It is 4.15 in the morning when the taxi drops me off at Gilo checkpoint, the checkpoint that separates Bethlehem from the road to Jerusalem. Early as it is I have never seen the checkpoint as crowded as today. Not because today is in anyway more special than yesterday or than tomorrow but because I never cross the checkpoint at the time that the workers do.
Even in the middle of the night at this overcrowded checkpoint Palestinian hospitality does not falter and it took the people present a sheer five minutes to welcome me, offer me tea with lots of sugar and a chocolate bar. While men are praying in small groups on the sidewalk, a constant stream of shared taxi’s comes and goes and the line grows longer and longer in front of my eyes.
The serenity of prayer stands in sheer contrast with the huge concrete wall hovering over them and the growing and humiliating herd-like line-up of people. The people in the first hundred meters of the line are caged in by a fence parallel to the Wall that marks the entrance line, followed by many more who are trying to get as far ahead as possible. In order to get to work in time the workers start arriving at the checkpoint as early as 2 am to sleep on brought along cardboard pieces in between the cramped space between the fences. At 4, the time of my arrival, approximately 900 to a 1000 people are already lined up.
Not much time has passed when the international accompaniers of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) arrive. In line with their mission to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in their non-violent actions and carry out concerted advocacy efforts, they also monitor and report on the conduct of Israeli soldiers. Therefore they hold checkpoint watch about 4 days a week and invited me to join them today to see the daily reality of the checkpoint at rush hour.
And rush hour it is. It is already so crowded that we will not even be able to push through the line. Usually the men try to squeeze to the sides of the fence in order to enable the passage of the international accompaniers, but today there is no possibility of getting through because they are already squeezed to the limit. There is no other option but to take the empty parallel exit cue and walk up to the front of the line. After about 100 meters luck is on our side and the men are trying to open up a small gap in the fence between the entrance and exit cues so that we can come through and eventually make our way to the front of the line.
The first hour I remain at the first turnstile together with one of the international accompaniers. We count the number of people going through and the amount of time that the turnstile is closed for the rapports that the international accompaniers make and send out to human rights groups and governments. Out of the first hour, the checkpoint is closed for 40 minutes leaving only small numbers through to make it in time for their job. In total 2200 to 2500 people need to pass the checkpoint at rush hour between 5 and 7.30 but things move slow and many cannot make it in time for their jobs. This means that they risk loosing it.
After about an hour we switch with another team and move inside the checkpoint complex to the metal detectors where men are already lining up because it is closed for no clear reason. Only two of the three present metal detectors are opened even though there are still about 1800 people waiting to go through. When I ask the international accompanier tells me that she has never seen the soldiers opening the third booth to speed things up no matter how busy it is.
When we finally make it through to the ID-booths on the other sides there is another line-up. Out of the 12 booths only 6 actually have computers and can thus be used to check the permits of the Palestinian workers and their fingerprints. On the other side of the booths we find Israeli ‘colleagues’ from Maximwatch, an Israeli women’s group who hold checkpoint watch every Sunday, report on the proceedings and, like the international accompaniers, call the humanitarian hotline when necessary. Today it was necessary to call more than 6 times.
At 7.30 there are still about 500 people waiting outside to come through. When they finally make it they are too late for their job and risk being layd off. It is hard to imagine that the 2500 men who cross this humiliation on a daily basis are the ones who are considered ‘lucky’ as they obtained a permit to work in Israel.
Posted By Rianne Van Doeveren
Posted Jul 28th, 2008