Bethlehem, Fri 26.8.11, Morning

Observers: 
Yehudit E., Hanah B. (reporting)
26/08/2011
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Morning
Bethlehem (Palestinian side), last Friday of Ramadan – 08.00 am: we arrived when the flow of Palestinians on their way to pray had already slowed down. We learned that many had already passed through in the small hours of the night, but the pace quickened a lot in the course of time.  
At 11:20 am, when we left, the flow of worshipers was again much weaker – the peak hours had passed. The police (both women and men), who were the first contact with the people coming to pray, tried to organize the lines and to make a preliminary classification (not always with restraint). We heard quite a lot of shouting and arguing, especially in the mens’ queue.

The second and third inspection stations – the Israeli ones – co-operated to enable a fast passage and by the time we left at 11:20 am more than forty thousand Palestinians had passed through on their way to pray. We asked a friend to let us know when he arrived at the other side and it was clear that it took him less than 15 minutes. Also, passage in the special womens’ line didn’t take more than 10 minutes.

Comments :
in comparison with previous years the conditions had greatly improved, and an effort was made to enable a fast and smooth passage – of course only for those who “met the criteria”.  The passage of 40,000 people without having to queue for more than 15-20 minutes is reasonable. The physical arrangements of the passage – after the worshippers (particularly the women) had scaled the ascent to the checkpoint – were logical and easy.

However, in spite of what was written above, one can’t speak of “freedom to worship” here.
The “all-out war” against someone who has passed the age of 12, and not one day over, is cruel and pointless, especially regarding families who are going to pray together. The requirement that children of twelve and under can pass only with their parents, and not
in the company of other relatives, is also unreasonable and strikes at the happiness of the festival.  And what is the difference between a child who reached the age of twelve yesterday and another who will be twelve tomorrow ?

All the above is before we refer to the requirement to bring a birth-certificate in the original, even though the child appears in  his parents’ identity-card.  Is this a collective punishement because some child threw a stone somewhere in the occupied territories? And we ask :  what would we ourselves say if a similar situation were to take place on Rosh Hashana or Succoth,  concerning families going together to prayers at the Western Wall ?

We noted that this year more permits to pray were distributed to people who didn’t satisfy “the criteria” – though more to women than to men. Perhaps this is because women abstain from submitting requests for various reasons. Here also there was a strict examination, “without mercy”. However, we saw quite a few women who didn’t give-up and returned again and again, and some lucky ones even succeeded to pass. The requirement that shy and frightened young girls should have to answer questions from a soldier with a gun is not fitting . . . The lucky ones were examined by a police-woman who did this more gently – even though the results were of course the same.

The humanitarian passage at the Bethlehem checkpoint is problematic, and depends a lot on the mood of the policemen there.  Those who came in a wheel-chair or with obvious physical difficulties were allowed to pass through the humanitarian passage.  However, those who were “merely” old and frail were not allowed to pass through it. We watched an argument between an elderly woman, with extremely heavy movements, who was not allowed to pass and who dragged herself to the upper passage and from there along a long path to the buses. The answer to our complaint about this was:  
“ we have to set a limit because otherwise everyone will want to pass through here”. And we thought to ourselves that the decision about “where to set the limit” should be reconsidered.

Regarding the behaviour of the soldiers, policemen and guards of

the security company: from our past experience, the women in the

defence forces as a rule behave much less properly than the men.  

The security company employees have a strong tendency to behave insultingly and scornfully.  Except for one policemen, the behaviour of the police-women and police-men was correct, especially due to the presence of officers who supervised  what was going-on, and gave a lot of help when needed. Their judgement greatly aided a smooth passage. Most of the soldiers, especially those from the civil administration, (some of whom knew a bit of Arabic, which helped a lot), treated the worshipers with respect.  Here also the presence of officers, especially Arabic-speaking ones, was important.  

However, something is very flawed in the education of the young soldiers.  They lack understanding of the religious and family significance of this festival, and of the great importance of worship at the Charam al Sharif mosque, which is not similar to the worship in the local mosque.  “They should pray near their homes” the soldiers explained to us.  A female soldier photographed incessantly, and of course without asking permission from the worshipers, and boasted about “the photograph of the year”.  She wouldn’t dare to photograph women in Meah She’arim, especially on their way to pray !

Except for six members of ISM who arrived at about 10:00 am, we didn’t observe any preparations for a demonstration at the checkpoint.  In the news on Kol Israel at 15.00 a demonstration of hundreds of Palestinians and international participants took place at Kalandia, and was dispersed by tear-gas. 

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Bethlehem (Palestinian side), last Friday of Ramadan – 08.00 am: