Bethlehem Checkpoint: Waiting in a Line vs. Waiting in a Line under Occupation

Bethlehem Checkpoint

Going through checkpoints in the West Bank is often described as similar to going through airport security before leaving on an international flight–with waits that are much more unpredictable, fussier metal detectors, and the added humiliating features like full-body turnstiles between caged passage ways that resemble cattle chutes.  Instead of encountering airline security officials who smile patiently at successive discoveries of forgotten back-pocket change, I’ve watched armed soldiers yell at Palestinians in Hebrew from a glass booth–or even from platforms above my head so that I could see straight up the barrels of their guns. Instead of presenting a passport, Palestinians with West Bank IDs trying to get to Jerusalem have to present electromagnetic ID cards (in addition to their West Bank IDs).  Instead of showing a plane ticket, they have to present a permit for entering Jerusalem.  Palestinians with West Bank IDs going to Jerusalem have to have their hands scanned as well.  Instead of spurring a widely reported debate in the media about the ethics of mandatory fingerprinting–as its use in US and UK airports has–precious few US media reports have even mentioned Israel’s use of biometrics at checkpoints, which is now widespread.

Thousands of Palestinians and tourists depend on Bethlehem checkpoint to enter East Jerusalem and Israel daily.  It is also called Gilo checkpoint, named after the nearby Gilo settlement.  When I first moved to Bethlehem I was confused about the name, originally assuming that “the Gilo checkpoint” would be a checkpoint that Gilo settlers would have to use.  Why would a checkpoint only for Palestinians be named for Jewish-only settlements, residents of which don’t ever have to use these kind of checkpoints?

But if you take a look at the full list of the 69 permanently staffed checkpoints in the West Bank as documented by UNOCHA in its November 2009 report, you’ll see a long list of Palestinian-only checkpoints named after the adjacent Israeli settlement (Shave Shomeron, Yitav, Beit Hadassa, etc).  These major obstacles to Palestinian movement are often named after the nearby settlement for which these Palestinians are ostensibly being obstructed.  Seems like a blatant admission that individual checkpoints for Palestinians are installed by Israel primarily to serve these illegal settlements–rather than the Israeli citizens living within Israel.  In fact, all of these checkpoints–along with over 600 other types of closures–are in the occupied West Bank, an area approximately the size of Delaware.

5 MIN-5 HRS: THE POLITICS BEHIND THE WAIT FOR 2,000 WORKERS A DAY

Perhaps the most mysterious difference between waiting in line at a checkpoint and every other line I have ever waited in is that I’ve rarely had any idea what precisely causes these checkpoint delays.  The soldiers are hidden from view until you get up to the very front of the checkpoint, so it’s often impossible to tell.  One time at Qalandia checkpoint I waited behind a turnstile while I watched female soldiers inside a glass booth take turns sitting on each others’ laps and gleefully snapping pictures of each other with their digital cameras.  (Perhaps they were all tagged in an “IDF on Duty” Facebook album later that day?)

I watched a soldier at Bethlehem checkpoint nod sleepily, with his eyes closed, apparently listening to his I-Pod.  Not until I yelled “Shalom” several times and rattled the full-body turnstile repeatedly did he open the first of a series of turnstiles at the checkpoint.  (I’d love to know how long he would have waited if I was a Palestinian, rather than a non-Arab looking Westerner waving a U.S. passport.)

Most lines I’ve waited on–whether at movie theaters, grocery stores, or even at airport security–operate with some sort of correlation between the number of people in line and the anticipated wait time.  At checkpoints such logical principles rarely apply.  The delays are often caused not from shuttling people through the metal detectors but rather from the soldiers failing to open the gates to the metal detectors at all.  Sometimes it has taken me 5 minutes to get through the checkpoint, often it takes two hours, and not infrequently for workers in the early morning hours, it takes 5 hours.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) has a team that regularly monitors Gilo checkpoint.  According to Stefan Olsson from the EAPPI team, 2,000 workers line up at Gilo checkpoint by its 5 AM opening time to work in Israel and in Israeli settlements every work day.  These workers are among an ever dwindling number of Palestinians (45,000 with West Bank IDs) who have been given permission to do so after extensive security checks.  Even though the same number of workers pass through Gilo checkpoint daily, it can take between 2.5-5 hours to shuttle the workers through, depending on how many gates soldiers open and how often soldiers close those gates.

