It was 3:40 AM on Wednesday, September 5, as I prepared for my first checkpoint duty at Checkpoint 300 ~ the main checkpoint into Jerusalem for the entire southern part of the West Bank. This is a 24-hour checkpoint that opens at 4:00 AM for day laborers who have permits to work in Israel. Palestinians queue up beginning around 2:00 AM so they can be at the front of the line and not risk being late for work. Jerusalem is only 6 miles from Bethlehem, but for these workers it may as well be hundreds. Some mornings it takes 15 minutes. Other mornings it can take several hours. On a typical morning, approximately 3,200 people pass through this one checkpoint from 4:00-7:00 AM ~ mostly men on their way to work. (Over the space of 7 hours on one recent Friday in Ramadan, 36,000 people queued to go to Al-Aqsa mosque to pray.)
The term “checkpoint” is really misleading. This imposing “terminal” has long “lanes” where people queue up. But these “lanes” are more like cattle chutes with bars on either side and on top. The whole process is very impersonal. Young soldiers with guns sit in small booths enclosed with bullet proof glass, and if they talk to someone it is in Hebrew over a loud speaker (which means most of the people cannot understand them). There are 3 separate procedures for those passing through the turnstile: first they must show their documents to an armed soldier in an enclosed booth; second, they must go through a metal detector; third, they must pass through an enclosed ID booth where another armed soldier operates a biometric finger print scanner and does a more careful document check (up to 4 required).
Our job is as follows: one EA stands at the first station counting the people in both the main lane and the humanitarian lane (which often is not open on time and sometimes not at all). This person counts people in the various queues, monitors for human rights abuse, closures, extremely long wait times, etc. and is prepared to call the humanitarian hotline to intervene. The second EA stands near the exit, monitoring the number of metal detectors and ID booths that are open. This person’s main job is to be a friendly, human face ~ perhaps the first of the morning ~ to those exiting the terminal.
My assignment on this particular Wednesday was to be the greeter and monitor at the exit. I was struck by the faces of the men as they passed by. When I greeted them in Arabic, “Sabah el kheir” (good morning), some of their faces showed surprise and lit up with a smile as they responded in kind. Others responded but did not look at me. Still others did not respond at all, but were the picture of dejection and despair. And I was thinking, “How ‘good’ can this morning be for them?” Perhaps it is good that they have a job given that the unemployment rate in the Bethlehem area is one of the highest in the West Bank. But at such a cost to the human spirit…
Around 5:30 AM I could hear shouting and yelling inside the terminal. Guns in hand, the border police climbed up above the scene on “bridges” that span the terminal so that they could assess what was happening. One of the women exiting said to me: “No good. Machine no work (not open).” After about 30 minutes of this chaos, with hundreds of people piled up at the 4 ID booths that were open (there are 12), the border police opened a main gate between the ID booths and a wave of humanity rushed through. No finger print scan, no permits or IDs checked, just a sea of people running, pushing, and shoving, all trying to catch the waiting buses going the 6 miles to Jerusalem.
This scenario was repeated 7 times over the next hour. The space on the other side of the ID booths would fill to capacity. Chaos would erupt. The gate would open. People would flood through. The area would clear. The gate would close. The checking of fingerprints and IDs would resume until the next time. And it would happen all over again…
How arbitrary! Why was it so important to check finger prints and IDs yesterday but not today? And why would it be important to resume the “regular” routine tomorrow? How much humiliation can a human spirit endure without breaking? What is the cost to the humanity of these young soldiers who must follow orders and engage in this degrading task every day? Does each ever see the other as human being rather than enemy? Is it really about security or more about control, power, fear, humiliation, and harassment?
On this particular morning at Checkpoint 300, it seemed to have little or nothing to do with security. Only peace with justice can bring about any real security for all in this land.