‘Sabah al-kheyr,’ [Good morning in Arabic] men half-whisper politely, carrying small plastic bags that contain the day’s lunch. They are off to work, mostly in construction, in shifts starting at seven or eight o’clock in the morning.
It’s 2.30 am. ‘Where else in the world have you seen people leaving for work in the middle of the night?’ asks a middle-aged man, without requiring an answer. ‘This is the most racist state in the world,’ he comments and rushes off. His hurry is justified: the queue is already forming inside the terminal and he needs to take his place.
‘Sabah al-kheyr,’ a bored voice is heard over the loudspeaker, somewhere unseen. The clerk in uniform has made an effort to greet workers in their mother-tongue; she then continues, in Hebrew this time, ‘Move on people, move on, don’t stand there.’
Only there is no way to ‘move on’: hundreds of people are already crammed in between the metal fences topped with razor wire and monitored by CCTV, a cage built to control their movement and their very presence here.
This is Eyal, an Israeli checkpoint on the outskirts of Qalqiliya, a Palestinian city completely encircled by Israel’s Wall. Built in 2007, Eyal is one of 11 Israeli military checkpoints through which entrance to Israel is administered.
This one is staffed by private-security companies, as opposed to the Israeli army. These outsourced services of control bring anywhere between $50-100 million of revenue to private companies such as Mikud Security, owned by Solly and Gila Olishar, that operate on behalf of the Israeli government.
Eyal opens at 4 am. Some 4,500 Palestinians with work permits cross it every night, and they start gathering there two hours before. They will enter through a turnstile, be scanned by a metal detector (apparently only two are in operation, making the process lengthy), then pass staffed sections where their documents and fingerprints are checked.
Provided they are not selected for a random strip-search, they will leave the building on the other side and wait for buses to pick them up and bring them to work.
To accommodate the workers’ early breakfast needs and perhaps to provide a space more welcoming than the military checkpoint they are about to go through, food stalls dot the place.
They sell fresh bread with cheese, sesame seeds and spinach, soft drinks, small containers of hummus and baba ganoush, bars of chocolate and packets of crisps, as well as lighters and cigarettes. All this is ready for business at 1 am.
Brightly lit with fluorescent lighting and covered with posters in Arabic, advising workers on workplace safety (‘Wear a helmet’), they service the thousands of Palestinians who gather here from various parts of the Palestine area of the northern West Bank, from Jenin and Nablus to Qalqiliya and surrounding villages.
The night is calm. On Sundays, the start of the working week in Israel, it’s much more crowded and much noisier, the workers say.
On the ‘other’ side of the line
Sometimes it gets too much. In December 2014, several thousand workers declared a strike in nearby Sha’ar Ephraim, an Israeli checkpoint that separates the Palestinian city of Tulkarem from At-Tayba on the ‘other’ side of the Green Line (1949 Armistice Line).
They were protesting against overcrowding and demanding better treatment. They lost a day’s wages but won the battle, as conditions improved and time required to queue and be checked shortened after Israeli authorities paid to open all 16 of the biometric checking booths, as opposed to the usual four or five.
However, such improvements only lasted for a few days, after which things went back to ‘normal’. This January, 59-year-old Adel Muhammad Yakoub was crushed to death at that same checkpoint, due to overcrowding. He is survived by his wife and seven children, aged between 11 and 16.
These two incidents made local news. But the suffering and humiliation of thousands of Palestinian workers is not news; it’s a continuous, daily reality. And the main issue is not the conditions at the checkpoint – it’s the checkpoint’s very existence.
‘Where else in the world have you seen people leaving for work in the middle of the night? This is the most racist state in the world’
‘I’ve been working inside [Israel] for 25 years and it used to be easy to get to work,’ says a tall, well-built man, as he sips his night-time coffee by the fire at one of the makeshift cafés, overlooking the military watchtower. How is life like this? He shrugs, his face calm as a stone, his eyes betraying a mixture of enduring human dignity and structural humiliation.
Most people stuck here have stone expressions. It’s hard to make them smile – and there is nothing to smile about in this environment of systemic dehumanization.
Moreover, providing a cheap labour force for one’s oppressor adds another layer of psychological disturbance. Between earning meagre wages for a 16-hour-workday in the West Bank, or having no work at all, there just isn’t a real choice for people with families to feed and a decent life to lead. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Mind you, this is the legal way to provide for one’s family. The alternative – jumping the Wall, running through a hole in the fence – involves the danger of being shot or caught inside Israel without the required papers; yet thousands still take the risk.
‘We’ve had people die here, too,’ says a blue-eyed cigarette vendor who speaks in unpunctuated bursts. People in the queue are so close together they can barely move. Tired and angry, they start fighting those who attempt to sneak in; the turnstiles operated by private-security employees only allow one person at a time.
‘One by one, move one by one,’ barks the bored loudspeaker voice. One by one, 4,500 people, every night of the week, every week of the year. Except for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when workers get a day off; their Muslim holiday is Friday, on which they have to labour.
The man who runs the café by the fire is the father of two, aged one and four years old. When asked how his checkpoint business is going, he shakes his head.
‘I make around 100 shekels [$25] a night, and spend half of it to buy supplies,’ he says. He doesn’t have a second day-job because there are no jobs around. Unemployment in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, is around 20 per cent, yet even those who do work are often not able to provide for their families due to low wages and constantly rising living costs. The main reason for crossing into Israel is to find work: wages there are two or three times higher, yet still lower than those of Israelis.
The call to prayer from mosques in Qalqiliya comes at 5.14 am, interrupting the night’s metal gate beeping. Several dozen Palestinians kneel down to pray on the side, while hundreds of others address God while standing between metal fences; with thousands behind them, one cannot risk missing their spot in the queue.
At 6.30 am, a 38-year-old man from Al-Fara’a refugee camp near Tubas (northern West Bank), still has half an hour to wait. On his work permit it says specifically that he can only cross at 7 am. ‘If their clocks say it’s 6.58, they will turn me back and I will have to queue anew,’ he explains. This afternoon he will return home; tomorrow he will be here again, having made the several-hour trip from Al-Fara’a to Qalqiliya via Jenin.
Only small numbers of Palestinians receive the so-called ‘sleeping permits’ that would allow them to stay in Israel overnight and avoid the time-consuming and soul-trampling trip back and forth every night.
Those who stay overnight often sleep in the buildings under construction in which they labour during the day, for rent is expensive and off-limits to Palestinians from the West Bank anyway.
It’s 7 am, and most of the people with work permits have crossed. They will return via the same route (one is not allowed to use a different checkpoint on the way back) in the afternoon, go home, have dinner, say hello to their children and go to sleep, to be here again the following night at 3 am.
During the day, Eyal will be visited by Palestinians who apply for prison visit permits or medical treatment permits, and by people who have been presented with an invitation for interrogation.
These past weeks, the Israeli army ordered dozens of Palestinian men from the Qalqiliya district to show up for interrogation, to be questioned on their views and activities; locals say the new military commander of the area wants to make his presence known. There is a room to the right of the workers’ entrance in which these young men are held.
Food vendors start packing up as the sun rises. Rubbish is abundant.
From the roundabout just outside Qalqiliya city, a road leads to another Israeli military checkpoint. Cars with yellow (Israeli) licence plates speed and pass through in seconds, carrying illegal Israeli settlers, living in colonies near Qalqiliya. They’ve just woken up and are on their way to work in Israel.