The lives of others
|They come from Yatta, Sussia, Hebron, Halhul, Bani Na'im, Tekoa, Husan, Batir. Those from Yatta set out at 2 A.M. and arrived here at 3:30, to get a place at the head of the line. The Hebronites left home at 3 A.M. Those from Husan and Batir, which are closer, started out at 3:30. More and more taxis and panel vans pull up and unload dozens of people into the dark of the night. By 5 A.M. around 2,000 to 2,500 people have already gathered here.
The hundreds of early arrivals occupy the first few dozen meters of the line, pressing into a very narrow passage created by two fences made of bars that tower above human height. Some young people who have just arrived scramble wildly up the fence from the outside, drape themselves over the top and hang there for a bit before sliding down and shoving themselves forcefully between the people in the line. Some of the latter protest with shouts and try to release their arms, which have been trapped by the dark, winding human snake, in order to push the intruders back. But in vain. The sheer force of gravity pulls them inexorably down, until they are finally crushed amid the writhing mass of humanity.
Sometimes knapsacks, bundles and plastic bags fly through the air along with the fence climbers. Someone in the dense crowd below tries to catch the objects before they land on people's heads and shoulders, even as the agile throwers scuttle up the fence, then slide down the other side, implanting themselves in the crowd.
The lights that shine along the passageway illuminate the garbage-strewn stone path to the right of the fence, and here and there also the forehead, cheek or chin of a face that is being squeezed against the iron bars, or a nose that angles out a bit, and fists whose fingers grip the bars tightly. Draw closer and you can see an entire face and a pair of eyes looking back at you, and another pair of eyes and many more pairs of eyes. So you don't move closer, because it's not pleasant to look into these eyes. Nor is it pleasant to hear a hard, steely voice saying: "Look at us here - animals, not people. Your dogs are more human beings than we are." That voice, emitted through thick lips that protrude for a moment between two bars, is painful.
Now I move back, another step back, and another, stumbling over stones and all kinds of objects lying there, but nevertheless unable to turn my back on this sight, in which a sudden change now occurs: they are moving between the bars, pushing forward, thrusting more strongly, someone cries out in pain, another curses, a third tries to calm the situation. It's probably impossible to fall in this dense mass of people, but one can get battered and bruised: by the bars, by elbows and knees that ram into you accidentally or deliberately. And by a fist that lands a powerful punch, deliberately and with malice. Though it is only possible to guess this from the outside, or hear about it later. For example, from someone who emerged from one such morning with a broken rib, and has not gone back since.
Still, they are moving - that much is clear - moving forward. They pass under a large green sign that says "Entrance," enter a whitewashed fluorescent-lit corridor, head for a narrow revolving gate that turns and clicks, turns and clicks. One by one, they go through and pass a soldier who glances casually at the papers they hold out to him, and a young woman in uniform who is sealed in a tiny room, also white, leaving only her face and shoulders visible behind a window's thick glass. Occasionally she is asked to examine a paper that is held up against the glass or stuffed through a crack I can't see.
After the window, the people in line are shunted through another revolving gate - or maybe not, maybe it's the first gate that is still revolving and clicking in my head - and past a pair of guards from a private company, dressed in black and toting machine guns. This short stretch is traversed in absolute, cowed silence. Here no one shouts, and pushing is also impossible; it's one by one, everyone to his fate.
Then, all at once it's not crowded, because after the exit from the corridor there is some sort of opening in some sort of fence, and on the other side of the fence lies, with surprising generosity, a huge space, completely fenced in and lit by powerful projectors. Figures run across the open space. Those who came through the opening are caught in the glare of the lights. And they are running fast, these figures, still one by one, because there is plenty of room and you can win the race even without pushing, all you have to do is run fast, then faster, in order to be the first to reach the big building on the other side.
It too is well lit, by white fluorescent lights that reveal to the eye that tracks the running figures more revolving gates and more fences, but no longer the runners themselves, because they are swallowed up into the big building on the other side of the large space. They have disappeared, they and their bundles and their pairs of eyes and their elbows and knees. Also gone is the firefly glow of the cigarettes that previously punctuated the dark of the narrow, fenced-in passage, and instead of their acrid smell one's lungs now fill with the cold air of the winter dawn that makes the dark skies above Bethlehem gradually turn to gray. And above the hundreds of people who are still packed into the fenced-in passage, who move forward for a few moments and stop, move forward and stop, apparently at the command of the electric revolving gate, as attested by the clicking which falls silent and starts up by turn.
I am not allowed into the building into which the runners have disappeared. So, I see them again only when they emerge from the other side, through the iron rods of different revolving gates, one by one. Some of them hobble along with untied shoes or pause to tie the laces, or close their loosened belt, or stuff a loose shirttail back into their trousers. They advance quickly to windows that are twins of the first window they passed. But here, each of them presents his papers to young women in uniform who are sealed behind armored glass. They also hold the palms of their right hands over a device that does a biometric check. All is done with exemplary order and in silence, without words being exchanged.
