Bethlehem, Thu 5.11.09, Morning
Background: Some 2500 Palestinians crossover daily to Israelthrough the Bethlehem Checkpoint (CP). Access into the CP is by means of anarrow (0.60 mwide) turnstile, then an open-air yard, which leads into the CP compound. The bodyinspection is carried out in the compound in so-called "sleeves",leading to three checking posts, but only two of them are active. The bodyinspection is followed by the document checking counters, which serve for to-and-fro passage.In practice only the odd-numbered counters are computer-equipped and functional.At peak hours five or seven counters are open, and this is where the passerpresents the palm of his hand for biometric identification, his magnetic card andhis travel permit. The CP opens its doors for Palestinians at 05:00 and usuallymost have passed through by 07:00. We as observers can only see thedocument-checking counters, which usually are not over-crowded. We cannot see theover-all situation, which is blocked from our vision.
For the past week, we have been receivingdesperate phone calls from people at the CP about the unbearable situationduring morning peak pressure. Our phone calls were to no avail.
Here is a description of a single randommorning:
We approached the checkpoint at thePalestinian side and found that the entry line stretched far beyond the carpark. Having learned from their recent experience, many arrived two or threehours ahead of opening time and slept in front of the CP entrance.
04:45 – The main entrance to the CPcompound is opened and the first group of passers enters.
05:20 – One sleeve opens, the second is"out of order."
05:49 – The dysfunctional sleeve is nowin operation.
By now unrest is mounting among thewaiting workers. People are in a hurry to get to work and they lose theirpatience. On the Israeli side of the CP, many employers and buses await theworkers. We hear a 'rumble' on the Palestinian side, out of our field ofvision.
We learn that this week all – but all,every single one – of the inspectors have been replaced. They have completedtheir army service, were discharged, and "there are no newvolunteers". We cannot believe our ears. Is this how the'most-moster-mostest' army in the world manages its activity?
06:25 – Few have gone through the checks.Exiting, they tell us what is happening at the checking sleeves. The yells are clearly heard. We complained to theIsraeli police Crossings Administration – the DCL representative on the spot,as well as to the army hotline. Their answer: it will be looked into and sortedout. In spite of the tension, not a single ‘blue’ (civilian) police officer isin sight. The DCL representative listens to our complaint, as usual, keepscrossing from side to side in an attempt to relieve the situation, but in vain.The situation worsens. The people on their way out turn to us in desperation –“Even animals are treated better than we are”. Every few minutes one of thesleeves fails to function – again and again.
07:00 – Phone call to the deputycommander of Etzyon DCL. He listens, but nothing changes on the ground. Chaoseverywhere, shouts are heard from all directions. On the Israeli side, thesoldiers are sprawled idle in their seats at the checking posts, since thePalestinians are not let through from the other side.
Two employees of the private firm thatoperates the checkpoint are seen walking around. One of them, lookingparticularly jolly, either tipsy or drugged, walks from post to post laughingmerrily and getting in the way of those fortunate enough to finally make it tothe last post before exiting. At post no. 5 the turnstile is not functioningand passers are forced to leap over it – which does not seem to disturb anyone.
Still, the ‘civilian’ guards are busyheftily chasing away people awaiting the passage of their relatives or friends.They charge at them as if war had just broken out!
07:30 – At the Palestinian entry to thecheckpoint the end of the queue is still out of sight. People try to get aheadof each other, youngsters hop over fences – since many have already lost theirday’s work. The situation in the ‘humanitarian’ line is not much better: manywomen and elderly people give up and to back home.
More desperate appeals for help: we callthe ‘crossings administration’ (“I am not responsible for the Palestinianside”. – Inconceivable! – who then is responsible for the checkpoint’s notfunctioning? How did this chaos come about? Because of Palestinian conduct orbecause of the way the checkpoint is run?) Asking why no policeman was insight, we were told he would arrive later (When? When no longer needed?).
08:00 – The situation goes from bad toworse. People coming out beg of us to do something.
08:20 – Glory be! The policeman arrivesrunning, headed for the sleeves. The pace picks up a bit – but those crossingnow have already missed their chance to put in a full day of work. More andmore people turn to us, each in his own special way, and tell us what they havebeen through this past week. The private company employees explain to thecomplainers that the passers are to blame for not knowing how to stand properlyin line!
09:40 – The pressure is finally off.
When the Bethlehem Checkpoint was openeda few years ago, a tourist guide reported to YNET that: “With the upgrading ofthe compound, the security forces ‘managed’ to produce for tourists aconcentrated version of the Palestinian experience. The tourists now personallylive through the humiliation process of the checkpoint as well as life behindthe wall.”