'Azzun 'Atma, Irtah (Sha'ar Efrayim), Wed 17.2.10, Morning
Translator: Charles K.
At 4:58 AM I received a phone call from one of the laborers at the Irtach checkpoint, who had the number we handed out at the dawn shift last week: “Come see what’s happening. Thousands of laborers are striking and aren’t entering Israel to work today. No one will enter as long as our conditions aren’t changed, because we’re no longer willing to be treated like dogs – the crowding on line, the broken fence that injures people, the long wait in the rooms. Come see, and bring the TV cameras!”
Since we were just about to leave for our shift, we decided to drive immediately to the checkpoint. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it any earlier than the first bus from Tel Aviv at 5:50 AM, and we reached Kfar Sava at 6:35 AM, where Nadim picked us up and we immediately drove to Irtach.
During that time we remained in touch with the laborer to know what was happening and if the laborers at the checkpoint were being harassed because of their actions, whether the army had decided to retaliate (tear gas, arrests…and other such things), or perhaps they’ll negotiate and let them all through immediately.
At about 6 AM we updated Raya and asked her to contact the media.
We reached the checkpoint at 7 AM. At the entrance and on the road dozens of empty cars belonging to contractors who had come to pick up their workers were crowded around. We saw the fence from a distance, with dozens of striking laborers alongside (we filmed with a simple video camera). We tried to approach the fence to speak with them; three army jeeps were parked there, with about ten reservists, and didn’t permit us to come near. There was no point in arguing at this stage, because we’d received the information by phone.
The laborers continued to report by phone that they were still waiting, and won’t enter under any circumstances without having reached an agreement with the army and the management of the checkpoint regarding changing the conditions there.
At the same time, the employers who were there asked us who they could complain to about the situation, because they wanted to prepare a petition. We gave them Chana’s phone number, so she could give them the phone numbers of the Crossings Administration and others.
The employers told us the story as they saw it: Every day they wait for laborers who arise at 2AM. They are late coming through because they’re treated terribly at the checkpoint, they’re not able to form an orderly line, the crowding at the crossing made the fence collapse and laborers get injured, and on the other hand younger workers take advantage of the situation and cut the line, which leads to arguments among those waiting. Sometimes the laborers are delayed at the crossing for more than an hour with repeated inspections of ID cards, the scanner and petty harassment by the crossing staff who make them repeat what they’ve already done. Only two computer terminals are open, out of the 16 that are available, so the laborers don’t get through until after 7:30 or 8:00 AM, and the contractors aren’t able to use them any more that day. Today the laborers will also lose a day of work.
The contractors also lose money, and their reputation is damaged. They pay about NIS 1200/month to the Employment Office for each laborer – three times more than they pay for an Israeli laborer. Every day that a laborer isn’t able to come to work on time costs the employers money, and harms their reputation, because they’re obligated to keep to a timetable for the construction projects they’ve undertaken. If they don’t, their contracts will be cancelled.
They weren’t angry at the laborers, and didn’t think the situation was their fault. The contractors’ ire was directed at the Crossings Administration. They said they completely agreed with what the laborers were doing, who have to get up at 2 AM to get a place in line and are forced to put up with disgraceful treatment. Yesterday, the contractors added, a man from Jenin was seriously injured because of the crowding. His arm and leg were broken, and he was taken to the hospital in Tulkarm. They said that the crossing is extremely dangerous.
The contractors noted another problem. Every day their parking area is reduced. Rock gardens have been planted where they used to park, and they’re forced to wait out on the road and may be ticketed.
Throughout our stay at the checkpoint, the exit gate was closed. This time we could see the fancy rock gardens that had carefully been installed to adorn the entrance to the crossing – dotted with seasonal flowers that had been meticulously chosen (colorful lettuce, alison, carnations, petunias), watered by drip irrigation – so they don’t lack water…we were reminded of our childhood song, "Watch Nature" . True, the complainant in that song was a female soldier whom no one respected and everyone harassed (today it would be called sexual harassment), and everyone worried only about the flowers, and didn’t pick them. Her rights began to concern people in recent years (partially, at least), and today it’s the turn of the laborers who are treated worse than the flowers. They’re jammed much more closely together than the flowers, which have plenty of room between them. The meager water fountain for the laborers, which barely emitted a drop, was eliminated – after all, they don’t have to grow and flourish like the seasonal flowers…it’s enough that they build our homes. Behind the entrances to the crossing is a tri-lingual sign: “The Hope of Us All.” That’s how you conceal a terrible situation - with pretty words…and report that we have the most moral army in the world. While we were standing next to the flowers we met one of the crossing staff who said to us, “It’s not our problem, it’s their problem, ask them,” and walked on. 8 AM The laborers said they were still waiting for negotiations to begin so we decided to leave and remain in touch by phone… At 9 AM the laborers ended their strike, and whoever wanted to come through did so. It seems that most of them went back home that day. At around 11 AM the laborers informed us that there had been negotiations with senior officers of the DCO, including Captain Ala Halabi, who agreed to open the crossing at 4 AM, promised to end delays in the rooms and to repair the fence. According to reports the following day, the spontaneous strike led to results – only time will tell. The repressive Israeli authorities – the army, the DCO, the Crossings Administration – won’t easily allow those who are being repressed to obtain their basic human rights. Azzun Atma 8:15 AM:
More complaints about the northern crossing. Shameful treatment, and even beatings. Inspections last a long time. One of the laborers said that only three of ten people going through together succeeded in getting in. Va'al, the crossings officer, promised to come, but was busy with the strike at Irtach. The army and the DCO have no forces to deal with problems…Letters of complaint are on the way, but they’re not likely to help…(Have I already mentioned that I’m a pessimist?) We were asked to hear a complaint and take testimony from Muhammad, a 65 year old farmer from Zawiyya, whose land is located in the area of the seam line; sewage from Elkana is destroying his fields and those of other farmers. He has 50 dunums in the area of the seam line. Only he and his wife have a permit to go through the Zawiyya gate which opens three times a day. They ride a donkey a distance of about five kilometers to his fields. And he’s lucky; many others from Zawiyya weren’t able to obtain a permit, and their fields are neglected. We focused this time on the sewage – we walked behind the isolated buildings on the outskirts of Azzun Atma, and at a distance of some 200 meters we discovered the full extent and stink of Elkana’s sewage. A stream of sewage one meter wide winds for about ten kilometers from Elkana on its way to the sea. The “rill’s” terrible odor can be smelled from afar; the surrounding land is saturated because the sewage overflows its banks during the rainy season. The roots of olive trees near the sewage have been damaged, and dried up. The roots of others are drying up as well. Muhammad spends his time removing the weeds which spring up from the sewage so that the water flooding from the blocked channel won’t spread. But, as noted, many of the villagers don’t have permits, so they can’t reach their lands to weed, and the sewage continues flooding his land and that of others. There’s no one to spray during the summer; the flies and mosquitoes have a field day. Muhammad says that he contacted Elkana’s engineer, who told him that when the locality receives a budget they’ll deepen the channel in order to prevent the lands from being flooded (???). Talk is cheap in Israel, and promises don’t cost anything. We promised to find out whom to complain to about this. On our way to locate the sewage, Muhammad pointed to red markings. He said that a couple of days ago a surveyor and two female soldiers came and made the markings – also on the electrical pole EF65. He asked that what was being planned, but didn’t get an answer. Pet’hiya talked to the lawyer and to Shvita. It turns out that Azzun Atma’s complaint about the fence was denied, and it will be relocated. The markings apparently are the start of the relocation. Someone should investigate what this means for Azzun Atma, and for the lands in the area of the seam line belonging to the villages, etc.