DAY LABORER: A POLITICAL PROGRAM TO “FORCE PEOPLE TO QUIT WORKING IN ISRAEL”

I met Khaled at the Gilo checkpoint on April 26th, a morning when it took four hours to get the workers through, causing hundreds of workers to lose a full day’s work.  Khaled works at the Gilo settlement less than 3 kilometers away from his house.  He granted me permission to use only his first name since he fears that Israel will revoke his permit for entry into Jerusalem for speaking out.  His anxiety was understandable.  In 2007 he spoke with a reporter about the difficulties at the checkpoint and within a week his permission to work in Israel was revoked for 4 months.  The Israeli authorities don’t explain the reasoning behind their decisions, simply stating that whenever permission is revoked it is for “security reasons”.

The Gilo checkpoint has three metal detectors, making three separate lines possible, while the army only opened one of the gates for most of that morning.  According to Olsson from EAPPI, they rarely ever open all three.  Usually workers have to start work at 7 AM.  By the time the soldiers allowed all of the workers inside of the checkpoint through at 9:10 AM, many had already left.  If workers don’t arrive at their jobs at 7 or 9 AM, their bosses won’t allow them to work at all that day.  If this happens often enough, they can lose their jobs altogether.

Khaled told me “this is a political program to inflict physical and psychological punishment to force people to quit working in Israel”. Rather than make an explicit policy to keep Palestinian workers out of Israel and possibly draw criticism from the international community, he explained that the longer and more arbitrary waits at the checkpoint would progressively discourage more and more workers from attempting to cross the checkpoint.  That way, Khaled reasoned, “Israel can say to the whole world that Palestinians don’t want to work–that it’s the Palestinians’ problem”.

“WAITING AT THE CHECKPOINT IS MORE WORK THAN MY JOB”

Men remove their belts at checkpoint

Some workers I talked to that morning arrived at 4 AM, while others had arrived even earlier.  According to the AP, workers can make up to $50 a day in Israel, which is four or five times what they could make in the West Bank, where unemployment hit 19% in 2008.

Khaled said “waiting at the checkpoint is more work than my job”.  He was sure that many if not most workers at the checkpoint felt the same way.  Most of these men work in construction or other jobs involving hard manual labor.  But having to go through the checkpoint is like having a second job–one which requires you to wake up in the middle of the night and wait for hours in holding pens behind metal bars until a series of 18 year old Israeli soldiers are authorized to press the right buttons allowing you passage.

AIRPORT-SECURITY TYPE CHECKPOINTS IN YOUR OWN LAND

When you finally pass through Gilo checkpoint, you have a wide open view of the Wall cutting Bethlehem off from the ever-expanding Gilo settlement.  Buses for the Old City in Jerusalem wait just outside, running not according to any schedule but the arbitrary speed of the checkpoint.  As I watch women put their earrings back on and men slip the belts through their belt loops after having to take them off for the metal detector, the airport metaphor seems quite appropriate.  The buses, just waiting on passengers to fill them up, remind me of shuttles at the airport driving passengers from one terminal to another across stretches of tarmac.

While international airport-security procedures are usually determined by internationally recognized borders between countries, a settlement in violation of international law determines the placement of this checkpoint.  Unlike an airport security line where every passenger is required to endure long lines and metal detectors, this checkpoint is only for Palestinians and tourists–not the settlers who have bypass roads connecting them directly to Jerusalem.

Comparing Gilo checkpoint to international airport-security understates the humiliation involved.  But it’s a valuable comparison in that it gives you some idea of what kind of message it must send to Palestinians when going to Jerusalem–even the far eastern stretches of Jerusalem, and even between cities deep within the West Bank–feels like going through an international border.

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Netanyahu heritage declaration is all about annexation of territory

This piece of mine was originally published on Mondoweiss.

The day after Netanyahu declared the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs holy site in Hebron as an “Israeli national heritage site”, Mustafa Barghouti visited the mosque. After his visit, I caught Dr. Barghouti on film explaining how this decision to incorporate two sites in Occupied Palestinian Territory – this site and Bilal Mosque or Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem – continued the Israeli process of “gradual annexation” of the West Bank.  I continued filming Dr. Barghouti as he exited through one of the checkpoints that Palestinians are required to pass through to visit the Ibrahimi Mosque.

While the New York Times and other major U.S. news outlets have highlighted competing religious claims to understand the tension arising from the “Israeli national heritage plan”, Barghouti compellingly articulates the political rationale of the Netanyahu announcement.  Barghouti called it a “clear cut provocation” and continuation of policy.

