Roadblock Concerto at Gunpoint

‘The Pianist’ of Palestine


November 29, 2004

When I watched Oscar-winning film The Pianist I had three distinct, uneasy reactions […] I was horrified by the film’s depiction of the dehumanization of Polish Jews and the impunity of the German occupiers; and I could not help but compare the Warsaw ghetto wall with Israel’s much more ominous wall caging 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in fragmented, sprawling prisons.

In the film, when German soldiers forced Jewish musicians to play for them at a checkpoint, I thought to myself: “that’s one thing Israeli soldiers have not yet done to Palestinians.” I spoke too soon, it seems. Israel’s leading newspaper Ha’aretz reported last week that an Israeli human rights organization monitoring a daunting military roadblock near Nablus was able to videotape Israeli soldiers forcing a Palestinian violinist to play for them. The same organization confirmed that similar abuse had taken place months ago at another checkpoint near Jerusalem.

In typical Israeli whitewashing, the incident was dismissed by an army spokesperson as little more that “insensitivity,” with no malicious intent to humiliate the Palestinians involved. And of course the usual mantra about soldiers having to “contend with a complex and dangerous reality” was again served as a ready, one-size-fits-all excuse. I wonder whether the same would be said or accepted in describing the original Nazi practice at the Warsaw ghetto gates in the 1940s.

Regrettably, the analogy between the two illegal occupations does not stop here. Many of the methods of collective and individual “punishment” meted out to Palestinian civilians at the hands of young, racist, often sadistic and ever impervious Israeli soldiers at the hundreds of checkpoints littering the occupied Palestinian territories are reminiscent of common Nazi practices against the Jews. Following a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories in 2003, Oona King, a Jewish member of the British parliament attested to this, writing: “The original founders of the Jewish state could surely not imagine the irony facing Israel today: in escaping the ashes of the Holocaust, they have incarcerated another people in a hell similar in its nature — though not its extent — to the Warsaw ghetto.”

Even Tommy Lapid, Israel’s justice minister and a Holocaust survivor himself, stirred a political storm last year when he told Israel radio that a picture of an elderly Palestinian woman searching in the debris for her medication had reminded him of his grandmother who died at Auschwitz. Furthermore, he commented on his army’s wanton and indiscriminate destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and farms in Gaza at the time, saying: “[I]f we carry on like this, we will be expelled from the United Nations and those responsible will stand trial at The Hague.”

Some of the war crimes that concern people like Lapid have been lately revealed in eyewitness accounts given by former soldiers, who could no longer reconcile whatever moral values they held with their complicity in the daily humiliation, abuse and physical harm of innocent civilians. Such crimes have become normalized in their minds as acceptable, even necessary, acts of “disciplining” the untamed natives, as a measure to maintain “security.”

According to a recent report in the Israeli media, an army commander was accused of gratuitously beating up Palestinians at the notorious Hawwara checkpoint. Ironically, the most damning evidence presented against him was a videotape filmed by the army’s education branch. In that particular episode, the senior officer at that roadblock, knowing that an army film crew was located nearby, and without any provocation, beat a Palestinian “flanked by his wife and children,” punching him in the face, and “even kicked [him] in the lower part of his body,” the report said.

A recent exhibit titled “Breaking the Silence,” organized in Tel Aviv by a number of conscientious Israeli soldiers who served in occupied Hebron, exposed in photographs and objects more serious belligerence towrds defenseless Palestinians. Inspired by Jewish settlers’ graffiti that included: “Arabs to the gas chambers“; “Arabs = an inferior race“; “Spill Arab blood“; and, of course, the ever so popular “Death to the Arabs,” soldiers used a myriad of methods to make the lives of average Palestinians intolerable. One photograph showed a bumper sticker on a passing car, perhaps explaining the ultimate goal of such abuse: “Religious penitence provides strength to expel the Arabs.” The exhibit’s main curator described a particularly shocking policy of randomly spraying crowded Palestinian residential neighborhoods, like Abu Sneina, from heavy machine guns and grenade launchers for hours on end in response to any minor shooting of a few bullets from any house in the neighborhood on the Jewish colonies inside the city.


Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian political analyst. His article “9.11 Putting the Moment on Human Terms” was chosen among the “Best of 2002” by the Guardian. He can be reached at: [email protected]