A Sacramento activist monitors the Israeli gateway where Palestinians enter Jerusalem
It is 4:30 a.m. when I arrive at the Bethlehem checkpoint. It’s a gateway, known as “Checkpoint 300,” that thousands of Palestinians are made to pass through every day in order to get to their jobs in Jerusalem. The people come early, and on foot, because Israel does not allow cars with Palestinian license plates into Jerusalem.
Set up and operated by the Israeli military, checkpoints are one of the many ways the state of Israel enforces its occupation, now in its 42nd year, of the Palestinian West Bank. The majority of these checkpoints did not exist 15 years ago. But there are now more than 600 of them in the occupied West Bank, part of the ever-increasing restrictions on Palestinian ability to move in their own land.
My partner and I journeyed here from Sacramento in mid-October, and on December 2, we volunteered to help a peace group (the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel) that monitors the checkpoints. Our job is counting how many people pass each day, documenting human-rights violations and intervening with calls to Israeli authorities if we think it can help.
Checkpoint 300 is next to the main road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Lights perched high on the concrete wall—what has come to be called the Apartheid Wall—illuminate a huge metal door and watchtower that run over the road. Controlled by the Israeli military, this monstrous structure is built on Bethlehem land.
Although the checkpoint is not scheduled to open before 5 a.m., there are already almost 1,000 people waiting. Most are lined up, literally stuffed into the metal barred passage that runs parallel to the wall, another implement of the Israeli occupation. Palestinians waiting to pass through are spilling out, standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting, and holding their positions as more workers arrive.
With barely an inch to move, people are chatting, smoking, waiting. Those at the front of the line have already been there for hours. Some are sleeping, propped up against the metal bars, with pieces of cardboard to protect them from the cold. Coffee and tea vendors provide some comforts as they make a living. There are no bathrooms outside the checkpoint. It is cold. A bread vendor makes sales through the metal bars.
It is almost 5:30 a.m., and the checkpoint is still not open. The number of waiting people has now swelled to about 1,500. People look anxious to get to their jobs. The EAPPI accompaniers call the Israeli Humanitarian Hotline to report the delay and ask what can be done, the first of a number of intervening calls today.
As I walk along the outside of the cattle-chutelike passage, I want to take a picture, so I can let others know what this looks like, but I cannot. I am embarrassed. Several people greet me through the bars, “Ahlan, ahlan” (“Welcome, welcome” in Arabic). Finally a man asks if I would like him to take a picture. I hand him my camera through the bars. Attentively, he checks to see that the photo is good. I thank him. He tells me, “Show the people. American people are good. If they know they will do something.” I tell him I will. I don’t ask him why he has this faith in the American people.
The women stay close to one another, waiting to enter. Only a very few and very desperate enter the metal barred walkway before the checkpoint is open and the line has begun to move. To do so means they will be sandwiched between men on all sides.
When the checkpoint finally opens, the low murmur of the crowd suddenly rises, there is swaying but little forward movement as the mass of people outside make their way into the walkway that eventually leads to the first turnstile entrance of the checkpoint.
After the initial rush, the men urge the women to pass ahead of them, sensitive to the uncomfortable and culturally unacceptable situation of such close physical contact. They do the same for the female international observers.
But sometimes the women, children and elderly do get caught up in the pushing mass of bodies. Multiple times the turnstile, controlled by a young Israeli soldier, stops without reason, and unaware, the people from behind keep pushing forward. Several times I observe people being literally lifted off the ground or pressed against the metal fencing. An elderly man’s kaffiyeh is accidentally tugged off his head, packages are crushed and a woman frantically holds her baby above her head. Then it calms as everyone realizes that the turnstile has been stopped, and they wait again for it to budge.
I am monitoring the first turnstile and permit check. I do this by standing with an EAPPI accompanier from Sweden. We are separated from those entering by metal chain-link fencing and bars. We can see the young Israeli soldier who controls the turnstile, deciding who will continue through the checkpoint and who will be sent back, unable to enter Jerusalem, historically a Palestinian Jewish, Christian and Muslim city that has been open for centuries. Until now. West Jerusalem was taken by Israel in 1948. East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel along with the rest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, was subsequently annexed by Israel.
The soldier is encased in a presumably bulletproof booth. As the people pass in front of him, holding out their permits, he yells “Wahid, wahid” (“One, one”)—the only Arabic I hear him speak all morning.
Then, without warning, he stops the turnstile for several minutes. Perhaps he thinks they are moving too fast; he is not required to explain or to warn. A man is trapped inside the turnstile, holding onto his package that does not fit in the narrow space. The turnstiles are not designed for those with packages, children, the elderly with canes, the disabled.
I decided to take a picture and my flash alerts the soldier. He angrily stops the turnstile and demands that I give him my camera. I do not. Instead, I pretend to erase the photo. But I am horrified that my action has caused another delay.
Once done with the permit check, those who are physically able sprint across the tarmac to another line, another turnstile, a metal detector and baggage screen, and then finally, the ID check. It is a straight path across, but the Israeli soldiers have positioned metal barricades obstructing the path. Those who cannot hurdle or squeeze under the barricades are forced to walk around, slowing them down. I watch a covered Muslim woman hitch up her long coat, exposing her legs to her knees in order to take the faster route of squeezing through the metal barricade. Then she runs to the other side and hitches her long coat again.
All told, I am witness to more than 2,500 human-rights violations this morning. I feel a mixture of anger, disgust and shame. How is it that this can continue day after day? Why do the people of Israel allow this humiliation of another people? Why do they send their sons and daughters to be the enforcers of this ugly occupation? Why do governments, including mine, support this? And if the human rights of some are seen as more important than the rights of others, than do human rights mean anything at all?
Reports and photos of Daugherty’s experiences in the West Bank can be found at http://bethlehemnarratives.blogspot.com.