With a high state of alert, the afternoon found our company setting up additional roadblocks at strategic points on the borders of Greater Jerusalem in order to better check who was coming in and out. Working a roadblock is a stressful experience, particularly on a hot day and I was just thanking my lucky stars that I was stuck on the base when one of the commanders in the field decided to pick an argument with the Deputy Battalion Commander. I was the obvious candidate to replace him.
I arrived to find a horrific mess - the spot at which the checking was being done was too narrow for 2 cars to pass each other and as a result tempers were fraying on both sides as the tailback grew longer and longer - into an Arab neighbourhood on one side; dangerously out onto the main road on the other.
Anyone who has sat at the entrance to a shopping mall, waiting to have their car checked over before being allowed into the car park knows how frustrating the experience can be but appreciates the necessity. At the same time however, there is no reason to make the check up more painful than it really needs to be, as seemed to me to be the case with this roadblock. Whether the guy I was replacing was deliberately making things difficult or whether he simply wasn't 100% in control of the situation is a matter of conjecture - the former is inexcusable in my eyes - but the latter has the same effect of uneccesarily increasing friction.I set to work to reduce the tension.
Undoing the bottleneck was simply a case of changing the location of the checking points; by moving everything 50 metres back down the road, a matter of 30 seconds work, we were able to allow a smoother movement of traffic. Despite orders not to check up on every car, it seemed to me that the previous commander had been doing just that - another bad mark against his name. Just as a Jewish family with 3 kids in the back is unlikely to be planning an atrocity, so too is the case with an Arab family. We therefore followed a mixture of orders and good common sense; checking some of the vehicles whilst letting others go through with a cursory glance; the tailback swiftly dissipated and as it did so, we were able to give a little more time to each vehicle.
A lot has been said about the value of having reservists do this sort of work; people who have seen a little more of the world tend to handle these things better than hot-blooded 19 year olds. We were a bunch of 30 somethings, politely asking the drivers and passengers for their papers, joking with the taxi drivers who formed a large part of the traffic and generally smoothing things over. At the same time however, for permanent road blocks such as Kalandia or Erez, I believe it to be important to have people who know the territory, speak a little of the language etc and therefore don't think that reservists are the answer.
By the time I arrived on the scene, the road block had been up and running for several hours; the person we were looking for would certainly have been aware of this and would have chosen to go via some other route; our presence made things difficult for him but not impossible. Roadblocks are effective up to a certain point but the fact that the security fence has not been completed in this sector means that there are always alternative routes that can be used. Doing it on foot, via a longer route means that far less weapons get through and there are more opportunities to be caught however, particularly as the intelligence seems to be pretty good. The facts speak for themselves - the numbers of attacks have dropped significantly.
The Palestinians have been living with roadblocks for quite some time now and I was surprised at quite how many had managed to forget their ID cards at home (I'm also required to have ID on me - it just gets checked less frequently) - surely it should be as normal as taking keys, wallet and mobile phone?
The other thing that really surprised me was the number of cars who tried to either cut into line or bypass it entirely. Apparently drivers in the region will not stop at anything - even the possibility of a soldier taking a shot at them, if it means that they can get to their destination a couple of minutes earlier! When I'm driving and someone cuts in there is little that I can do about it - here I was at least able to send offenders to wait at the back like naughty boys!
No-one wants to have to wait on line whilst their car is checked - whether at a roadblock or at the mall - sometimes circumstances dictate it however. I tried to make sure that no-one had to wait longer than a couple of minutes tops - the same time scale that I'd expect when going to catch a movie. With common sense and a little patience it should be possible to make sure that the experience is both effective and painless.