And what about the argument that this is simply “about renovating important historical and religious sites of the Jewish people,” as Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev has said, and affirming the importance of these sites to Jewish heritage?

The problem with this logic is that land in Hebron, Bethlehem, or anywhere else in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is not Israeli national territory.  Israel has no more right to unilaterally nationalize Jewish heritage sites in the West Bank than it does to unilaterally nationalize The Great Synagogue of Florence in Italy.  While no one would take seriously a unilateral Israeli decision to declare a synagogue in Europe as Israeli national property, such a declaration in Occupied Palestinian Territory inflames the conflict and jeopardizes the very notion of any prospects for future Palestinian sovereignty over Palestinian territory.

Barghouti points out that what is particularly provocative is the fact that this declaration comes after a series of Netanyahu’s claims of entitlement to annex Palestinian land:

Claim 1:

“Jerusalem is not for negotiations and it will remain unified as a Jewish city”

Claim 2:

“Settlement blocs will become part of Israel”

Claim 3:

“He would not allow a Palestinian state to have borders with anybody, that Israel would maintain airspace control over the whole West Bank, and it would maintain control of all water resources.”

After President Abbas warned that Israel’s nationalization of West Bank heritage sites could spark a new war, Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev dismissed ascribing such importance to this declaration, stating that “this is not in anyway changing the status quo”.

It remains to be seen whether Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarch’s status as an “Israeli national heritage site” will affect Palestinian access to the fourth holiest Muslim site in the heart of one of the largest Palestinian cities.  Barghouti pointed out that the declaration was ominously made only four days before the 16th anniversary of the massacre committed by an Israeli settler who killed 29 Palestinians.  After the massacre the Israeli government divided the mosque, prohibiting Palestinians from using the part that is now used as a synagogue outside of specified holidays.

But even if the decision doesn’t affect access, the Israeli nationalist claim is certainly a step Netanyahu has taken to further entrench the status quo where Israel controls all Palestinian access to a holy site deep in Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Katya Reed is the nom-de-plume of a journalist based in Bethlehem, West Bank, Occupied Palestine.

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Mustafa Barghouti on Declaration of Hebron site as “Israeli national heritage site”

Blog Post » Mustafa Barghouti on declaration of Hebron site as “Israeli national heritage site” (Originally published on The Palestine Note)

On February 22, 2010, I interviewed Dr. Mustafa Barghouti as he left the Ibrahimi Mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron.  He came to pray at the mosque the day after Netanyahu declared the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriachs holy site as an “Israeli national heritage site”, and I asked Barghouti about the significance of this decision.  Netanyahu included both the Hebron site and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as “Israeli national heritage sites”.  On the morning of the 22cd, clashes broke out between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and continued for several days.  The Israeli government’s claim of national ownership over two sites in the Occupied Palestinian Territories faced widespread condemnation from the international community, including the Obama administrationUN Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry, and the European Union.  President Mahmoud Abbas warned that the Israeli nationalization of these West Bank heritage sites could spark a regional war.

Dr. Barghouti is a PLC member from the Palestinian National Initiative, or Mubadara, party.  He is president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees and a nominee for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.  His remarks on the significance of Netanyahu’s declaration are transcribed below.

VIDEO:

***
KR: I’m writing this article for the Palestine Note, based in Washington, D.C. and in the U.S. media how this event is often being reported is that Netanyahu is just making a declaration, that this place is important to the Jewish people and Jewish culture but of course you’re relaying something very different, that it’s actually an attempt to annex this area, so can you talk a little bit more about how it’s not just a declaration?

MB: Well you see, the whole idea of peace is based on a two-state solution.  It means Israel should end its occupation of the occupied territories – including Hebron.  When Netanyahu comes in and declares day after day that he’s annexing this part and that part – first he’s annexing east Jerusalem and then he’s annexing the Golan Heights and then he’s annexing now parts of Hebron and parts of Bethlehem – that means he’s killing the option and possibilities of a two-state solution.

And American people should know either they will allow us to have an independent state on this little tiny place and have freedom like everybody else, or we should say okay ‘let’s have one state with democratic rights for everybody’, with equal rights for everybody, and let it be one democratic state.

KR: And you’re saying that this declaration by itself is a precursor to annexation?

MB: (Nods) Its meant to be a provocation.  First of all to provoke Palestinians here, especially four days before the anniversary of the big massacre that happened here by a crazy settler Baruch Goldstein against 29 Palestinians.  But also it is meant to undermine, in my opinion, any possibility of peaceful negotiations.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.  He’s doing this to provoke a reaction to prevent any possibility for peaceful negotiations.

