Ahmed Fahad is a savior on a hot day. Yelling "Ice cream, ice cream!" in Arabic, the Palestinian man carries a Styrofoam cooler through tangled traffic at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. I roll down my window to signal to him but taste the sting of dissipating tear gas instead.
Israel built a permanent checkpoint at Qalandia after the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in 2000. It's one of many checkpoints throughout the West Bank and, in the eyes of many Israelis, a successful security measure that has stopped Palestinians from traveling into Israeli cities to set off bombs. Palestinians see the long, winding barrier as part of a territorial grab by Israelis in the West Bank.
Israel forbids its citizens from crossing into Palestinian parts of the West Bank, although no one checks them. The Israeli focus is on Palestinians seeking to enter Israel, a mutually unsatisfying exchange both for Palestinians who have permits to make the crossing and for Israeli soldiers, though in very different ways.
Like many checkpoints, Qalandia is also the site of frequent confrontations between young Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Typically, Palestinians throw rocks and Israeli soldiers shoot tear gas, although firebombs and live ammunition are used at checkpoint clashes, too.
Ahmed can choose his hours hawking ice cream; flexibility is one of the perks he enjoys about the job. And like other street vendors here (CDs, toys, fruit and car sunshades are popular items), he often works through the tear gas and rock throwing, even though he doesn't like it.
Ahmed says these flare-ups are "useless" in improving Palestinians' lives. What strikes me, stuck in traffic in the middle, is how routine they appear. He keeps selling ice cream. Palestinians keep walking and driving, trying to get to where they are going.
Waiting in traffic on one side of a wall between the checkpoint and the main road to Ramallah, I pass close enough to touch Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas canisters. Another day, during another confrontation, I pass on the other side of that wall, just as close to a group of young men pounding a big chunk of concrete on the sidewalk, breaking it into pieces small enough to hurl.
Tear gas and ice cream hadn't been paired in my mind before. Here, they are.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tear gas and ice cream cones don't usually go together. But NPR's Emily Harris met a man who dodges rocks and tear gas at an Israeli military checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem to provide a little sweet relief.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The sun isn't up yet at the Qalandia checkpoint.
(SOUNDBITE OF TURNSTILE TURNING)
HARRIS: Palestinians who have permission to leave the West Bank for work or school cross a parking lot, push through one metal turnstile in the checkpoint building and line up to wait at the next. Israeli soldiers behind windows let a few people through at a time.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
HARRIS: Next, there's the metal detector, the window to show ID and give an electronic fingerprint, then two more turnstiles. Construction worker Mahmood Abayesh does this six days a week.
MAHMOOD ABAYESH: (Foreign language spoken)
HARRIS: I hate this, he says. The worst part is when they close the checkpoint. And I have to wait an hour or two just to get in line. Leaving the West Bank in the morning can be onerous. Coming home can be dangerous.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
HARRIS: Like other checkpoints around the West Bank, this is a known confrontation spot. Palestinians throw rocks, sometimes firebombs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
HARRIS: Israeli soldiers have a range of weapons. Tear gas is often the first they use.
So, we're at the Qalandia checkpoint crossing into the West Bank. The air is stinging with tear gas. I don't know how much they've released today but my throat is burning.
Trying to leave one of these confrontations, I drove right behind Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas. I could have reached out touched them if I'd been on the passenger side.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)
HARRIS: A rock just landed one car in front of me and then a few pebbles. Palestinians on their way home from work just keep on going.
MOUSER DAOOD: (Foreign language spoken)
HARRIS: If I'm in a car, I wait until they let us through, says Mouser Daood. But if it's open, I go. I want to get home.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
HARRIS: Another day, trying to get through another confrontation, I drove right next to young men breaking chunks of concrete into pieces small enough to throw. That is when I saw the ice cream man.
AHMED FAYAD: (Foreign language spoken)
HARRIS: Ice cream, ice cream, he yelled, walking through cars with a Styrofoam cooler strapped to his shoulder. It was hot. Traffic was completely jammed. Ice cream sounded good. I rolled down my window to get some but I got a mouthful of tear gas instead. Later, I learned the ice cream guy's name is Ahmed Fayad. He's had this job for two years and though he tries to move away from the worst confrontations, he does keep selling through rocks and tear gas.
FAYAD: (Foreign language spoken)
HARRIS: I think people go on with their work because everybody realizes the tear gas, the stone throwing, the confrontations, are useless, he says. Our life needs more concrete measures.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
HARRIS: Emily Harris, NPR News.
SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.