‘Terrorists don’t go through checkpoints,’ said Hannah Barg memorably, ‘they’re not stupid.’ Hannah and some of her friends set up and have worked for Machsom Watch (Hebrew for checkpoint) for the last ten years. They are a group of Israeli women who stand at checkpoints, often from 4.00 a.m., monitoring just as we do. We work with them, exchange information, give their contact details to people who have been denied entry and their help is invaluable. They have considerable access to Israeli authorities both civil and military. ‘There are 40,000 Palestinians working in Israel at any one time without work permits,’ Hannah said, ‘everyone knows how to get through if they want to.’
It’s a familiar story. We are often told everyone knows where the holes are. Even I know where one of them is. There is one checkpoint we monitor, where, before it gets light, if you look to the left there is a steady trickle of shadowy figures darting across the ditch and through the fence. The soldiers know it. Every now and then a couple of them go along to guard it. Many of those who cross there do have permits but want to avoid the long delays of the checkpoint. Sometimes the soldiers make them go back through the checkpoint and wait till the end – it may be hours. If people are caught without a permit the consequences are serious. It can mean heavy fines or imprisonment.
A couple of weeks ago, I was standing at the Habla Gate, one of the agricultural gates into the seam zone when a young boy was turned back. The soldier objected to the bag he was carrying. I looked in the bag. It contained two used painting brushes, a paint roller, plastic paint tray and a wire mesh bag. I spoke to the soldier. She said, ‘I know him and he doesn’t have a job.’ and she told me his name and age. He was about to be 12. I asked the soldier what the problem was. She told me that he could melt the bag down and sell the metal in Israel. I looked at the boy but decided not to query it. Instead I suggested that this was not a security threat. She turned away. I later saw the boy go through. A man carried the bag. The wire mesh bag was again refused so he threw it away.
Israel says that the fence is there for security and the reduction in suicide bombing is proof that it is necessary. However, the fence is not completed yet and it is entirely possible go round the ends or indeed through the holes. There are Palestinians on both sides of it. It is estimated that approximately 45,400 Palestinians are currently marooned in the seam zone. The reduction in suicide bombing is much more likely to be the result of increased intelligence and the rarely mentioned pledge of the Palestinian Authority not to use violence.
Checkpoints are humiliating places. They add unproductive hours on to the working day. The less confidence people have in getting through quickly, the earlier they arrive. In our patch, Qalqiliya North is the worst. It is the only checkpoint we monitor which is on the Green Line and goes directly into Israel. It opens at 4.00 a.m. When we arrive just before that, there are always about 300 people waiting in big scaffolding cages; some of them sitting on the cross-bars, others curled up on the ground trying to get some last moments of sleep. They go through the turnstile in batches of about 20. That is only the start. There are never enough ID booths open. The queue snakes on through caged lines until they get to the booths. We can’t even see them from where we stand and we are not allowed through. About 3,000 go through in the first two hours. Most days some people are sent back; permit out of date (it is the employer’s responsibility to renew), card damaged or forgotten. The people often look wretched and tired. Most smoke.
I have been monitoring ‘agricultural gates’ also for about two months now. These are the ones farmers have to go through to get to their own land. I have rarely seen soldiers look underneath vehicles, but I have seen lunchboxes examined, transparent plastic bags of flat bread looked into and farmers asked to unload entire large stacks of empty cardboard boxes from trailers so they can be searched. During the olive harvest, I saw a family turned back because a nine year-old child did not have her birth certificate with her. When I asked if on this occasion she could be allowed through, again raising the issue of security, the soldier replied ‘I know she is not going to kill anyone. I’m not stupid. She has to have her birth certificate.’ This morning an older girl was sent home crying because although she had her birth certificate she didn’t have a copy of her parents’ permit and she was with her uncle and aunt.
This is not about security, it is about control and acquisition of land. There are large numbers of people in Jayyous who have been denied permits to go to their land. Eventually they will lose it forever. It is also a system which provides Israel with a reserve of low-cost labour for its economy. Palestinian workers in Israel have no security of employment. Permits belong to the employers and can be terminated at any time. Illegal workers are even more vulnerable and work for less than the minimum wage. With their own economy all but destroyed by the stranglehold of the occupation, they have little option but to chance their luck.
People like Hannah and Machsom Watch do their commendable best to ease the checkpoint process because, although they don’t agree with it, for the moment this is how it is. They are ridiculed by the soldiers for their trouble and sometimes ostracised by their families but they keep steadfastly on. The system is plainly unsustainable and hurts everyone. No-one, whether Israeli peace activists, soldiers or Palestinians, can go on living like this.
I work for Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (QPSW) or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for I-oPt firstname.lastname@example.org for permission. Thank you.