At 3 o’clock this morning, many Palestinian men were already awake and dressed, standing in a queue at Gilo checkpoint in Bethlehem in order to work on the other side of the separation wall. Approximately 4,000 people – mostly men between the age of 18 and 45 – have passed through this checkpoint every day, all year round, to get to their jobs in East Jerusalem or Israel since the construction of the wall began in 2002. Gilo checkpoint is just one of 500 roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank.
I arrived at the checkpoint just as it opened, at 4am. Palestinians who work in Tel Aviv had already been there for two hours to be first in line; they have over an hour’s bus journey ahead of them once they reach the other side of the wall. From 4 until 7, the race is on to get to work on time yet Jerusalem is – at least for Israelis living in nearby illegal settlements – a twenty minute ride away. But the Israeli occupation means that for Palestinians, this journey can take as long as it took me to get to Jerusalem from London, a distance of approximately 4,000 kilometres.
The workers’ entrance to the checkpoint consists of iron bars, a holey roof and is about one and a half metres wide – barely room for two men to stand side by side. It can only be described as a cage, leading up to the checkpoint’s turnstile. With a 30 per cent unemployment rate in the West Bank though, these men are considered lucky to have work. Many Palestinians are refused a permit into Israel and this also means that some have never been to Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. Entering Israel illegally can result in fines and imprisonment.
Freedom for granted
Tourists don’t have to queue. There is a ‘humanitarian’ entrance for non-Palestinians, women and Palestinian men over 60 years old. Women make up a tiny percentage of the workers who come through the checkpoint every day – in a busy half hour today the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) record 665 men and 3 women coming through the turnstile.
I am able to walk back and forth from the entrance to the checkpoint when I feel like it, right next to the workers who can’t turn back even if they want to. I belatedly realize how this freedom of movement must have seemed to everyone else: it’s easy to be thoughtless when liberty is a given. I forgot my passport. The metal detector went off twice because I hadn’t taken some shekels out of my pocket and I didn’t even take my shoes off. No-one said a word. I wish they had.
The British government participates in the oppression of Palestinians. It is largely silent while Israeli authorities continue to violate UN conventions and instead of trying to amend for Britain’s mistakes of the past, Prime Minister David Cameron condemns proponents of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. A target of BDS is the British security firm G4S.
Private security takeover
Worryingly, many checkpoints are being taken over by private companies such as G4S. Instead of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) officials being in charge of the checkpoints with the limited accountability that this affords, outsourcing security guards further decreases state responsibility. For these checkpoints, there may be no use in phoning the ‘humanitarian hotline’ in Tel Aviv that international observers such as the EAPPI use to complain about soldiers, however ineffective this is. Private companies do not even have to let observers on to their premises meaning that abuses may take place unseen. ‘Workers have told us that soldiers are less aggressive when there is an international presence at checkpoints,’ an EAPPI volunteer says. Some of the men I talk to tell me that knowing international observers are there makes them feel supported.
From time to time, men queue jump by climbing up over the metal bars of the checkpoint and dropping down through gaps in the roof narrowly missing other men waiting in line. It doesn’t seem to faze anyone, instead there seems to be an understanding that some people are in a hurry. I wonder how many friendships are formed at the checkpoint. Once past the turnstile and inside the compound, there are more queues for security checks and those who take a moment’s rest to sit down on nearby benches are allowed back in the queue at the same spot they left.
Despite the indignity and the injustice of the checkpoint, it is also a business opportunity. A bustling economy thrives at Bethlehem’s busiest entry point into Israel; taxis and service (minibus) drivers ferry people to and from the entrance and coffee sellers and stallholders compete for trade. When I leave at 6am, one man gestures to me to take a photo: a photo of him posing behind bars. Another angrily shouts out: ‘Do you see the kind of life we have? Do you see?’
Accessing medical treatment
Four million Palestinians live under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. Six specialist hospitals are located in East Jerusalem, inaccessible to most Palestinians living on the other side of Israel’s separation wall. More than 39,000 Palestinians were denied travel permits to get to hospitals last year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) says that this figure is proportionally equivalent to the entire population of Glasgow – a city in Scotland – being prevented from reaching their local hospital.
In Gaza, the situation is even more dire, the Israeli blockade of the Strip means that medical supplies are often prevented from reaching the one million population. During Israeli airstrikes, hospitals and ambulances are targeted. It is extremely difficult for Gazans to leave to go to external hospitals and medical charities such as MAP work with limited funds and resources.
MAP launched a campaign last Wednesday asking residents of Oxford, a city near London: ‘What if Oxford was under occupation?’ A van with the question ‘What if you needed a permit to get to hospital in Oxford but were denied?’ is being driven around the city and 50,000 leaflets will be dropped through doors to encourage people to think about how they would feel if it were them living under military occupation. The campaign is also running in the London borough of Islington. ‘Our aims are to raise awareness and to generate support for MAP where it’s most needed. We want to ask people: “What if this was you and your child at a checkpoint? What would you do and how would you feel?”’ says William Parry, MAP’s Communication Officer.