It’s 4.30am and I’m in a car park next to checkpoint 300. The wall that overshadows us was erected in 2004 and is considered illegal under international law. It sits 2km within Palestinian territories, as marked by the green line. This checkpoint is the gateway that Palestinians living in Bethlehem must pass through each morning to get to their jobs in Jerusalem. You can only pass through if you have a permit.
Work permits are applied for by the employer. Some Palestinians have already travelled for an hour to reach the checkpoint. As they get out of buses and taxis, commuters walk briskly, some running, towards the queue, hoping to get a good place. The first queue is called the cage, a dark fenced passageway alongside the wall that leads to turnstiles.
Some Palestinians eager to get to work on time will pass alongside the cage to a point where they can climb over the fence, bypassing some of the queue. No one seems to complain, the atmosphere is civil. This has been a daily routine for many locals and a mini economy has built up around the queue, people selling coffee and breakfast snacks. This first queue takes around 40 minutes.
As International’s, we can bypass most of the queue, avoiding the crush that’s developing in the cage. We are accompanied by EAPPI volunteers who are there daily to provide a protective presence and monitor travel-through times and numbers. Between 4,000-6,000 Palestinians are passing through this particular checkpoint each morning. The Humanitarian Line we join is meant to open at 5am. This line is for over 50s, women, children, students and those with medical conditions. EAPPI tell me that it’s rarely open and we ring the helpline to find out what’s happening.
The EAPPI volunteer is having difficulties communicating with the person on the other end of the phone, but eventually around 5.30am the line opens. We pass across a car park to enter another queue that leads us into a big warehouse. We pass through more security, metal detectors and scanners. I set off an alarm so I must remove my coat and belt.
The Israeli guards are young, they look barely 18. They seem grumpy and I’m told they can be quite unpredictable. Palestinians are easily turned away if there’s any confusion over their work permits. We see a few heated discussions and one person getting turned away, but it’s not clear on the circumstances.
The process of passing through this checkpoint could easily be designed to be quicker. Inside the checkpoint, there are just two booths in use to check-through Palestinians. EAPPI say sometimes it’s just one, but can be up to four. Yet there are 12 booths that could potentially be used. Surely with several thousand eager commuters wanting to get to work, and given that check-through times take at least 2 hours, it would make sense to open some more booths? Could the delay be deliberate? I think back to my life in London and the incredible effort that goes into designing a smooth, reliable transport system to keep millions of commuters moving through the city. Why? Because inefficient transport systems are not only frustrating and disruptive to our own lives, but they cost businesses and prevent our economy from reaching its full potential.
So what’s happening at this checkpoint? Are they being terribly inefficient, deliberately mean, or is it an exercise in power and control? It’s upsetting to see it so poorly run. It’s big, ugly, inefficient and degrading. Why should thousands of innocent commuters have to get up in the early hours to stand in the dark, everyday, squashed in a cage like sardines? Such a life will test your patience. Such a life requires discipline. How these walls must provoke outbursts of anger, stoking the flames for more violence and fear. The wall is a lazy safety mechanism. Punishing the crowd for the acts of a few.
As I finally walk away from the checkpoint, I feel so grateful for the freedoms I have, and so helpless over the things I cannot change. I find it difficult to imagine a life where my freedom of movement is so restricted, overshadowed by a force that watches with distrust my every move. So many people live a life like this, bound under the occupation of someone else. This short film literally brings it home, giving a sense of challenges of life in the occupied territories of Palestine: