Hashmonaim (Ni'ilin), Makkabim (Beit Sira)
We arrived at the Ni’ilin checkpoint, known as “Hashmona’im crossing,” at approximately 05:35. After our experience last week, and having become familiar with the site, we went through the checkpoint in our car this time and parked by the roadside just beyond. We crossed the road and stood next to where people hop over the safety railing and descend the dirt path to the checkpoint. Food stands await them here on the other side of the safety railing. There are also stands lower down on the path from Ni’ilin.
There was a long line of people below which stretched from the pedestrian crossing almost to the yellow metal bar. But it advanced quickly and in an orderly manner. We chose a man whose clothes were easily identifiable to time how long it takes him to go through.
We saw many bullet casings by the roadside and wondered whether anything had happened. We asked G., who spoke Hebrew. He asked the guy who was preparing balls of falafel at one of the stands. He asked whether there had been a shooting. The joking reply: We fired rockets at Tel Aviv! But he didn’t know about the casings. (We received the explanation later at the Beit Sira checkpoint, as detailed below). Meanwhile we started talking with G., He’s from Beit Sira, employed in Modi’in Ilit. He operates heavy construction equipment (a kind of bulldozer). During the week he leaves it in Modi’in Elite, but returns home with it on weekends, and he must enter on Sunday through the Ni’ilin checkpoint. The bulldozer is inspected in the vehicle lane (we hadn’t seen who drove it) and G. goes through the pedestrian crossing. We arranged to meet on the Israeli side and see how long it will take him to go through.
We returned to our car, turned around and went through the checkpoint. We were ready to be asked for IDs and perhaps be questioned, because the people operating the checkpoint had seen us. We saw one of them looking at us, but they didn’t wave us over. Apparently they realized who we were after having met us last week. We crossed smoothly. We said good morning and they wished us a good trip, with no questions and no inspection. We parked down the road, beyond the plaza.
The place was full of people and vehicles. Some people complained to us about the checkpoint and the fact that some days it takes a very long time to go through, up to an hour. When we reached the point where the workers emerge we saw the man we’d intended to time already sitting outside. It took him 15 minutes at the most to cross. We waited for G. to arrive. It took him about 25 minutes. On our way to the car we met people who asked about Sylvia; we explained which documents they must provide in order for us to try to cancel their blacklisting. We returned to the car and drove to the Beit Sira checkpoint.
Beit Sira checkpoint
We arrived at approximately 06:30. We parked by the roadside, facing Modi’in, and walked toward the pedestrian checkpoint. People in the parking lot approached us to complain there’s no revolving gate which allows people to exit the parking area toward Safa and Beit ‘Ur a-That. They must exit on the Beit Sira side and cross the road at a dangerous spot. The pedestrian bridge over the road doesn’t help because it leads into the checkpoint area.
People also complained about the difficult situation at the Shu’afat checkpoint (‘Anata). One reported that he left home with his children at 04:30 to bring them to school. It takes over an hour to go through the checkpoint, and then he drives to the school (which is very close, but beyond the checkpoint). He waits for it to open, drops off the children long before classes begin and hurries away to arrive at the Beit Sira checkpoint in time to pick people up. He has a blue ID card, because the Shua’fat refugee camp is included in Jerusalem’s municipal boundary, but it’s on the other side of the Separation Wall. He says that only children attending municipal schools are entitled to be picked up by school buses. But many children, like his, attend private schools, and they’re not allowed through the checkpoint in organized transport.
After speaking to people we went to the checkpoint exit area. We approached the revolving gate at the exit, and photographed. Suddenly the revolving gate stopped; usually people through it freely (on their way out, after they’ve gone through inspection). At first we thought someone was being called back, but then discovered we were the reason. Suddenly we were surrounded by armed, uniformed checkpoint personnel (not military): who are you, what are you doing here, photography is forbidden, give us your phones, etc. While we’re attempted to find out who they were and what authority they had, a man in civilian dress appeared, wearing a badge. He introduced himself as Aharon, the checkpoint manager. Last week, when we were here with Rachel H., our colleague, she told us about him and his positive approach. So we decided to act accordingly. We told him we’re from Machsom Watch and had heard of him from colleagues who’d come to the checkpoint in the past. We made it clear we’d seen no sign forbidding photography.
Aharon turned out, in fact, to have a positive approach. He told his staff to leave, keeping one armed guard. He explained that this is a security installation, showed us around and pointed to the sign forbidding photography. He said he won’t take our phones, but he asked us to delete the photos. Then he explained at length what happens at the checkpoint. It’s open daily until 13:00. Between 2300-2500 people cross daily, most of them early in the morning. After 08:00 most people coming through are relatives of prisoners, on their way to visit them in prisons. They arrive at the checkpoint in buses, cross on foot, and then continue in buses that wait for them on the Israeli side. The Red Cross arranges the transportation.
Aharon said they see their job as providing a service to the people crossing. The checkpoint is run by a company under the auspices of the Defense Ministry. He himself is employed by the Defense Ministry. He’s very proud that the state invested a substantial sum in building the pedestrian bridge in order to insure the safety of people using the checkpoint. He says there’s direct access from the bridge to the area outside the checkpoint (which isn’t what the Palestinians told us). Even now, despite the tension, they continue to provide normal service. The only crossing operated by the Defense Ministry that closed was the Gilboa (Jalameh) crossing, after a number of stabbing attempts. It has also reopened.
We asked how many lanes there are, and how the crossing operates. He suggested we come with him to see for ourselves. He showed us four inspection booths and what the inspectors see on their computer screen when a person places his finger on the fingerprint reader. There are no fenced corridors here, unlike Qalandiya or elsewhere. There’s a revolving gate before the scanners; from there people go to the inspection booths. He says no one here raises their voice or speaks aggressively, neither the personnel nor the Palestinians. That’s why there’s no pushing or any need for a humanitarian crossing. They have gates for wheelchair access; he says they have a wheelchair on site if someone should need it. He even offered us a cup of coffee, but we declined.
Aharon also explained the reason for the bullet casings on the road at the Ni’ilin checkpoint. We showed him one we’d brought. He said they’re blanks, used in training. There hadn’t been any live fire at Hashmona’im checkpoint (Ni’ilin) in recent days. Even so, he asked us not to walk around among the Palestinians, because these days “you never know.” They prefer we not approach the revolving gate. We thanked him and parted.
We left shortly before 07:00.