We line up in deep order, shoulder to shoulder between metal barricades that fail to divide us from one another. Once I've found my place in line, there is no turning back: others have already filed in behind me, pressing urgently forward until we are packed like sardines. Above us, a porous corrugated tin roof with rusted edges is peeling up at the screws toward an abusive sun. We all face forward, but reaching the exit is more of an uncertain possibility than a promise.
All men under the age of 50 are corralled in four dense columns to my left, inching one by one toward dusty x-ray machines. Soldiers sit behind thick, blast-proof glass, shouting tersely in Hebrew through crackling speakers. They disengage the locking mechanism of the creaking iron turnstiles, the light turns from red to green, the metal bars spin noisily for a quarter revolution, and a single young man squeezes through to be examined, searched and questioned.
It's a way of life here. The mechanics of containment have become completely automated; residents of Nablus wait hours to cross a line scratched in the dust simply to get to the next Palestinian town. They can forget entering Israel; it's 20 miles west and a world away.
Looking in, an imposing red sign warns Israeli civilians to stay out of Nablus under penalty of law. These young Israeli soldiers would seem to be guarding the demarcation line between two warring societies, "us" and "them" held tenuously at bay in a deadly struggle. Yet this simple equation cannot account for the severed relationships between here and there, nor the flicker of hope still felt by many Israelis that they may one day reunite with old Palestinian friends imprisoned here.
I've opted for the line to the far right, the "humaneterian" line, denoted by a tragically misspelled sign nailed into the girder above us. Its sharp metal corners have been smashed inward to prevent further head injuries, chipping the paint and obscuring its intent. Here, the women, elderly, infirm, and non-Arab benefit from a slightly expedited version of the same inhumanity. We don't have a turnstile to contend with, just two soldiers rifling through our things, checking our ID numbers against their lists, scrutinizing our papers and permissions to leave Nablus.
I've resolved to be patient, to wait like everyone else, to not cause any trouble. I put on a pair of headphones and click my iPod around to a soothing soundtrack, doing my absolute best to ignore the scene unfolding around me. I wait as the morning sun creeps higher above us, raising the temperature of our cage. Forty minutes elapse without a single step forward. The sweat beads on my forehead and falls from underneath my arms, mixing with the strain of the 500 people to the left, front and back of me. I send a few text messages to friends waiting for me in Tel Aviv to let them know I'll be late again, not disguising the blame for this madness I can't help but extend to them. I shift my weight to my left leg, hold it there until my foot aches and then shift it back. Another twenty minutes evaporate in the summer heat and still not a single step forward. I glance to my right and see a man holding his son, a five-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, in an area of broken fences and strewn razor wire. His wheelchair is temporarily abandoned at the entrance to this mess, no way to get it through even the humanitarian line. This man won't succumb to the humiliation of being denied passage. The air is stifling; no one can move. The crowd begins pushing against itself in all directions. Panic starts to set in.
I can't do it any longer. I can't even stand to button the cuffs of my sleeves for my obsessive intolerance of restriction. My head is swimming. I need to get out. In a moment of thoughtless escapism, I leap the short concrete barrier to my right and land in front of the man and his son. A soldier sprints toward me, cursing and demanding that I get back into line. I reply with a barrage of my own, how dare you make this man wait, how can you not see what you're doing here, anger driven by desperation if not reason. He thrusts his rifle upward and buries the muzzle in my chest, shoving me backward. I persist, close the distance between us to expose his empty threats to kill me, climb awkwardly over the twisted metal and rubbish at my feet. He swings awkwardly to punch me but his gear and the impossible angle abscond with the fury of his attempt.
I stand now in front of him less firm, less sure of myself. My courage wanes as I realize I have no plan. No one is standing at the ready to save me from this moment of daring foolishness. He reaches out and takes hold of my shirt, pulling me toward him, now determined to take me into custody. Frantic, I pull myself free of his grasp and he stumbles on the uneven pile beneath us. Above, an Israeli sniper begins yelling at me in Arabic. With a menacing echo, he snaps back the lever, clicks a round into the chamber and shoulders his weapon, sighting me through a glinting scope. The Palestinians behind me begin tugging urgently at my clothes. "He thinks you're Arab," they warn. "Go back. He's going to shoot you." I'm stubborn, embarrassed, at a loss. Eventually, I concede and slink away. The line has still not moved and I've managed only to further delay that possibility.
All major Palestinian cities have checkpoints just like this one. Nablus has six. No man, woman, child, or tomato gets in or out without first cooking to soup in the sweltering heat. Nablus used to be the center of Palestinian industry and development. Its factories, markets, and universities beckoned to the best and brightest throughout Palestine. Now it's an open-air prison, cut off from the rest of the West Bank and from the rest of the world.
I sulk back through rows of idle taxis. I'm dialing my phone to tell my friends I won't be able to join them today when I hear a driver shouting, "Around the checkpoint!" It takes half an hour to fill this particular taxi, as most passengers aren't willing to risk what he's offered. We finally set to it, drop off of the road and creep slowly over loose soil and rocks through an olive orchard not more than fifty yards from the checkpoint. We go around it, all ten passengers staring warily at the sniper towers, proffering nervous advice and wagering our odds. I feel obligated to step out, to escort the struggling minivan on foot with my American passport held high, but fear keeps me pinned where I sit. Two minutes later, we're laughing, clapping the driver on the back and happily handing over the inflated fare. We've made it to the far side of Huwarra Checkpoint.
This, of course, is only the first phase of a much longer journey. To get to Tel Aviv, I'll pass through another three checkpoints that, to varying degrees, are much like the one at Huwarra. By the time I finally arrive, I'm typically in such a state of shock and anger that it's a wonder my friends remain interested to share my company at all. The trip from Nablus to Tel Aviv is physically, mentally and emotionally traumatic. It is a five-hour separation of distance and ideology that leaves me in a general state of disarray for an entire day. My friends throw their arms around my diminished frame and insist on buying me dinner.
This seaside restaurant looks out over the Mediterranean, illuminated in color by festive strands of lights. Families stroll down the upscale boardwalk, buying cotton candy and carnival souvenirs for delighted kids gliding on roller skates. I could eat a week in Nablus for the cost of a single entr