Tarqumiya, Thu 17.4.08, Morning
5:30 – 7:00
The New Checkpoint
We arrived at the checkpoint at 5:30. We could see a large number of workers waiting for their rides in the parking lot on the Israeli side. Since we missed the turnoff to the parking lot at the new checkpoint, Zion, the assistant checkpoint manager, showed us where to turn around in order to get back into the parking lot. We joined the line of workers' transportation waiting to be inspected but we were able to bypass them and park. As soon as we got out of the car, a number of irate workers surrounded us and the "Rashomon" stories began (named for the classic Japanese film in which four people who took part in the same incident all tell different version of what happened). The workers said they passed through the checkpoint with no hassles, in about 20-30 minutes, but they were now waiting over two hours for their rides. They said that the long thorough searches the vehicles now have to undergo is the cause of the delay:
1. They are positive that if additional inspectors are added, this will solve the problem.
2. The problem stems from the fact that the drivers are Arabs with Israeli identity cards who live in Jerusalem. They enter the territories the evening before and sleep at their relatives', or even with their wives and children who aren't allowed to live in Israel. In the morning the drivers collect the workers directly from their houses and bring them to the border.
3. The Israeli contractors don't want to pay for two rides: the ride within Palestine to the border and then a ride with a different driver on the Israeli side.
4. The workers believe that if the contractors have to pay two drivers, it will cost too much to hire Palestinians and they will be replaced by Asian workers and lose their jobs.
Someone asked us to check what had happened to one of his group who got "confused" and put something on one of the machines. He was detained. We were unable to find out what happened to him.
We went through the passage way to the exit from the checkpoint. What we saw reminded us of an airport: x-ray machines for packages, checkpoint employees sitting at counters behind glass windows, and the hand print identification machine. The workers took off their shoes but we couldn't see what kind of body check they underwent. A man wearing an orange day glow vest stood next to each hand print machine. Later Zion explained that these were locals hired for a couple of months to explain the procedures to the workers in their own language until they got used to the new techniques. Everything seemed to be going smoothly with no hitches. The Israeli guard standing at the exit refused to talk to us but didn't ask us to leave. We counted 17 people leaving per minute, which is a lower number than the 20+ we were used to at the old checkpoint. Since the workers said they were going through quickly, we're not sure of the significance of this number. The whole time we stood there one of the female employees gave orders over a loudspeaker system in order to direct the lines. The noise was annoying, but the workers moved through quickly and seemed to be treated well.
We went back to the parking lot where hundreds of workers were waiting for their rides and, accompanied by a large group of angry workers, walked in the direction of the vehicle inspection site. Zion met us and a lively discussion ensued among everyone present. Zion claimed that the employees of the new checkpoint are very interested in solving the problem of the long waiting time, but are not able to overcome the problem because of the enormous number of vehicles crossing over from the Palestinian territories. According to the rules, Israeli vehicles that stay overnight in the territories have to undergo a thorough examination. He claimed that the problem doesn't exit at the other checkpoints run by his company because the transports come to pick up the workers from the Israeli side. In his opinion, the contractors have to send rides. He even asked us if we had any suggestions how he could get in touch with the contractors. He said that if the Palestinians use Palestinian drivers and vehicles to take them to the border, this will provide jobs. In his opinion the drivers themselves are the cause of the problem because they want to sleep in the Palestinian territories, despite the fact that this is illegal. We would like to note that Zion spoke to the angry workers very politely and without any signs of arrogance.
We continued to the inspection area. The shift manager (who didn't give us his name) told us he had a lot of experience with checkpoints around Gaza. He said that the company had sent free buses to pick up the workers on the Palestinian side, but the workers didn't want to use them. He said that some 3,500 workers were crossing through Tarqumiya every day. There is no problem with the inspection of trucks carrying goods. Their number is going up every day and everything is very efficient. As we were talking, the drivers were waiting impatiently. Some of them said they had been waiting in line over three hours. One said that after the Passover holiday, he wasn’t going to continue doing things this way as it was an unbearable waste of time.
In the meantime, the inspection finished (13 vehicles are inspected at one time) and the drivers left. We decided to check exactly how much time the inspection takes. The inspectors let 13 vehicles into the inspection area and each driver got out and took his tool box with him. A few minutes later, a female dog trainer began checking around each vehicle. She inspected about two vehicles. Ten minutes had gone by.
Suddenly, the shift manager received a telephone order to let the vehicles through without further inspection! When we asked why, he explained that the people in charge had noted that the vehicles were already waiting over an hour and a half. According to the rules, when this happens, they have to let the vehicles through without inspection. (At this point we didn't know who or what to believe. How is it possible to release them without inspection? Why? Or perhaps our presence had some kind of influence…?)
We walked back to our car. (A few the workers thanked us because they believed that their rides finally came through because of us). We left at 7:00 with the parking lot still full of hundreds of waiting workers.
We suspect that the problem will be solved after the holiday closure since no one is satisfied with the present situation.