Bethlehem (Palestinian side), 3.8.12, third Friday of Ramadan, morning
Translator: Charles K.
In general: A police car blocks one lane of the road to the checkpoint; vehicles are inspected. For the first time we were asked where we’re going and why; one of the Border Police soldiers said “They’re Watch” and we were allowed through. On our way to the checkpoint we’d already met many worshippers who’d crossed and were walking to the buses.
We crossed to the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. An endless flow of men and women walked toward the exits to the buses. Despite the great congestion, most of them crossed without any special problem, and at a reasonable rate. About 1500 women were counted (not by us) crossing in half an hour. We weren’t able to learn or estimate the number of men crossing. From what we could see, there seemed to be more than there were last week.
Lanes: Lanes were marked at the entrance to the checkpoint for women, men, an open crossing and an area serving Palestinian police and Israeli forces. Men entered the checkpoint through the “cage.” Women walk up the low hill. The usual women’s entrance has been closed; instead the “Nes HaRamadan” gate has been opened, greatly easing the women’s crossing and accelerating the rate at which people went through. When congestion increased at the men’s crossing they were occasionally allowed through that gate.
The metal gate for the handicapped and invalids leading directly to the bus parking area was open continuously until 11:00 and later opened and closed intermittently. We could occasionally see wheelchairs on one side of the gate and those who needed them on the other side.
Transportation arrangements: Last week’s lesson has been learned: dozens of buses were there today; they filled up and left without any delays.
The Red Crescent: The Red Crescent volunteers deserve much praise. People needing their help were taken to the buses quickly, helpfully and resourcefully.
The Palestinian police: There were few policemen and women at the start of our shift. During the morning reinforcements had apparently been called; 3 senior officers and more police arrived. But at critical moments, and despite their honest efforts, they were helpless in the face of the crowd.
The Israeli forces: The soldiers, MP’s, Border Police soldiers, DCO personnel and the Israeli police officers worked calmly, respectfully and patiently, even in the face of continued provocations by Palestinian adolescents and the great flow of people. They all remained calm even during very tense moments. Our impression was that the presence of the senior officers contributed greatly, and the training the soldiers received must certainly have helped. No one ate or drank or chewed gum in the presence of those crossing.
The civilian security company: We kept an eye on the security personnel during our entire shift. They behaved aggressively and violently, spoke crudely and behaved shamefully.
Our shift: It was already clear at the start of our shift that the growing number of young people, especially adolescents, could cause friction. The women crossed quickly, without problems. Men older than 40 and permit holders also went through quickly. The bottleneck developed toward 11:00 at the entrance to the “cage.” The men stood in the plaza before the “cage” in lines four and five abreast, but disorder began when they were asked to enter the “cage” one by one. The younger and stronger people pushed those who were older and weaker. When the police and the Border Police soldiers intervened to restore order the crossing went quickly. Inspections were conducted considerately; orders were to also allow men aged 38-39 to cross. At one point they stopped checking ages; only those who looked very young were turned back.
Palestinian youths had already gathered in the morning in two open areas next to the checkpoint. It was clear they intended a provocation. A similar group also gathered at the entrance to the checkpoint. Suddenly there was a rain of stones on the checkpoint and we all had to take shelter. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The situation was explosive. We feared violence would break out at any moment, but the Border Police, police and MP officers on site remained calm and the checkpoint kept operating. The Palestinian youths again tried to break through to the soldiers. They continued to play this very dangerous game after we left.
A tall Palestinian youth, aged about 18-20, was detained by the security guards who treated him violently. Pushed him, hit him, kicked him. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take photographs – but the sight was shocking. We were present at two additional arrests carried out by Border Police soldiers and the police with no violence at all. The detainees were still sitting at the checkpoint when we left. We weren’t able to wait to see what happened to them.
A mentally-handicapped man who’s known to us came to the checkpoint from the fields and was detained by the soldiers. At our request they let him cross. An older man, who’d gone through the shower of stones, sat on the ground with his hand over his heart. He was very pale. One of the soldiers suggesting bringing help. The man refused, and also refused to wet his face or drink a few sips. He recovered a few minutes later and continued on his way. Meanwhile a long line of men had formed at the lower women’s crossing, trying to bypass the regular men’s line. The women were forced to crowd in between those jumpy people and came out sweating and exhausted. After a long time, perhaps an hour, a Border Police officer decided to relieve the congestion and opened an alternative crossing for all those who were waiting there. We didn’t understand why men preferred to wait on that line for so long when they could have crossed quickly through the regular line. Many people waited next to the vehicle entrance to Bethlehem, trying to take a shortcut to the buses from there. The Palestinian police were in charge; from time to time they opened a crossing for elderly women, nuns and what appeared to be people with pull. The others were asked to go down to the regular entrance.
In conclusion: The number crossing seemed to have been greater than last week. The groups of youths were also larger, and despite ceaseless provocations weren’t able to ignite the checkpoint. Despite the hail of stones the checkpoint didn’t close; crossing went quickly, considering how many people were there.