One last revolving gate and they hurry - how they hurry - to the exit, without taking note of the signs that direct you to the parking lots, in one of which I parked my car earlier and left it almost solitary in the lot's immaculate space, where the signs wish you a pleasant, safe visit and ask you to keep the terminal clean. They also ignore the large rectangular poster, located right at the entrance which, in English, urges you to visit the Holy Land NOW! Instead, they run along an asphalt path that leads to the outskirts of Jerusalem, which greets them with skies that have already donned the fresh blue of a new morning.
A large assortment of vehicles awaits them on the broad road leading rightward to Jerusalem and leftward to an iron gate in a high concrete wall. Pickups and panel vans, taxis and minibuses and family cars absorb the crowd and set off - to the right, of course. But not everyone is picked up. Many dozens of the new arrivals make their way on foot to nearby Gilo junction or sit down to wait by the roadside. They have some time on their hands, and can tell you how, in the dead of night, they left Yatta or Hebron, Husan or Batir, to get a place in line, and how they stand between the bars every day, for an hour, two hours, sometimes three hours, and emerge at 6, 7, sometimes 8 A.M., tired, nerves jangling, waiting for a potential employer to show up and hire them for a day's construction work in Har Homa, Modi'in, Elad, Rishon Letzion, Tel Aviv. Because some have steady jobs and their employers come here to pick them up, and others don't, but come to try their luck.
Over and over, I hear the words: "Like animals, like sheep they push us into fences, we're treated worse than dogs." Their eyes are not always bleary, not even always angry. Just eyes of tired people resigned to their fate - and now I can no longer move back and disengage my eyes from theirs.
I know that at this very hour, today and every day, hundreds and thousands of other people are crammed between fences and within revolving gates at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, and at the checkpoint near Tul Karm, called "Ephraim Gate." And others are passing, perhaps more comfortably, through the checkpoint called the "Olives Passage," the Betar checkpoint and the checkpoints at Jaba, Hizme and Tarqumiya, whose Hebrew names I don't yet know, but through whose barriers I have already passed or been delayed or turned back for any of a slew of reasons: here only Palestinians can cross, here only Israelis. Here an apathetic, gum-chewing soldier waves the cars through with a weary gesture of the arm and the traffic flows; here a guard from a private company stops every car and a huge jam is created, and here a guard waves the car in front of me into the right-hand lane and it's stopped, but asks me how I'm doing and sends me jauntily on my way, and when I look in the rearview mirror I see that the people in the car that was stopped are being made to get out. No one can make sense of the tangle of orders and regulations and decrees by which this cacophony is managed.
But many thousands of others don't even try to make sense of them, because they don't have the relevant permits. Well, go figure why one person got a permit and another didn't, why soldiers tore the permit of a third into shreds - in any event, they won't be allowed through any checkpoint. Some of them come from great distances. On twisting roads they come, from the northern West Bank to the hills south of Jerusalem, where the "separation barrier" has not yet been built. There they join the "paperless" locals and like them sprint between hills and rocks to infiltrate into Jerusalem under cover of dark and find, somewhere in Israel or in the settlements, work for a day, two days, a week.
That is, if they are not caught by an army manhunt, because the army knows all about them and all about their infiltration routes, and it opens and shuts its eyes on the hills of the Etzion Bloc according to orders that come from above or below, there's no knowing. The people from the far north can be found in the afternoon at collection sites in the neighboring villages, where they are herded - 10, 12, sometimes 20 - into panel vans that take them back home for a smuggler's fee of hundreds of shekels. If, that is, they haven't been arrested at their workplace and imprisoned.
Why am I telling all this? In order to document and bear witness. Because time and again I encounter people who are totally ignorant of these things, which take place day in and day out a few kilometers from their homes and sometimes under their very noses.
"Really, what have we come to, who would have believed ... " these good people say to me. "Believe me, I hardly read the paper or listen to the news anymore. Enough, already, how much can a person take?"
But if there are no special incidents, the establishment media have long since stopped reporting about daily life in the West Bank; now all they report is economic prosperity, quiet and security of a kind not seen for many years, now that the terrorism has ended. Well, that particular message - about the quiet and the security - seems to have been internalized by the good people, knowingly or not. The fact is that once the terrorist attacks disappeared from their cities and their streets, they shut themselves up in their private routines even more comfortably than before.
"Go there and see what it looks like, the 'quiet and security,'" I occasionally say to my friends and acquaintances, good people all, pursuers of peace and justice. "Go and see the price at which it's been bought. Go and see the wrongdoing and the folly; the despair that is growing there. Go and see the powder keg you are living on." And they say: "Well, what can we do? We are against the occupation. We are against it and we do not visit the occupied territories." For them, the occupation has become an amorphous word of condemnation, a slogan, almost a myth.
And the truth is that now the "separation wall" has been built for them, and even if most of them have no idea where it goes and whom it closes in, it's easier than ever not to visit the "occupied territories": for such visits are forbidden, and these good burghers are nothing if not law-abiding, of course. As though they have never heard of crimes perpetrated under the auspices of the law. As though Israel were a law-abiding state. In truth, though, they don't bother trying to find out exactly what's permitted and what's forbidden there, on that other planet. Not long ago, I was asked, and not for the first time: "What, you go to Hebron? How is that possible? Is it even allowed?"
