This is Checkpoint 300

Photo: Checkpoint 300, Adele du Toit, September 2012

I am at the Yallah Yallah festival celebrating the anniversary of Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem, being a community. A young women comes up to me and says ‘I recognise you from the Checkpoint! Where are you from?’. When I say London, she positively beams. She loves England she says, she toured with her Palestinian dance troupe to Liverpool, Portsmouth and London last year, it was a happy time. Mirna is in her mid twenties, with her big hoop earrings visible under her long brown hair, she wears jeans and pink converse trainers. She’s just like me. 

The tone noticeably changes when conversation returns to the Checkpoint. Mirna is a primary school teacher, she teaches first grade at a school in East Jerusalem. Her home in Bethlehem is just 8km from her work, you would think this an easy commute but the reality shows how different her life is to mine.

Every day at 6am Mirna must cross ‘Checkpoint 300’, a huge structure set behind the eight metre high concrete wall that cuts off Bethlehem from Jerusalem. It was built by the state of Israel in 2005 as a security measure after the violence of the second intifada or Palestinian uprising. Although the security situation had remarkably improved, the Checkpoint is still present. It is the main gateway for Palestinians from the southern West Bank to enter Jerusalem. West Bank Palestinians must secure a permit if they wish to pass through the Checkpoint. Most commonly permits are for work, hospital or religious worship but they are notoriously hard to obtain. Most Palestinian children wll never set eyes on Jerusalem.

Israel has the right and duty to control its borders. The problem is that Checkpoint 300 is not on its internationally recognised border, it is 2km south of the 1949 Armistice ‘green line’ so both sides of this Checkpoint are in the occupied Palestinian territory. It is one of the most permanent of the 542 obstacles blocking Palestinian movement in the West Bank. These include 61 permanently staffed checkpoints and represents a 4% increase since July 2011.[1] Israel is a state party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the cornerstone of International Humanitarian Law. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to the protection of civilians in times of war provides that “protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons…” which in accordance with the International Committee of the Red Cross Commentaries includes the right to movement. Any control or security measures must be justified by military necessity and should not affect the rights of the protected persons concerned.[2]  As the Swedish legal NGO diakonia states: ‘Movement is a prerequisite for accessing basic needs such as healthcare, education and government institutions; workplaces; maintaining social cultural and family connections.’[3] Article 43 of the Hague Regulations 1907 obliges the occupying power to take ‘all measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.’ This is customary international law binding on Israel.[4]

As an ecumenical accompanier (EA) working for the World Council of Churches, I provide protective presence at the Checkpoint four mornings a week and monitor the treatment of the 3000-4000 Palestinians who cross from Bethlehem to Jerusalem between 4am and 8am.

It is dark when I arrive at 03:45. In the dim light you can see men running up the road to the checkpoint shouting greetings in Arabic, taxis honk their horns and the aroma of coffee drifts from Amin’s stall, yet the atmosphere has an underlying tension, people are nervous. There are two lanes under the imposing shadow of the Separation Wall: one is the main lane where there is already a substantial queue; the other is the humanitarian lane for women, children, over 65s, students, those with medical passes and tourists. This should be open all the time but invariably is not. When I say ‘lanes’ of course I mean metal cages with a tin roof no more than a metre and a half wide. By 5am this queue is a crush.

Photo: CP300, Sophie, September 2012

The crowd surges forward each time the metal turnstile at the end of the long cage is opened. Some people are let through and show their permit to an IDF soldier, often an 18 or 19 year old living out his military service in the West Bank. It can be five people, or a hundred, or just one at a time. The metal turnstile is then stopped for five, ten, twenty minutes. People start to get nervous. There is pushing and some young men climb on the roof and drop down to push in; it makes people angry. Access is completely unpredictable and for this reason some workers leave their homes in Hebron at 2am every morning to mitigate the risk of losing their jobs for tardiness. As I look into the eyes of the men in the cages, many of whom are my father’s age, I feel an ache in my chest, this is humiliating.

