The gun protruding from the army pillbox here enforces a new ban: No Palestinian vehicle can cross between the northern and southern parts of the Gaza Strip unless at least three people are inside.
The Israeli measure has its origins in a suicide attack by an Islamic Jihad driver last year against soldiers. The more people in the car, the less the chance of a suicide attack, went the reasoning behind the new rule.
Gaza quickly adapted. Children started offering their services as passengers. Five or six of them run up to cars shouting: "Do you need one?" If the answer is affirmative, a youngster hops in and for a fee of one shekel ($.20) and stays inside as the car edges past two pillboxes. Then the child tries to catch a car back in the other direction.
Across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians have been struggling to adjust to the tight Israeli strictures they face, whether by using computers to get around curfews, bringing medical care closer to home, or opening snack bars to service motorists stranded by closed checkpoints. Often the adjustments have scant impact on the overall sense of imprisonment, but they have symbolic importance, showing that a degree of vitality has survived nearly two years of ever-increasing deprivation among the civilian population.
On Monday, the curfew was extended into cyberspace, as Israeli troops raided the Ramallah offices of PALNET, the West Bank's largest Internet provider, and arrested employees, a staffer reported. Service went down and was still not operating yesterday, though the staffer said he hoped it would soon be restored. The army declined to comment.
Curfews were imposed on more than 700,000 Palestinians in the West Bank last month when Israel reoccupied cities after two suicide bombings in Jerusalem left 26 Israelis dead. Since the Israeli operation, there have been no Palestinian bombings inside Israel. Yesterday, however, Palestinians ambushed an Israeli bus in the West Bank. According to the army, the checkpoints are there to thwart exactly such attacks. But a former chief of army intelligence, Shlomo Gazit, stressed in the daily paper Ha'aretz last week that curbs on Palestinian daily life are also aimed at "causing the collapse of the extremist Palestinian [political] position."
Qais Baraka, 13, from Deir al-Balah, makes about $2 a day renting himself out at the Gaza checkpoint. "Everything depends on the Israelis. When they open the way for a long time, we can get more work," he says. Often he works till late at night, then sleeps under the nearby date palms for a few hours before the road opens again at 3 a.m. Some nights he hears gunfire, he says. The kids sometimes fight each other to get into a car, he adds. Qais, who is the oldest, says his father is in hospital and that what he earns is needed by his seven brothers and sister.
Mohammed Youssef, who worked in Israel before the intifada, opened a poor man's version of a 24-hour store at the checkpoint near Deir al-Balah.
"The best time for business is when the Israelis shut the road," he says.
In the West Bank, the travel restrictions are so pervasive that even corpses have to stop at the obstacles placed in the road by the Israeli army. The ambulance carrying Zuheir Awad's body back to his hometown of Salfit from Nablus last Wednesday ran up against a hill of earth, the kind that can only be moved by heavy machinery. Paramedics took his stretcher, climbed the dirt barricade and shoved it into a second ambulance waiting on the other side. The Cave chapter of the Koran, used to mark deaths, was already being recited on a tape inside the vehicle.
Earlier, after a heart attack, Mr. Awad had to be carried across the same barricade on his way to the hospital in Nablus. But doctors say that what made his death a certainty was when the vehicle was held up for an hour, according to his relatives, by soldiers at a checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus. An army spokeswoman said: "We deny that this incident ever took place."
The army says soldiers have orders to facilitate the flow of emergency traffic, but adds that Palestinians have used ambulances to transport fighters and weaponry. Inspections are aimed "to be sure the ambulances are not being misused. And they are being misused," said an army spokesman. The frequency of checkpoint deaths there have been more than 30 since the start of the intifada in September 2000, according to the human rights group B'tselem has prompted the Palestinian Ministry of Health to establish a small hospital in Salfit, specializing in maternity cases.
The idea of the Salfit Emergency Hospital is to spare patients the trip to Nablus, which used to take about 20 minutes before the intifada, but can now drag on for hours. "We have saved lives, but not enough lives," says Naim Sabra, the hospital's director.
Mr. Awad was taken first to the emergency hospital, actually a clinic with eight beds. But he needed care available only in Nablus.
Less urgent than the disruption of healthcare but still keenly felt is the impact that curfews and checkpoints have had on higher education. At Bir Zeit University, staff and students are trying to salvage the semester despite the curfew. The university has opened study centers in Ramallah for students who cannot access the main campus in Bir Zeit.
Instruction is given during breaks in the curfew and take-home exams are to be distributed on the website, says Lisa Taraki, a sociology professor.
"Palestinians are not just taking all of this lying down, they are showing a lot of determination, resilience, and initiative," she says. "Of course, they are not super-people either."