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Global movement joins Hebron protest to “Open Shuhada Street”

This article  was originally posted on the Mondoweiss blog and featured in the Just Foreign Policy Daily News Update on March 1st.   I am reposting it here as it appeared on those outlets, which is a slightly edited version of the original version in the prior post, with linked to the phenomenal video made by the Open Shuhada Street Campaign .

Last Thursday I joined Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists for the “Open Shuhada Street” demonstration to demand Palestinian access to one of the most important streets in Hebron. Hebron, along with East Jerusalem, is unique in having settlers and Israeli soldiers occupy the very heart of a large Palestinian urban area.

The protest was held on February 25th to mark the 16th anniversary of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, when Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein shot and killed 29 Palestinians praying at the mosque and injured 150 more. Since the massacre, the IDF has instituted ever tightening restrictions on Palestinian movement throughout Hebron, and particularly on Shuhada Street where six settlement blocks were established. Today even Palestinian residents of Shuhada Street have to walk on complicated make-shift pathways on rooftops and climb over roadblocks to reach their home since walking or driving on the street is prohibited. (Read more on the “Open Shuhada Street” website.)

Organizers estimate 300 protesters attended. Demonstrators arrived in the Abu Sneineh district and were met by Israeli soldiers and jeeps blocking their entry into Shuhada Street. Although some Palestinian boys watching the demonstration from the street threw stones, all of the protesters remained steadfastly committed to non-violence while the IDF repeatedly threw tear gas canisters and percussion grenades into the crowd. At least five protesters, including PLC member Mustafa Barghouti, were hospitalized for tear gas inhalation.

Hisham Sherabati, one of the organizers of the march with the Hebron-based group Youth Against Settlements, told me that there were participants from nearly every Palestinian political party along with Palestinian-Israelis, Jewish-Israelis, and internationals from around the world. The event, he said, had become not only an act of non-violent resistance to the closure of Shuhada Street to Palestinians on the anniversary of the Ibrahimi mosque massacre, but also an expression of condemnation of the Netanyahu claim for the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque as an Israeli national heritage site, and part of the larger movement.  “We are part of the Palestinian popular nonviolent resistance of the occupation,” Sherabati said.  He explained the necessity for this day of action:

“It’s crucial to unite our efforts to address the issue of apartheid in Hebron, where there is a systematic separation between Palestinians and illegal Israeli settlers, where very important streets have been given to extremist settlers.”

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Protest of Jewish-Only Street in Hebron Which is Blocked off to Palestinians in Violation of Oslo II

Photo from CPT AlKhalil/Hebron Team, Creative Commons License

Photo courtesy of Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Hebron, Creative Commons License (http://cpt.org/gallery/hebron)

Yesterday I joined Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists for the “Open Shuhada Street” demonstration to demand Palestinian access to one of the most important streets in Hebron.  Hebron, along with East Jerusalem, is unique in having settlers and Israeli soldiers occupy the very heart of a large Palestinian urban area.

The protest was held on February 25th to mark the 16th anniversary of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, when Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein shot and killed 29 Palestinians praying at the mosque and injured 150 more.  Since the massacre, the IDF has instituted ever tightening restrictions on Palestinian movement throughout Hebron, and particularly on Shuhada Street where six settlement blocks were established.  Today even Palestinian residents of Shuhada Street have to walk on complicated make-shift pathways on rooftops and climb over roadblocks to reach their home since walking or driving on the street is prohibited.  (Read more on “Open Shuhada Street” website here.)

Organizers estimate 300 protesters attended.  Demonstrators arrived in the Abu Sneineh district and were met by Israeli soldiers and jeeps blocking their entry into Shuhada Street.  Although some Palestinian boys watching the demonstration from the street threw stones, all of the protesters remained steadfastly committed to non-violence while the IDF repeatedly threw tear gas canisters and percussion grenades into the crowd.  At least five protesters, including PLC member Mustafa Barghouti, were hospitalized for tear gas inhalation.

Hisham Sherabati, one of the organizers of the march with the Hebron-based group Youth Against Settlements, told me that there were participants from nearly every Palestinian political party along with Palestinian-Israelis, Jewish-Israelis, and internationals from around the world.  The event, he said, had become not only an act of non-violent resistance to the closure of Shuhada Street to Palestinians on the anniversary of the Ibrahimi mosque massacre, but also an expression of condemnation of the Netanyahu claim for the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque as an Israeli national heritage site, and part of the larger movement.  “We are part of the Palestinian popular nonviolent resistance of the occupation,” Sherabati said.  He explained the necessity for this day of action:

“It’s crucial to unite our efforts to address the issue of apartheid in Hebron, where there is a systematic separation between Palestinians and illegal Israeli settlers, where very important streets have been given to extremist settlers.”

