As part of the EAPPI programme, each EA has the opportunity to spend a night or two in a couple of other placements. I spent my placement visit in Bethlehem in order to witness the morning checkpoint activity at the so-called Checkpoint 300. While restriction of movement has eased in the last couple of years in the West Bank, restriction of movement from the West Bank into East Jerusalem has gotten worse. The separation barrier, which divides Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank from East Jerusalem has not only cut families off from sections of their land, it also significantly restricts movement. The International Court of Justice (2004) ruled against the building and continued presence of the wall stating in its advisory opinion that it is illegal under international law.
Included in the ICJ’s advisory opinion is that the wall “violates Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement as well as other human rights (rights to health, education, work, etc.)” (Diakonia). Furthermore, the argument that the wall is necessary in terms of security for Israel amounts to a collective punishment of a large swathe of the Palestinian population as punishment for the acts of the few. The Wall snakes around Bethlehem and requires men, women and children, lucky enough to hold a permit to pass through, to endure an exhausting and often humiliating checkpoint experience, if they are to travel into East Jerusalem.
I was there on August 26th, the final Friday of Ramadan, and a day when for Palestinian Muslims praying at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque is of special importance . We reached the checkpoint just after 3am, already buses and taxis were arriving, mainly carrying women (women are usually more successful at being allowed through). Standing in the cold morning air, barely awake in spite of the black coffee I’d drank, I waited with the others for the Palestinian Authority (PA) police to arrive. Once there they spoke with the Israeli soldiers and found out what the terms of passing the checkpoint would be for that day. It had been decided that all men over 45 with a permit would be allowed through, and all women with a permit older than 35. The whim of bureaucracy did not dampen the hope of many of those who were making their way to the slowly forming queues, men and women clearly under the age and some without permits still arrived. I spoke to Mohammed, a 26 year old from Bethlehem. I asked him why he came when he knew he could not get through. He shrugged the same shrug you see across the West Bank, “I have to try”. I wonder what will happen to Palestine when this stubborn hope fails.
Before the checkpoint opens the soldiers arrive, they move around the concrete bollards checking for possible weapons or explosives. I take my counter and click each time a woman comes by, the moon is
a sliver of a crescent and everything is muted and tired. In small groups and alone, people continue to arrive; the blind, the crippled, the spritely, the photographers and even a small group of teenage boys who do not even bother to try getting through but seem to have come for the occasion. The quick trot of the arriving women starts to slow to a walk and then a shuffle as the queue lengthens. At 5.15am, with the sun starting to warm the air, I’m standing clicking the numbers of men entering, almost all older men going to pray, and I am reminded of the Patrick Kavanagh line, “every old man I see reminds me of my father”.
As I click 1648 the men start to run. A crowd has arrived into the street and there is a chaotic rush toward the narrow open corridor of concrete where the men queue. There is panic and desperation in the men’s faces as they rush forward only to shuffle soon after to a suffocating halt. They may hurry but the IDF soldiers do not. When the crowd rushed I jumped into the back of the PA police jeep to escape the crush, from here I have a view of people’s hands reaching out of the crush.. A man asks me (in Arabic) how I am and then indicating the jam of people says with a smile, “kwayyes! Eh?” (good! Eh?). Along with stubborn hope, dark humour prevails in Palestine.
The crowd continues to move desperately slowly – an EA from Sweden goes through to do a time-check. It takes her 49 minutes to go from where we are standing through the two passport/permit checks, and then, the bag search. After 8am I cross through the first passport check and go to stand near what is referred to as “the Humanitarian gate”. Two armed Israeli policemen stand in the gateway through which Palestinian Red Crescent workers bring the old and ill in wheelchairs.
An elderly woman came through from the first passport check as I stood there. She was frail and struggling to walk, she gestured for help indicating that she could not make it up the sloped walkway to the next check. Taking her arm I brought her to the ‘humanitarian’ gate. The policemen said she could not be allowed through without clearance from the IDF commander. It was clear that one of the policemen was not comfortable denying her entry and said that he knew she should be allowed through and wanted to allow her through. Those with a heart seem to have little influence when it matters. The old lady sat down heavily on a chair that was found for her and pressed my hand to her heart to feel the very rapid beat. Finally the soldier with influence, Ariel, arrived and after some convincing allowed the woman through.
Shortly afterwards I witness a scene that disturbs me greatly. A group of Palestinian men, able-bodied and well-dressed, are fast-tracked to the humanitarian gate, with handshakes and back-slaps from the Israeli soldiers they are directed through. Moments later three elderly men, bent-backed and shuffling are denied entry and aggressively told to continue on to the next checking point. I have assumed that these men were PA or PA police, either way to accept such favourable and unequal treatment by the occupying force in front of their own people was deeply saddening and can only add to the sense held by many that corruption runs deep amongst the powerful in Palestine. Soon after, the soldier Ariel was giving a spiel to a UNOCHA observer (who was not believing him) about the importance of the humanitarian gate and how it is an expression of progress by the military. I went over and asked him why he had greeted and allowed men through who clearly did not have any great need, and then refused entry to men who clearly did. His reply was a glare and he walked away.
Around this time Hanna Barag turned up. She is a founding member of Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli Jewish women (many of them, including Hanna, elderly) who go to the checkpoints to monitor and protest the treatment of Palestinians as they are going through. For Hanna the occupation has “corrupted” Israeli society and the checkpoints are one part of this. It is believed that their presence is shaming for the Israeli soldiers – to be chastised by women in whom they see their own mothers and grandmothers. Unfortunately, according to Hanna, they are not able to recognise the same shared humanity in those Palestinians whose freedom of movement they regulate. The loss of recognition of the other’s humanity is the great crime here for Hanna. The Jewish Israeli people, she says, have been led to believe that they can never be the perpetrators and fail to see now what they are doing, fail to see the inhumanity of what she describes as an efficiently bureaucratic occupation where people are numbers. Most of the soldiers, she says, regard the Palestinians as “terrorists, like monkeys, they are not human beings. They are no one, they don’t have a name”.
A commanding soldier is not happy with my presence and sends me back to the other side. Two of the EAPPI team have joined the queue of men that snakes down the road and up a further street. I walk alongside it filming the men as they wait. Numerous men shout to me to continue taking the images, to show what is being done. One man in the queue tells Nader from EAPPI that the previous week he saw a man being turned away who was the ‘correct age’ and had a permit, it is all down to the whim of the soldier, ultimately. It takes the two EAs more than half an hour to make it from the end of the queue to the covered area in front of the first check. It will take each man much longer to go through the subsequent checks.
The crowds begin to dwindle after 10am and by 11am the soldiers are leaving and closing the checkpoint. The barriers are removed and stalls are set in place – this will be a small fruit and veg market soon after. I walk back to the EAPPI house in the midday sun and pass tourist buses as they pass largely unhindered through the nearby vehicles checkpoint. Bethlehem is a major focus for Holy Land tourism, people streaming in to visit Manger Square and other holy sites. It strikes me as obscene that they bypass the wholly unholy checkpoint steps away, blind to the inhumanity that unfolds here. I think about something Hanna Barag said when asked why she came to the checkpoints and I think how Holy Land tourists might do well to consider them when they look the other way – “Why am I doing this? I need to be able to look myself in the mirror, I need to try!”