this story—staffed around the
The story focuses on Lea, the commanding officer at the checkpoint. Lea
has “stopped feeling her own body.” She cannot remember what she wanted
from life before she became a soldier. She no longer “wants” anything.
The gnawing pointlessness of her duty has turned her into a ghost whose
existence does “not matter.”
The story becomes surreal when two Palestinians in their 30s and a
13-year-old boy arrive at the checkpoint with a sign demanding that the
road be reopened. Politely, they ask to be dispersed. Feeling desperate
and frustrated by the oppressive impact of the Occupation, they hope
that a clash with the army will yield at least some mention of their
action in the press. Lea finds herself strangely touched and acquiesces.
During each of the next few days, in response to their escalating
requests, she approves harsher “means of suppressing demonstrations”:
first a shock grenade, then tear gas, then rubber bullets. Lea decides
to draw the line when they ask the soldiers to shoot—and miss—with live
bullets. Before soldiers can shoot, demonstrators must show means and
intent to kill, she explains.
In response, the boy picks up a rock. One of the older Palestinians
tells him to drop it, and he does. Tomer, one of the soldiers, observes
that “technically” the boy can now be arrested. Lea knows the arrest of
children always gets press coverage. The boy pleads to be put in custody
and is arrested by Lea and Tomer.
The plot is absurd; but in being so, it reflects the absurdity of a
never-ending Occupation that can impel Palestinians to take drastic
steps in hopes of altering the horizon-less status quo and can drain
vibrant young women, like Lea, of feeling. How can it be that Israelis
and Palestinians find themselves—after 45 years—still trapped in an
Occupation that wears away at the humanity of both peoples?
“Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” ends with a tantalizing promise of
reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian
demonstrators had an immediate objective—media attention—and with Lea
and Tomer’s collaboration, it appears they’ve achieved it.
Lea, meanwhile, inadvertently touches the boy’s hand as she and Tomer
escort him away. She discovers through her fear that she can actually
feel again. Why is she afraid? Is it because, by feeling empathy with
this Palestinian boy, she senses that guarding this checkpoint is
something she can no longer tolerate?
The story closes as the narrator observes these three individuals
walking together that night: “Through the eyes of a villager looking out
from the light of a very distant house, they could have been a family.”
With this ending, Shani Boianjiu leaves us with a final bitter irony. In
the world of the Occupation, these three are hardly a family.
But with this distant image, she also hints at something to aspire to.
* Michael Felsen is an attorney and on the board of Workmen’s Circle
in Boston, Massachusetts, a 110-year-old communal organization dedicated
to secular Jewish education, culture and social justice. This article
was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: CGNews, July 10, 2012, <www.commongroundnews.org>.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.