Today it is Al Mawlid Al Nabawi (the Birthday of the Prophet), an Islamic holiday. Not for Palestinians working in Israel. As every normal Sunday, which marks the beginning of the week, we get up early to be at 4:00 am at Checkpoint 300, which leads to Jerusalem. And as every normal working day, my two colleagues and I pass by several kiosks selling breakfast and tea before arriving to the gate. Many Palestinian men (women do not cross the checkpoint at this time of the day) are already going through the checkpoint when we arrive. Black plastic bags in their hands, their jeans dirty of the white paint, some of them carry also working utensils. Most of these men work in Israel in the construction sector – around Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
Arriving to the checkpoint, we see three gates: one is a “humanitarian line” (for disabled, old persons, small children, and also women) where I have never seen people going through, the exit line (now frequently used as a humanitarian line), and the middle one, which is normally taken. My colleagues pass through the exit line, stay at the middle of the checkpoint and start counting, while I start walking behind the men entering the checkpoint. Somehow the light today is off – nobody knows the reason – and it is dark in the narrow corridor. The gate is closed, so I just wait among the Palestinian men. After waiting around 15 minutes, the mass finally starts moving slowly, step by step. Eventually I arrive to the metal turnstile, cross it, and walk around 100 meters more, until I bump into the next queue for the metal detector. Only two gates are opened this time, but as they are both blocked, I have to wait – again. Patience, waiting. One man comes to me and complains in English. Everything is closed, I should do something. I promise I would tell the soldiers at the exit to do something. Finally the gate opens and we can pass through. Quickly everybody put their stuff on the belt and pass through the metal detector. Most of the men take their stuff in black plastic bags in order not to pass them through the detector. They take their belt off and pass through.
I take off my small bag, my EAPPI-vest, and my winter jacket. Luckily the detector doesn’t beep. After putting everything on again, I pass through another turnstile – to the next queue. This one leads to the ID-counter. Again, patience is needed.
There are only three booths (out of 12) working. Inside sit young Israeli soldiers, around 18-20 years old, who are doing their military service. The Palestinian men show a green card and put their finger on the fingerprint reader. Often these devices don’t recognize the fingerprint, so they have to put their finger again and again, getting more and more nervous. The permits of these Palestinian men do not belong to the person itself, but to its employer. According to the Israeli NGO Machsom Watch there exist around 110 kinds of permits. Sometimes it happens that the permit expired without previous advice and they are sent back home. It can also happen that somebody is enlisted on a blacklist (of which there are several), e.g. because a cousin has thrown stones to soldiers. It is not possible to know if somebody is on a blacklist, unless he/she tries to go to the checkpoint and the entry is denied. More or less every man between 16 and 60 years has been at least once in his lifetime on a blacklist (Machsom Watch). Fortunately, I don’t see any man sent back yet.
I have to show my passport and visa to the young woman behind the glass window and she lets me in. “People are waiting a long time, why are there no more booths open?” I ask. She shrugs her shoulders, looks annoyed and says something in Hebrew which I don’t understand. Then she lets me through. On the walls ahead of me I see posters from the ministry of tourism: Nazareth, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem – places where most Palestinians living in the West Bank have no access to.
It took me 32 minutes to cross the checkpoint. I stay inside the building and start counting the men going through. Yet a soldier sends me out, I have to stand outside. It is cold and windy. “Sabah al kheer”, I greet the men. Walking – some running – out of the gate, they greet me, some of them still putting their belt on. “The situation is terrible on the other side, you should do something” some people tell me. I try to explain that some of us are standing on the other side and that we cannot do much, unfortunately.
At around 5:00 am I hear the call for prayer coming from the mosque. A large group of men starts praying on the sidewalk next to the street, facing the wall. A new smaller group of men gathers on the small footpath which is still part of the checkpoint and leads to the street where buses are waiting. Also there they start praying, next to each other, in a row. Somehow it is a completely surreal and odd situation to watch these persons praying facing the wall, while I continue counting. It gives me a feeling of tranquility and peace, yet also of sadness.
Later, around 5:30, I start a conversation with three young men sitting on the floor next to the exit gate. They are waiting for their bus going to Tel Aviv, which departs at 6:00. They tell me they come from Hebron, a city further south, which means that they have at least 30 minutes of travelling behind them. We talk a bit until the soldier comes out and sends us away. I walk a bit further down, yet come up again, and continue counting – and greeting. The greetings I receive back are the most comforting thing of this work.
For us it is yet not a good morning. My colleague on the other side calls me. The gate has been closed most of the time and has opened only sporadically. “People get desperate, they try to climb on the walls”, she tells me. She had asked what happened; apparently there is not enough staff. Also the exit/humanitarian line is closed. While on her side of the checkpoint it is a complete chaos, on my side people drop one by one out of the gate. After a while – my third colleague made meanwhile his way through the checkpoint and arrived to my side – I leave my site and go to the Bethlehem entrance site. There I meet my other colleague. “There is a man with his sick baby wanting to get through but all gates are closed” she tells me upset. Now I see the man as well, behind the metal door. I had already seen him several times before. He takes his son to hospital in Jerusalem every day. The baby has asthma and has problems being in the queue with all the men smoking and pressing each other. We approach a soldier and tell him the situation. He lets us wait a while, but then he talks with the soldier at the counter. He opens the gate and lets the man with his son pass. I feel we achieved something; it is a feeling of satisfaction among so much frustration.
At around 7:30 almost all people are let through; both lines are open and people drop without any problems. The queues disappeared. We decide to go home and have (second) breakfast with hot tea to warm up, maybe sleep a bit. Our work at the checkpoint is done for today; we leave the checkpoint behind us.
(Sunday 11/12/2016, Sarah/EAPPI)