As an EA I am a human face in this inhumane process. I discreetly count the number of people let through to monitor these access restrictions. Where there are particular problems I intervene by either negotiating with the soldiers, calling the military’s humanitarian hotline, or liaising with Israeli human rights organisation Machsom Watch.[5] Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I see an old man trying to go through the humanitarian turnstile, a soldier yells at him in Hebrew through the loud speaker. The turnstile is broken, I know that the soldier is shouting that the old man must turn it all the way back round once before it will open, this is the knack, but the old man does not know this. He tries again and the soldier yells even louder in the language he does not understand, while the main lane of young men watch on with impatience. It is humiliating for a man who should be respected as an elder. I can’t help but wonder if this really is a justified security measure.

Once you pass through the cages, there is a large car park to cross under the watchful eye of a soldier with his Tavor assault rifle. You climb under the railings if you are mobile enough and run across as fast as you can to begin the second waiting game. You then queue to enter another metal turnstile which again is stopped for indeterminate periods of time: the same tactic of control. As a foreigner I just have to remove my jacket and walk through the metal detector, it beeps because of the studs in my jeans but this is no problem for me.  As a Palestinian, however, you have to empty your pockets and as a minimum remove your jacket, shoes and belt. If the metal detector beeps then rather than being searched as at Heathrow, you have to go back through again and again and again until it beeps no more. The queue waits while this happens.

Finally you come to the last obstacle, more ID booths. There are twelve but no more than five are ever used so the process is painfully slow. As a foreigner I flash my passport and walk through. Palestinians must show their permit and ID card and then put their finger on a scanner. The technology often fails, the soldier shouts at you to put your finger on again and again, sometimes in Arabic and sometimes in Hebrew. Once your fingerprint works and the young soldier is satisfied with your permit, you are out and can board a bus to Jerusalem. You are standing 30 metres from the point at which you started and this process can take anything from 20 minutes to a few hours. You still have to be careful even if it seems like you are through. My colleague returned from checkpoint duty shaken up this week as a private security guard (employed to supplement the army) held a man up against the wall by his neck and kicked him for using his phone in the checkpoint. I hadn’t noticed any sign about phones and I use mine inside every day.

The EA at the exit will be the first friendly face you have seen in over an hour. “Sabah ilkher” I greet with a smile, though this is clearly not a “good morning”.

This is Mirna’s daily ordeal. She uses the main lane because the humanitarian lane is a roulette: it is very often closed and this Monday took 70 minutes, which is hardly expedient. “It’s awful being a woman going through the checkpoint with all the men, I get grabbed sometimes” she says, “and especially as a Christian woman, I do not cover my head so I feel even more exposed.”

Mirna is one of the 2-3% of women who cross at this time. Most of those passing in the morning are male workers going to manual labour jobs in Israel. I get to go back to bed for a few hours when I finish check point duty. I cannot imagine a long day of physically demanding labour after this 3am start and over an hour in this machinery. The uncertainty of the checkpoint and the serious consequences of losing your job leads a number of workers to take a pillow and mat, go through the checkpoint early and sleep on the street at the other side until work starts. In a few weeks the winter rain will come to the West Bank.

As 8am approaches, the end is in sight for my shift this morning. I see in the distance the first coaches passing through the adjacent car checkpoint. By contrast, tourists to Bethlehem are whisked through on air conditioned coaches so quickly that my friend’s mother had not even noticed there was an eight metre high concrete Wall. They visit the Church of the Nativity and buy olive wood Christmas decorations from large stores, insulated from the reality of life in the occupied Palestinian territory.

I am about to leave when I see the checkpoint policemen shouting at men to leave while they try to pray on the road at the exit, since they missed the call to prayer in the cage. Religious convictions and practices of civilians are to be respected according to International Humanitarian Law.[6] I see a little boy coming through the metal turnstile with his mother, he can’t be more than four years old and he waves at me. Children too have to pass Checkpoint 300 for hospital or school. Yesterday morning I counted nine children in three hours, surely this is nine too many. I call my colleague to say the queue has dispersed and that’s it for us this morning. Tomorrow it will all start again, this is life under occupation.

[1] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory, Movement and Access Report September 2012, p33.

[2] International Committee of the Red Cross Commentary to the Fourth Geneva Convention:

[4] This customary international law status was confirmed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in Prosecutor v Naletilic and Martinovic [2003] and this was accepted by the Israeli High Court of Justice in Beit Sourik Village Council v The Government of Israel and Commander of IDF forces in the West Bank [2004]

[6] Article 27, Fourth Geneva Convention


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