"Yes, it's allowed," I tell them. "There is even an Egged bus, no. 160, that plies a regular route from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem directly into the heart of the devastation that a few hundred Jews wrought in the Old City of Hebron. Go and see it for once with your own eyes!"
No, they will not go. They don't go to places like that. "It's too dangerous. Everyone there is extremist and violent, both the settlers and the Palestinians, no?"
"Maybe," I say. Not insisting on correcting the bizarre symmetry they always invoke in order to shield themselves from pangs of conscience and inner wrestling that gets too tough. "But," I say, "it's precisely there that you will be protected by the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and the officers of the Israel Police. You will see mostly them and their vehicles roaring through the streets. You will hardly see any Palestinians. They have long since been removed to behind barbed-wire fences, rusty barrels and concrete blocks."
At which point I always recall again, with embarrassment, the time a few years ago when I myself was reassured in this same way by a soldier who was posted at the entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, when I asked him, for some reason - maybe because everything looked so desolate and ruined - whether I could wander around freely.
"Yes, of course," he replied jovially, "wherever you want. There are no Palestinians here. They are locked in their houses. Curfew!" he exclaimed, and waved his arm in a gesture that embraced the neighborhoods and homes adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The result is that the vast majority of the Israeli public simply does not see and does not know. And does not want to see or know. That cliche is uttered time and again, but nevertheless I do not find it stale; on the contrary: true and accurate and profound, a disgraceful indictment of the entire Israeli society and of no one more than its enlightened intellectuals. You do not want to see and know, to see and know the details, the minute details that - the details and not the "occupation" - are the real thing. The terrible, dangerous thing. So, my friends and I will continue to document and to bear witness. We will bear witness to the checkpoints that are disguised as orderly border crossings in a place where there are no borders; we will bear witness to the Palestinians who are dragged from their homes in the dead of night - yes, even now, in this supposedly quiet period - and are arrested and tried in their thousands in the military courts that are enclosed behind high fences on the edges of the cities or in the heart of the Negev, in absurd legal procedures or without any legal procedures. We will bear witness to the demolition orders issued for tents and shanties in the desert wastes and to the destruction of the cisterns of the people who dwell in those places without water and without electricity on the other side of fences that surround villas and lush gardens and flourishing organic agriculture of settlers in the southern Hebron Hills. We will bear witness to genuine, unvarnished Jewish fascism in the heart of Old Hebron, and now also in Jerusalem neighborhoods, under the auspices of the Israel Police and the IDF and with the validation of the Israeli courts.
Nor will we recognize the legality of the various "general's orders" that are intended solely to keep us away from the places where these things are happening in the name of our country and in our name, its citizens. Rather, we will go to Bethlehem, to see and to bear witness - as in this article - to the people who stand for hours, every night and every morning, herded like cattle between the fences of that checkpoint, which is next to the high wall that surrounds Rachel's Tomb, a wall that hides it from the sight of the visitors and worshipers.
We will bear witness to these workers, the fortunate ones who have passage permits, who are forced to humiliate themselves in this way in order to make a living, because no genuine industry, no factories and no enterprises, have sprung up in the places occupied by Israel for more than 40 years. And we will bear witness to the thousands of others who plead for permits and are turned down - "Shin Bet rejects," they are called - and sneak in by night through the hills and are later hunted at their places of work. This same thing - the hunting, the capture and arrest - is already happening in our very midst, in our cities and towns, where we are being asked to inform on them and hand them over. That's what happened in the Jerusalem neighborhood where I live and now it has spread to many other places, too. In the city of Elad, for example, a "shabahim operation" - referring to "illegally present" Palestinians - was held a few weeks ago, and was reported as follows:
"Rabbi Yitzchak Idan, the mayor of Elad, urged the city's residents to call the municipal hotline at 108 or the police at 100 about the presence of shabahim at construction or business sites, in order to step up the struggle to expel them from the city. In the wake of the lessons gleaned from previous operations, it was decided to bring in mounted police, because in earlier operations some shabahim fled on foot into the open fields around Elad, where it is difficult to get to them in vehicles or on foot. The director of the security unit, Shlomi Malka, said: 'By order of the mayor, Rabbi Yitzhak Idan, we launched a shabahim operation in an effort to eradicate the phenomenon. The latest operation proved that no shabahim were found and the city is relatively clean.'"
I want to bear witness to these words, too: about a city in Israel that cleanses itself of human beings - no, not human beings, shabahim, who by this epithet cease to be people who are sons to mothers, fathers to children, people who receive and host me and my friends sociably in their homes in Batir and Deheisheh, in Husan and Hebron.
And if you tell me that I am simplifying a complex security reality of a national conflict, of existential threat, of terrorism, etc., I will tell you that my human and Jewish conscience tells me that there has never yet been a security reality in this world that justifies depriving such a large population of human and civil rights, justifies imprisoning them behind walls, persecuting and humiliating them, not temporarily and in circumstances of war, but permanently: because 42 years is no longer a temporary time - it is the permanent time of the State of Israel, it is the terror that rules on high now; state terror under the auspices of its citizens, the bystanders. W