By Yumna Patel
The attack happened on April 26th. Aseel Baidoun, 28, and her husband Ameer Malhees, 27, and their friend Wisam were on their way from their home in Ramallah to a friend’s engagement in Bethlehem.
Aseel, who works with the World Health Organization, was driving their car, while Ameer, a musician, sat in the passenger seat. It was routine for the couple when driving outside Ramallah: Baidoun, a Jerusalem ID holder, had to drive her “yellow-plated” Israeli vehicle, as her husband, a West Bank ID holder, is not legally allowed to do so.
Due to Malhees and Wisam’s West Bank IDs, they are also not allowed to travel through Jerusalem to Bethlehem — a trip that takes about half the traveling time as driving through the winding, single-lane highways of the West Bank.
It was inconvenient, yes, but like thousands of others they had done it countless times before.
So when the group approached the Israeli military “container” checkpoint separating the northern and southern West Bank, they followed the routine, and slowly approached the through lane, guarded by several soldiers.
“They waved at me to stop my car, probably because it was yellow license plates,” Baidoun told Mondoweiss. She said it was a regular occurrence when she drove in her car; it was nothing out of the ordinary.
“They signaled for me to go to a different lane, away from the Palestinian cars. So we took the other lane and stopped,” Baidoun said.
She waited, expecting a soldier to come over and ask for her ID, as they usually did. After a minute of waiting and no signal from the soldiers, Baidoun assumed that she misread their gesture. Maybe they weren’t signalling for her to stop.
So she slowly inched forward and started to drive away. A decision Baidoun says she’ll regret for a long time.
“They started screaming and shouting at our car, so I reversed to where I was stopped before,” Baidoun said. “They started to shout at us and told us to give them our ID cards. They just kept yelling ‘why didn’t you stop?’”
The group, according to Baidoun, began apologizing to the soldiers, explaining that it was a simple misunderstanding. But they just kept shouting, she said.
The soldiers were a group of four: three males and one female. After continuously berating the couple about why they didn’t stop, Baidoun and Malhees questioned themselves at the time as to whether the soldiers could understand Arabic.
But after hearing one of the soldiers speak in Arabic, the couple knew that the soldier’s outrage wasn’t due to a language barrier.
“They could understand us when we explained that it was a misunderstanding, and we were saying sorry. But they chose not to care, they didn’t want to,” she told Mondoweiss.
The soldiers became more aggressive, questioning the couple as to whom the car belonged.
“I gave them the registration papers, everything was in my name. They had my ID in front of them, but they just kept shouting at us. I felt they were just trying to irritate us and get a rise out of us,” Baidoun said.
Regretfully, Baidoun recounted, it worked. “I turned to Ameer in frustration and said ‘I wish i could just slap them’.”
In that moment, things took a turn for the worse. The soldiers became more agitated, yelling “what did you say to us?!”, the couple told Mondoweiss.
“It’s none of your business, I am talking to my husband,” Baidoun told the soldiers, boldly rolling up the car windows.
“So the soldier got even more mad, yelling to roll the window back down,” she said, adding that Malhees, in an effort to deescalate the situation, rolled down the windows.
There was another soldier on the passenger side of the car; he started speaking to Ameer. He wanted to search the car.
The wine opener
Ameer slowly began emptying out the contents of the glovebox, which mostly consisted of miscellaneous papers and other knick-knacks.
“The soldier kept staring at me when I was emptying the stuff out, as if he was searching for something he could punish me for,” Malhees told Mondoweiss.
That’s when Ameer pulled out an old wine opener. “When he saw the wine opener, his reaction was as if he had found a huge knife in the car,” Malhees recounted.
“He started shouting ‘What is this?! Why do you have this?!’ as he backed away from the car, waving his gun and shouting,” Malhees said. “He was acting as if he was so scared, but at the same time he was smiling in this sadistic way, as if he was taunting us.”
That’s when Baidoun stepped back in. “I started yelling at the soldiers, saying ‘is this the first time you have seen a wine opener in your life?!’,” to which the soldier responded “Is this your husband?”
When Aseel said yes, the soldier’s response sent shivers down her spine. “I will show you now what I will do to him,” the soldier said, as the remaining soldiers began swearing at the couple, saying “curse your religion,” and “curse your God.”
