Many millions were invested in the construction of the Bethlehem Checkpoint ("Rachel Crossing") "according to the international standards of border crossings in a way that will provide for security needs" (Israel Police on YNET, 7.12.2005). The checkpoint is supposed to regulate the passage of Palestinians into Jerusalem and tourists on their way to the Church of the Nativity inside Bethlehem.
About 2500 Palestinians cross the checkpoint every day. The entrance to the checkpoint is a narrow passage with a 60 cm. wide metal turnstile. There are three checking posts conducting body searches, but only two of them are active. Naturally these conditions create a bottleneck during peak-hours. After the body inspection passers reach the ID checking posts. There they present the palm of their hand for biometric inspection, their magnetic card and travel permit. The checkpoint is opened for Palestinians at 5 a.m., and by 7 a.m. they are supposed to be through. Tourists are allowed passage with their passports only, through the same narrow paths, and they witness the horrific crowding.
Lately we have been receiving desperate calls from people at the checkpoint about the unbearable situation there during morning peak-pressure. Our phone complaints all week have been to no avail.
Here is a description of a single, random morning:
04:15 - the entry line stretches far beyond the car park. Having learned from their recent experience, many arrive two or three hours ahead of official opening time, and sleep in front of the checkpoint entrance.
04:45 - the main entrance to the checkpoint compound 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 now in operation.
By now unrest is growing among the waiting workers. People are in a hurry to get to work and lose their patience. On the Israeli side of the checkpoint, many employers and buses await the workers. We hear a ‘rumble' on the Palestinian side, out of our field of vision.
We learn that this week all - every single one - of the inspectors have been replaced! They have finished their army service, and ‘there are no new volunteers'. We cannot believe out own ears. Is this how the ‘most-moster-mostest' (Moral? Efficient?) army in the world manages its activity?
06:25 - few have gone through the checks. Exiting, they tell us what happens at the checking sleeves. The yells are clearly heard. We complained to the Israeli police Crossings Administration - the DCO representative on the spot, as well as to the army hotline. The answer: it will be looked into and sorted out. In spite of the tension, not a single ‘blue' (civilian) police officer is in sight. The DCO representative listens to our complaint, as usual, keeps crossing 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 the sleeves fails to function - again and again.
07:00 - phone call to the deputy commander of Etzyon DCO. He listens, but nothing changes on the ground. Chaos everywhere, shouts are heard from all directions. On the Israeli side, the soldiers are sprawled idle in their seats at the checking posts, since the Palestinians are not let through from the other side.
Two employees of the private firm that operates the checkpoint are seen walking around. One of them, looking particularly jolly, either tipsy or drugged, walks from post to post laughing merrily and getting in the way of the fortunates who finally make it to the last post before exiting. At post no 5 the turnstile is not functioning and passers are forced to leap over it - which does not seem to disturb anyone.
Still, the ‘civilian' guards are busy heftily 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 the checkpoint the end of the queue is still out of sight. People try to get ahead of each other; youngsters hop over fences - since many have already lost their day's work. The situation in the ‘humanitarian' line is not much better: many women and elderly people give up and to back home.
More desperate appeals for help: we call the ‘crossings administration' ("I am not responsible for the Palestinian side" - inconceivable! - who then is responsible for the checkpoint's not functioning? How did this chaos come about? Because of Palestinian conduct or because of the way the checkpoint is run?) Asking why no policeman was in sight, we were told he would arrive later (When? When no longer needed?).
08:00 - The situation goes from bad to worse. People coming out beg of us to do something.
08:20 - Glory be! The policeman arrives running, headed for the sleeves. The pace picks up a bit - but those crossing now have already missed their chance to put in a full day of work. More and more people turn to us, each in his own special way, and tell us what they have been through this past week. The private company employees explain to the complainers that they are to blame for not knowing how to stand properly in line.
09:40 - The pressure is finally off.
When Bethlehem Checkpoint was opened a few years ago, a tourist guide reported to YNET that: "With the upgrading of the compound, the security forces ‘managed' to produce for tourists a concentrated version of the Palestinian experience. The tourists now personally live through the humiliation process of the checkpoint as well as life behind the wall." Response: The Minister of Tourism in the previous government proposed to construct a separate crossing for tourists...
ATTENTION, CIVIL ADMINISTRATION:
In a tour which the Civil Administration conducted for ‘peace organizations', among other things, the following was said: "Have you any idea what an increase the past two years have seen in traffic accidents throughout the West Bank? And why is that? Well? Because the checkpoints have been removed and there is nothing now to stop reckless driving..."
Perhaps checkpoints and barriers should be erected throughout the State of Israel as a measure of lessening traffic accidents?!
The participants of this tour were asked to let the Palestinians know that the army's humanitarian hotline answers any call, 24 hours a day. One of the participants asked: "If a Palestinian calls the hotline at 2 a.m. after soldiers entered his home, smashed electrical appliances and kitchen ware, turned all the closets inside out and trashed everything they found, what answer would he get?" She was told, "Any question posed in real time will be answered immediately. Even if the Palestinian would call at 2 a.m."
The answer we usually get is "We're looking in to it". In the meantime, the house goes up in flames...