Permission to cross into Israel

By EA Maria, Southern West Bank.

“They won’t let me through. I want to visit my father in Beer Sheva hospital [in southern Israel] – he’s just been moved there from Jerusalem.” Why not? “The permit says Jerusalem so I have to go back up to the checkpoint there to go through and then travel down.  He has terminal cancer.  He’s all alone.” Today’s journey has just got longer by at least four hours each way.

This man was at Meitar Checkpoint, early one Sunday morning, right at the south west of the West Bank. Meitar is a vehicle and pedestrian checkpoint run jointly by a private company and Israeli government staff – it marks the boundary between Israel and occupied Palestine.   If you are an Israeli citizen you can drive through, I’ve never seen much of a queue.

As a Palestinian your only option is to walk through, and only then if you have your ID and exactly the right permit (unless you’re over 55).  There are limits as to what you can take, when you can go, and even then your finger print must work and the permit not be so many times folded and unfolded that it gets difficult to read.  If you are over 55 you can go through at 7am without a work permit – so you turn up with the others from your village and wait for a few hours, patiently.

26.6.2016 nearly 7am at Meitar Checkpoint - one man walks through the rails Photo EAPPI MHuff

Nearly 7am at Meitar Checkpoint – one man walks through the rails [Photo: EAPPI/M.Huff]

Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) visit checkpoints on a regular basis to see how well they are working.  About 5,640 Palestinian men (and 9 women – when it was quiet) used this checkpoint between 4 am and 7am when we were there on a recent Sunday morning. This was in Ramadan – there are usually more.  Some will go through every day, others will stay in Israel all week.

The turnstiles open at 4am for the earliest starters, letting them through to the three different lines each with x-ray machines and then checks by the guards.   To reach the turnstiles, pedestrians line up in a shed with a railed walkway, passing through just one metal door frame; easy enough when there’s an orderly queue but about 5:30 am, the pressure to get through was intense and the noise rose as people reacted to the pushing and shoving –  people even climbing round the walls to get ahead.  Beyond them are those three queues, each might have hundreds of men already, and after that the buses to get them to work.  Miss those and you’re late or you’ll have no work at all that day.

26.6.2016 nearly 7am at Meitar Checkpoint - the turnstiles in and out Photo EAPPI MHuff

The turnstiles in and out of Meitar Checkpoint [Photo: EAPPI/M.Huff]

A small number of people are refused permission to go through the checkpoint (26 last time). We often ask them why.  For some their permit doesn’t work yet – they know the employer wants them but the system doesn’t show that yet.  Or the reverse, the employer has cancelled their work permit and the first time they find out is when the security guard lets them know.  They often don’t know – time to go back and make phone calls.  For others, their finger print scan doesn’t work – or maybe the machine was faulty.

This is a ‘good’ checkpoint. The gate normally opens on time, the queue is normally predictable, the permits are normally accepted. But that is the problem now – it’s just “normal”.

I met Hanna Barag one morning at the Bethlehem checkpoint – she’s a formidable 81 year old Israeli from Machsom Watch, an Israeli Jewish organisation putting a spotlight on the checkpoints, the permit system and working to end the occupation.  We watched young men being turned away, being told that they could not go to Palestinian East Jerusalem for Friday prayers (83,000 permits for men under 45 were cancelled early in Ramadan – an Israeli political decision in reaction to the Tel Aviv murders on June 8).  She said, “the occupation doesn’t need so many soldiers now – it’s become administrative”.  She met some of the Israeli army senior officers that day too – all standing around this old lady very respectfully.  One senior officer told her she “knows more about the permit system than we do”.  She does.  Machsom Watch helps as many Palestinians as they can when they get onto one of the many blacklists – maintained by the Israeli security services.  Their only other recourse would be via lawyers who know the system – and that’s very expensive.

Being motivated to keep your work permit for Israel is a powerful threat held over many Palestinians when unemployment is high in the West Bank (17% according to Palestinian Authority figures). People believe that speaking out against the occupation or demonstrating is a quick way to ensure you don’t get another permit.  According to the Times of Israel, speaking in February this year “A security official … stated that the policy of preserving jobs for Palestinians in Israel has proved itself in the past as an effective means of ‘restraining terrorism’.”

Take action box 2

You can find out more about this issue in the following articles and reports:

Reports from earlier EAs – these checkpoint accounts are as true now as they were then:

An academic report of how the systems at Meitar became formalised, and how experiences differ from Israeli and Palestinian perspectives:

Pressure at the Bethlehem Checkpoint – an Israeli TV report from 2014:

An UN report on Invisible Prisoners – Palestinians blacklisted by the Israeli Security Agency (formerly the General Security Services):