Israeli Checkpoint 2001

Memories of Jenin 20 years ago… so little changed and now Gaza today…

The town of Jenin is a tiny enclave of Palestinian territory surrounded by Israel.  Since the start of the new intifada over eighteen months ago, the town has been virtually sealed off by Israeli tanks and soldiers.  As violence has escalated in Israel and the occupied territories in recent months tensions have spilled over into open conflict.  Nearly 60 Palestinians have been killed in fighting with the Israeli military.

Israeli authorities, however, have documented nearly 20 separate attacks and suicide bombers who they claim have come from the town of Jenin.  These attacks have led to well over 50 Israeli deaths.  Israeli authorities call Jenin ‘a hornet’s nest’ of terrorist activity.

We enter the borderland between Israel and the Palestinian authority areas.  Rubbish is strewn all across the rocky ground.  A few olive trees, silver-leafed and dark with a hundred seasons of harvests, stand next to the rusting hulks of cars.

The cold winter wind blows across a field of rubble and a row of broken, empty shopfronts.  Bleak testimony to the work of the tanks and the bulldozers.  No one lives on this land now, neither Jew nor Arab.  This borderland is an empty place that lies between people.

A little way down the road, we come to a long line of trucks lined up waiting at the second checkpoint.  They are waiting for permission from the Israelis to cross back into the Palestinian areas.  ‘They can sit for two days or more,’ Hassan, a Palestinian colleague says.  ‘It depends on the soldiers.  They are strangling us with this collective punishment.  Sitting there, like that, for hours with no food, no toilet, it makes you crazy.’

At the second checkpoint an Israeli flag twists against a bright blue sky.  Young soldiers, boys and girls in their late teens stand with their M-16s behind sandbags and barbed wire.  The turrets of their emplacement are made of heavy steel and thick bulletproof glass.

I have crossed hundreds of military checkpoints in my life.  I am expecting to be rudely ordered out, and roughly shoved aside as the soldiers search our car.  But here the soldiers are polite and professional, even friendly.  They ask for our documents.  I feel nervous when they ask Hassan, but he is treated with the same courtesy.  We are all allowed to pass unmolested.  I cannot help thinking how different his fate might be in so many conflict zones where soldiers are little more than bandits.

But inside the town, the bomb-shattered ruins of the Palestinian Authority headquarters stand as testimony to the missiles of an F-16 and to the hard, uncompromising edge of Israeli power.  The crushed bodies of cars lie on the kerb beneath the minaret of a mosque.  ‘The tanks just drive over them,’ Hassan says.


The main street is redolent with the smoke of kebab stalls and coffee vendors.  The market is filled with the bright colours of fresh fruit and vegetables.  There is little outward sign of Islamist extremism.  There are fewer women wearing headscarves here than in parts of London.

But the streets are lined with young men who cannot find jobs.  On the walls are tattered posters of the others who died as suicide bombers.  Their deaths are a ghastly martyrdom to desperation.

In the cemetery of the martrys a fresh grave stands empty.  Its sandy bottom half filled with dirty rainwater, waiting for the remains of the next young suicide bomber.

We are still filming as night falls.  It is too dangerous to approach the checkpoints after dark.  ‘The soldiers see only the headlamps and they often shoot,’ Hassan says.

We have to spend the night.   The call to prayer echoes out in the wintery darkness.  A few middle-class men and women in business suits park their cars outside the mosque and go inside to pray.

A full moon rises over the white stones of the old town.  A taxi takes us through the narrow alleyways towards a safe house.  We stop under the curve of an archway that dates back to the Byzantines.  The dark of a cypress tree looms against the stars.

Inside, a young man in black combat gear carrying an M-16 searches our TV equipment.  We are shown into a room where a group of leaders from the radical Hamas and Fatah parties are meeting.  A pistol lies on the carpet next to a tray of orange slices and glasses of mint tea.

‘They are wanted by the Israelis,’ Hassan whispers to me.  ‘But they are safe here.  They will never leave Jenin.’

The desperation on the streets is echoed in this small, shadowy room.  The outside world they talk of is a confusing mirage of legitimate anger and cliched slogans.  I cannot help thinking that not one of these middle-aged men will ever strap the suicide bombs to his own body.  Their leadership could stop the cruel, wasteful deaths of their young men.

On the hills outside we can see a sprinkling of bright electric lights.  They are the Israeli settlements that are a source of implacable rage to most Arabs; but to many Jews their existence is the fulfilment of 2000 years of memory and hope.

Hassan turns to go back inside. He leaves me alone, looking out at these two towns, these two places of light – staring into the cold winter darkness that lies between them.





This is an updated piece I wrote for BBC Radio over 20 years ago about a visit to Jenin in the West Bank. It’s worth rereading with a sense of bitter irony that so little changed in the decades that followed, leading to today’s horror in Gaza

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.