“Open,” says the soldier loudly and sharply, his M-16 machine gun pointed downward with his hand clearly next to the trigger. It’s 5:40am at the Bethlehem checkpoint. Faces are pressed against the turnstile of the humanitarian line. ID’s are held upright, ready to be checked. The regular line, located perpendicular to the humanitarian line, has been stopped. Apparently the humanitarian line is about to open.
Palestinians have been lining up at the Bethlehem checkpoint since around 2am. Pieces of cardboard litter the stark cement floor, cardboard they have been sleeping on while waiting for the checkpoint gates to open at 4am. As they wait, as they catch a few more moments of sleep, they do so in the alleyway to the first gate. It’s an alleyway that reminds me of a cattle loading chute, except of course for the fence that encloses it. It measures 116 paces long. We arrive just before 4 and make our way through the crowd of men to the first gate, to the front of the line – a line consisting of workers, primarily construction labourers about to head to work for the day. Construction is allowed in Israel, but not in many parts of the West Bank. Like people everywhere, people here go where the jobs are. They go into Israel to work. However, because they are Palestinian, they must stay in Palestine to live. With the separation wall dividing Bethlehem from it’s neighbours, this is the only way out.
It’s the beginning of a long day….a day that will see men put in a full day’s work before eventually returning home around 6pm. Our EAPPI vests signify that we are there for humanitarian purposes and so they willingly allow us to move ahead. We offer smiles and greetings of “sabah al kheer” (“good morning” in Arabic). They return the greeting, either in Arabic or a warm “Good morning” offered in English. Part way through the line we give an EAPPI brochure to one man, asking him to return it to us when he sees us inside. Smiling, he willingly complies.
The gate opens and we begin our way through the checkpoint. We wait at the first turnstile until it is unlocked and opened. It is illegal to take pictures inside of checkpoints and so all descriptions that follow are approximations. This turnstile, as are the others we will encounter, is constructed of a steel centre post with 4 rows of 2 foot long steel horizontal bars, mounted at 90 degree angles around the post, and extending at approximately 4 inch intervals from the floor up about 8 feet. The entire area is enclosed by a floor to ceiling steel fence. The turnstile lock is opened and closed by a soldier sitting inside an enclosed booth equipped with a loudspeaker.
We pass through the main gate turnstile and stand in front of the booth, holding our passports up for the soldier to see. “Show me your picture” barks the soldier through the loudspeaker. I feel myself reel back, aware of a sense of intimidation and fear. I am showing my picture. What more does she want? I hold my passport closer to the window. She nods, and we carry on.
We move outside, through an open area that is enclosed by a tall fence, and into another building where we walk down a long U-shaped ramp into the area referred to as the “terminal.” Stark and barren looking, the “terminal” is divided into 3 sections, each approximately 40 feet long and lit by 3 large, round fluorescent lights. We are in a hallway, approximately 15 feet wide, from which emerge 3 closed doors to the right. Through each of these doors is another turnstile. Overhead, and extending as far as the eye can see, is a walkway used by soldiers (armed with M-16 machine guns) as they patrol the area. For some reason, the soldiers weren’t visible this day, but my colleague assures me that this is unusual. The “terminal” has a cold feel to it, reminiscent of pictures I have seen of large prisons. I shudder as I look around.
My colleague and I stand aside from the line, watching the scene. Only one of the doorways is open. The line grows and we call the Humanitarian Hotline, politely asking them to please open another door. The line continues to grow and we call again. Still nothing. Tension grows as the line lengthens. Several minutes later we politely make a third phone call. The doors remain closed. We wonder why.
Off to one side, we notice a group of men kneeling in prayer. I am amazed. In this hostile place of intimidation, these men have faithfully gathered to pray. It feels like a gift. Like an acknowledgement that there is more to life than the fear, the harassment and the darkness that is found inside this stark, sterile “terminal.” It is 5am. Suddenly, the other two doors are opened. There is a mini-stampede to the newly opened doors. Amidst the commotion, the men kneeling in prayer continue to pray.
We watch for a few more minutes. The man with the EAPPI brochure arrives in the “terminal.” Seeing us, he hurries over to hand back the brochure. It has taken him 1 hour and 20 minutes to reach this point.
I decide to continue through the checkpoint. I line up and enter through one of the doors. The line moves slowly. I come to the turnstile. It is locked. Annoyed, I wait for it to open, my hands pressed against the bars. About 30 seconds later, the overhead green light comes on and the turnstile opens. Three or four people (including myself) pass through before the turnstile is locked again. We quickly come to an x-ray machine similar to those found at airports, through which all personal items must pass. As my vest and water bottle are x-rayed, I walk through a metal detector. It remains silent. Relieved that it has not buzzed, I collect my belongings. My relief is short lived. A voice is yelling at me. An angry sounding voice. I don’t know where it’s coming from – maybe a loudspeaker somewhere? I don’t know what I have done wrong. I turn around and see a soldier sitting in a glass encased office angrily gesturing towards me. He wants to see my passport. Rattled, I fumble through my vest until I find it. I show it to him and he motions me to move forward. I do, and walk ahead into a large room decorated with Israeli tourist posters. One in particular catches my eye. “Israel…where it’s vacation time all year round.” I watch as the workers pass through a final turnstile before approaching the exit booth. There, they are fingerprinted. They must show their work permit and once again, their ID. If there is a problem with any of these three things (eg. callused hands that alter a previously taken fingerprint), access is denied and they must return to Bethlehem and begin the long process of resolving the problem. If all is fine, they walk out of the checkpoint and board buses to take them to work. I exit the “terminal” before the final turnstile and return to Bethlehem, passing through a door and walking along a sidewalk bordered by a 10-12 foot high steel fence.
I return to the outside of the initial gate area. By now, it’s close to 6am. People continue to line up. Working men make up the regular line. The humanitarian line is reserved for women, the sick, children, and those over 55. Both lines are crowded. A colleague tells me that the decision to open these initial turnstiles is dependent upon the length of line waiting for the metal detector inside the terminal. The soldiers then seem to decide whether the regular line or the humanitarian line will be opened. Bodies press on all sides against the fences. Faces press against each locked turnstile. Arms are held upright, displaying ID. It’s hard to be patient when you’ve been waiting for hours. Inside the turnstiles stands a police officer armed with a handgun and a soldier armed with an M-16 machine gun. They shout instructions to the crowd in both lines. Once a turnstile from one of the lines opens, the people show their ID to either the soldier in the booth or the two guarding the turnstiles. Those with any problem with their ID are turned away. As they leave the checkpoint, they pass by two private security guards, each armed with M-16’s. Those whose ID is satisfactory pass through the same gate watched by the same 2 armed security guards, before making their way outside, down the ramps, and into the “terminal” building. Once there, they too will line up, potentially under the watchful eyes of patrolling armed soldiers, waiting for the turnstiles to open admitting them to the metal detector, x-ray machine and a further ID check. From there, they will proceed to wait in line for the final turnstile and their final ID check, fingerprinting and permit check. After that, it’s off to work.
One of the roles of EAPPI is to provide international observation and presence at the checkpoints. We offer humanitarian assistance to those who are experiencing difficulties, helping them to access appropriate help. We also count the number of people using the checkpoint, providing an unbiased report to human rights groups. Approximately 2500 people passed through the Bethlehem checkpoint this particular morning, all before 7am. They will do this each working day.