Morning of dark at Checkpoint 300 (by EA Elspeth)

Morning of dark. Credit EAPPI.HJonsson

Morning of dark [Photo: EAPPI/HOJonsson]

It is dark – 4 o’clock in the morning. Makeshift stalls with falafel, pitta bread, coffee, and cigarettes are already set up. The streets are full of men spilling off buses and cars preparing themselves for the ordeal of getting through Checkpoint 300. Low murmurs of “sabah hilhair”, meaning “good morning, morning of light”, fill the air, but this is not a morning of light for those workers who are steeling themselves to get through the checkpoint. For them early morning is a morning of fear, dread and humiliation – a morning of dark.

Checkpoint 300 is one of over 500 permanent roadblocks and checkpoints illegally obstructing Palestinian movement. It blocks what used to be the main road from Hebron to Jerusalem and is the pivotal crossing for people from Bethlehem and its environs into what is known by the Israeli government as Jerusalem, but by the international community as illegally annexed Palestinian land.

The fences, walls and barriers of the checkpoint are built on a confiscated Palestinian olive grove once owned by the family who still live there, clearly visible on either side of the separation barrier. And to add insult to injury, the checkpoint has been given the Israeli name Gilo after a nearby illegal settlement. Settlers, however, do not use this checkpoint – this one is for the Palestinians and early in the morning it is a harrowing place to be.

Waiting in the dark at the checkpoint [Photo:EAPPI/HOJonsson]

Each morning up to 8,000 people, mainly men, have to snake their way through a series of narrow barriers, turnstiles and metal detectors to get to work. As people with West Bank ID, they are not allowed to live – or even drive – in Jerusalem ‘for security reasons’, so they come early in the morning and join the queue with no idea how long it will take them to cross the 200 metres between the food stalls beside the entrance lanes and the buses waiting to take them to work on the other side.

The Morning line at checkpoint 300. Credit EAPPI H.Jonsson

The morning line at Checkpoint 300 [Photo: EAPPI/HOJonsson]

The Israeli government considers each one of these ordinary working men to be a potential terrorist, needing to be contained, controlled and restrained. As potential terrorists they are subjected to a form of structural violence that is dehumanising and degrading. Penned within grills, metal corridors and full body turnstiles that are often locked with no warning, they are routinely shouted at, mocked and insolently ignored by soldiers young enough to be their children or grandchildren. As they queue, a shrill woman’s voice often barks out painfully loud commands over a harsh tannoy while overhead a fully armed soldier surveys the scene from a gangway high above. Any argument is greeted by an aggressive grey clad security guard, pointing to the exit.

Anxiously waiting at the metal detectors Credit EAPPI HOJonsson

Anxiously waiting at the metal detectors [Photo: EAPPI/HOJonsson]

Despite all this, these men are considered to be the lucky ones. They have managed to obtain permits to work in Israel and will earn twice as much as those who work in the West Bank.  But their good fortune is precarious. Permits are routinely rejected at the ID booths and although the reason for refusal may be something as simple as a cut on a fingerprint (everyone has to undergo a biometric test), they are seldom told why.  The often disdainful, haughty border control soldiers turn them back with a gesture of dismissal or make them stand around forlornly for hours awaiting information, fearful that they will be late and lose their jobs….or indeed that they have lost them already since unscrupulous Israeli employers can cancel a contract at the drop of a hat.

As EAs, it is our role to stand on both sides of the checkpoint to monitor what is happening and to offer some sort of protective presence to those going through. We also have a series of telephone numbers to try to help those who are refused entry, but in reality, very little can be done to ease the situation. It is physically, emotionally and mentally deeply stressful.

EAIngrid trying to help.Credit EAPPI.HOJonsson

EA Ingrid trying to help [Photo: EAPPI/HOJonsson]

One Israeli family from Haifa who had never experienced a checkpoint asked why the experience was so upsetting:

“Surely it is just like an airport?” they said.

“Not like any airport I have ever known!” I retorted.

One morning for instance when I was on duty, eight of the twelve ID booths on the Jerusalem side were open. Very few people were passing through and it looked like things were going to be smooth that day. But the men who trickled through, adjusting their belts, shoe laces and jackets from the metal detectors, had faces that told a different story – they were sombre, crushed and vulnerable, with a hurt of humiliation behind the eyes. As I smiled “sabah hilhair, good morning” to them, they looked at me with such sadness. “It is terrible in there,” said one. “It is very bad today,” said another. “This is a madhouse,” said another.

Closed Turnstile at Checkpoint 300 Credit: EAPPI HOjonsson

The closed turnstile at Checkpoint 300
[Photo: EAPPI/HOJonsson]

I contacted my colleague on the other side and discovered that turnstiles, gates, metal detectors, all entrances had been closed for long periods of time for no apparent reason, creating a huge build-up of desperate people. Hundreds, probably thousands of men were tightly packed together in the main access lane, four or five abreast.

Climbing the walls at checkpoint 300. Credit EAPPI. H.Jonsson

Climbing the walls at Checkpoint 300 [Photo: EAPPI/HOJonsson]

People couldn’t breathe, young men were crawling over the heads of their friends, climbing on the bars of the corridors – despite the grease of years smeared on by others to stop them – or forcing themselves under a railing. The sound of their distress could be heard in neighbouring streets. At times like this, because of the pressure, people faint, have nose bleeds; in recent years one man died. “They treat them like battery hens”, said one woman who lives nearby and regularly hears their cries.  “We are treated like animals,” agreed another, “but animals have more rights in Israel”.

Watch this video taken by an EA to see what it’s like as men made late for work by the queues search for quicker routes through the checkpoint [Credit: EAPPI/HOJonsson]

The checkpoint in Bethlehem is an outrage. Like all other checkpoints, (see EA Sandra’s blog on the checkpoint at Qalandia) it illegally restricts access to work, livelihood, education and worship and breaches International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law. It also breaches Israel’s obligation under the Geneva Conventions to care for the people whose land they occupy.

What can be done? Many organisations such as Diakonia, Machsom Watch, Kavlaoved and Christian Aid are doing their best to publicise what is happening, to lobby for change and to help. But we can also spread the news of the conditions at the checkpoint.  Our elected representatives need to know what happening on the ground here in Israel and occupied Palestine, so please spend a moment to write to or email them and publicise this abuse of the most basic of human rights. For contact details for British elected representatives, click here. Contact details for Irish TDs can be found here.

Watch this video taken recently by an EA to hear the sounds of the checkpoint [Credit: EAPPI/HOJonsson]