Then they told Ameer to get out of the car.
‘Why is this happening?’
As soon as Malhees opened his car door, two soldiers grabbed him and put his hands behind his back. They took him to a back area, away from the watchful eye of any security cameras, his wife, and any witnesses.
“When we got out of sight of anyone, one soldier grabbed my neck and pushed me up against the wall,” Malhees told Mondoweiss. “They started beating me, hitting me in my stomach, my face, etc. They were cursing my God.”
He recalls the soldiers telling him to tell his wife to “shut up, or else we will do the same to her.”
Malhees can’t even remember how many times they hit him. “I couldn’t understand what was going on. Why was this happening?”
The same thoughts were racing through Baidoun’s mind as she sat waiting, during what seemed like the longest few minutes of her life.
“I didn’t know what they were going to do. I was scared they would shoot him or kill him,” she said, pointing to the countless times Israeli soldiers have shot and killed Palestinians at checkpoints.
“I felt like a scared child, just crying. I started to plead with the female soldier, asking her what happened, to tell us what we did wrong,” Baidoun said. But the soldier just kept yelling at her, telling her to “shut up.”
Baidoun can’t recall how long the soldiers kept her husband for. She says she just “spaced out,” unable to think.
“When they brought Ameer back to the car, I wanted to hold him and ask what they did, but they yelled at me to shut up, and said we weren’t allowed to speak to each other,” she said.
What happened next, shook both Baidoun and Malhees to their core.
“They told our friend Wisam to get out of the car. He didn’t do anything, he hadn’t said a single word the entire time,” Baidoun said, visibly distraught at the memory of the soldiers pulling her friend out of the car. “The only mistake he made was getting in the car with us.”
Wisam later told the couple that the soldiers took him to the same spot where they took Malhees. They put his face to the wall and caught his neck, while the others kicked his legs and punched his sides and his back.
“In that moment I wished I was just dying,” Baidoun told Mondoweiss of the overwhelming guilt she felt at the time.
After bringing Wisam back to the car, the soldiers started yelling at the group to “Get out of here before we fuck all of you up! Get out of here!”
And so they drove away, everyone silent, Baidoun said. “No one knew what to say.”
Reality of the occupation
It’s been two weeks since that day. Now, the pair sit in one of their favorite cafes in Ramallah, surrounded by other young Palestinians.
“We are living in Palestine, under occupation. This is the reality,” Malhees said.
“Anything you do as a Palestinian under occupation, there is a chance you can lose your life,” he continued. “We are just numbers to them. So it is easy for them to shoot, kill, and beat us without consequence.”
When asked why no one intervened when they saw the couple being abused at the checkpoint, they say they’re glad no one did.
“In Palestine, it is dangerous for someone to come and help us or intervene, because their lives are also put in danger,” Malhees said, referencing the case of a young Palestinian man from Bethlehem who was shot and killed in March for trying to assist another person who had been shot at a checkpoint.
“In these situations, you are not just scared for your safety, but for the safety of everyone around you,” he said.
Baidoun said she thought of getting out of the car, but she didn’t want to risk the soldiers retaliating against her husband or her friend for her actions.
“I was scared they were going to shoot him if I made any wrong move,” she said. “We’ve heard of many Palestinians dying at checkpoints, and the Israelis always say ‘they had a knife’, but in many cases they were lying. So this was running through our heads the whole time.”
“They could have said he was trying to stab them with the wine opener and fired at our car,” Malhees said.
Haaretz reporter Amira Hass reached out to the police regarding the incident, and received the following response:
“Our examination shows that the claims are untrue, and the public should not be misled. Contrary to what was claimed, the vehicle was detained for a routine inspection at the crossing like many others every day. Due to the behavior of the passengers and their conduct when they were asked to present identification, the soldiers became suspicious and decided to conduct a more extensive check, including a body search of two of the people in the vehicle.”
In spite of their fears of returning to Bethlehem through the same checkpoint, the couple says they have no other choice. They have to keep living their lives, despite the dangers they face.
“We have reached a point in Palestine where our lives mean nothing to the Israelis,” Baidoun said. “Anything you do, like having a wine opener in your car, could make you lose your life.”