Saturday, September 16, 2017

Checking the checkpoint

The alarm wakes me from a deep sleep. With my nose the only part of me not in the sleeping bag, I can almost smell how cold it is. I take a deep breath and reluctantly emerge from my cocoon. I can hear team-mates also stirring in the next room. It’s not long before we’re bundled into the car and hurtling down the highway towards the Israeli border at a roaring pace.

As an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine's South Hebron Hills, we rose at 3:30am once a month to monitor the treatment of Palestinians travelling into Israel through the Maitar checkpoint. Most of the people passing through this checkpoint between 4am and 7am are men on their way to work. Because work is difficult to come by in Palestine, people will go to great lengths to find work in Israel, even if it means waking at 3am, and staying most of the week away from their family.

By the time we arrive, the entry to the checkpoint is a bustling hive of activity. Stallholders litter the side street, offering warm coffee and tea, or food for the journey. We stake out a spot near the turnstile, where it’s possible to see the people lining up, and catch those rejected and on their way back home. Carrying sleeping gear, or food for the week, some hitch a ride with anyone else going the same way, and others park their car in what soon looks like a drive-in just ahead of the checkpoint.

As the morning wears on, and the sun’s first rays of light begin to appear, the numbers of people waiting to enter Israel increases, the line begins to spill out onto the road and those inside the caged maze find themselves at a complete standstill. Some, who become frustrated by the pace, climb the caged walls, in an attempt to cut in ahead of those who perhaps decide that they can afford to wait. Little tussles and arguments break out from time to time.

Credit: Peter Morgan, another EA
The process of lining up in a tin shed, presenting one’s work permit to an emotionless guard, and then travelling by foot in the harsh desert weather is dehumanising and would make anyone feel like cattle set for the slaughter. Yet there were so many ways that people quietly demonstrated their humanity, dignity and sense of humour. Many of the men wave at us as they pass through, and joke with friends as they wait their turn.

One man who was turned away was hanging around near us for a bit, assisting other rejectees in filling out our brief survey form. He told us his reason for refusal was “expired work permit”, which was the most common explanation. These workers are reliant on their boss going ahead with the necessary paperwork to extend the visa. After hanging around with us for half an hour or so and chatting in a good humoured way, he disappeared. About ten minutes later there he was in the queue again, smiling at us and sporting a different hat. He wasn’t rejected a second time.

Towards the end of our three hour shift, we start to see women and children appearing in the queue. We are told that they are usually headed to Israeli jails to visit sons and daughters doing time for minor crimes like “stone throwing” that they may or may not have committed. These travellers are laden with food and small gifts, a reminder of how important family and hospitality are to Palestinians. Eventually it’s time to wake up our driver, and begin the trip back to town. As we drift into a snoozy silence, I think of my own commute back in Sydney. It’s hard to believe that such a dehumanising commute is the norm on the other side of the world.

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