Before the protest began, I caught up with PLC member and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Mustafa Barghouti.  He noted that the protest was important to raise awareness about the nature of segregated roads in the Occupied Palestinian Territories:

“Roads are segregated in what has become one of the worst apartheid systems in the world.  Even in South Africa under apartheid and in the United States under segregation, the roads were never segregated.”

SHUHADA STREET CLOSED TO PALESTINIANS IN VIOLATION OF OSLO II AGREEMENT

In 1995 Israel and the PLO signed the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more commonly known as the Oslo II Agreement.  This agreement stipulates that “measures and procedures for normalizing life in the Old City and on the roads of Hebron will be taken immediately after the signing of this Agreement” (Annex I, Article VII).

In fact, this agreement required Israel to remove obstacles to Palestinian movement specifically on the very site where the IDF clashed with protesters on Thursday.  By signing Oslo II, Israel agreed to implement “removal of the barrier on the road leading from Abu Sneineh to Shuhada Road in order to facilitate the movement on these roads”.  (See full text of Oslo II at the Israeli government website here.)

GLOBAL MOVEMENT FOR SHUHADA TO BE “GIVEN BACK ITS IDENTITY”

Signs from "Open Shuhada Street" demonstration

Over 25 cities world-wide, from Capetown to Prague to New York City, held protests, vigils, and other events to mark February 25th as the kickoff for the “Open Shuhada Street” campaign.  The campaign itself began as a joint Palestinian-International campaign in a meeting in Hebron of activists from Youth Against Settlements and activists from South Africa.  Sherabati explained that the day of action was the beginning of building a global and sustainable movement to open Shuhada Street as an important part of ending the occupation.

“We are very sure that sooner or later the street will be open and will be given back its identity.  We erase the name King David Street, like the settlers call it.  And we erase the name Chicago Street – that’s what the military calls it.  We’re giving it back the name ‘Shuhada Street’.”

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“POETRY OF PALESTINE”: Palestine’s first English poetry and spoken word series begins – Blog Post

“POETRY OF PALESTINE”: Palestine’s first English poetry and spoken word series begins – Blog Post.

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Oxfam Officer: “You can’t eradicate poverty whilst you have an occupation”

This article, Part 2 of my interview with John Prideaux-Brune, Oxfam GB’s Country Director in Jerusalem, was originally posted here on February 5, 2010.  Part 1, on the man-made and actively managed humanitarian crisis in Gaza, was posted here.

“You can have development under an occupation but you can’t eradicate poverty.” That thought-provoking statement came from John Prideaux-Brune, Oxfam GB’s Country Director for Israel and the OPTs, during the interview I conducted with him January 12 in his office in East Jerusalem.

Prideaux-Brune explained that impoverishment is now widely recognized to be a condition where one is denied control over one’s life. Poverty is about being denied a voice. “You can be the richest person in the world but if you have no voice you are still in poverty,” he said.

Military rule anywhere, of course, denies a voice to citizens. But rule by an occupying foreign army does so even more, as is generally recognized in the special provisions international humanitarian law makes to try to protect the welfare of people living under foreign military occupation.

In the West Bank and Gaza, the 4.3 million civilian residents have now been living under foreign military occupation for nearly 43 years– and the mechanisms for sustaining that occupation have become extremely complex over time.  In the West Bank, the land mass has been sliced and diced into five different kinds of governance zones:

  • East Jerusalem has been outright annexed by Israel.
  • Israel has also, more quietly, extended its civil law system to the many large areas occupied or controlled by Israel’s illegal settlements, which thereby, in effect, annexes them.
  • In other areas, not directly controlled by the settlement blocs, the Palestinian population comes under the undiluted control of the IDF’s ‘civil affairs’ branch. These expanses of land– which total around 60% of the West Bank’s entire terrain– were designated, under Oslo, as ‘Area C’.
  • Other areas of land were designated ‘Area B’. In these patches, the (‘interim’) Palestinian Authority exercises control over civilian functions while the IDF retains control over security affairs.
  • In the other small patches designated ‘Area A’, the PA is supposed to control both civilian functions and security– though in practice, the IDF still moves and operates quite freely within the cities and towns that are designated ‘Area A’.

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