True Grit

Mahmoud is one of the few residents of the village of “A Seefer”, lying on the fringe of the 918 Firing Zone in the South Hebron Hills.  I have met Mahmoud Abu Qbeita a few times and when I think about his life and his determination despite circumstances the strongest of us would find unbearable I can’t help but think of John Wayne and True Grit or perhaps Johnny Cash’s song “A Boy Named Sue” and how life is going to be tough. Mahmoud is solid, weathered and the look of someone who has worked on the land all his life, which indeed he has.

Mahmoud has resided in A Seefer all of his life. His father inherited the property he lives on from his grandfather. He has Turkish land deeds, considered perhaps the amongst the strongest legal documents in Palestine to prove ownership of property. But life isn’t easy by any means growing up and raising a family in A Seefer.

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MAHMOUD’S SON SHOWING FATHER’S SPIRIT

A Seefer is a very small community inside the “Seam”. The “Seam” is land located between the unofficial border of Israel called the Green Line and the “Separation Wall”. This wall, which in some places like Bethlehem is in fact a wall much higher than the “Berlin Wall”, solid concrete and virtually impenetrable. In other locations like A Seefer the wall is in fact a tall fence topped with razor wire. This wall was build initially as a security barrier to protect the Israeli citizens from Palestian terrorists. In actuality a major portion of the wall has been build in Palestian property encompassing much of the Palestian fertile land and water resources. The wall has never been completed with the end of one section of this wall or fence being located at the Beit Yatir Check Point. The residences of A Seefer in order to legally enter their small community are required to go through this Beit Yatir Check Point which is staffed by Border Police, all former Israeli Army members.

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ROAD LEADING TO SETTLEMENT WHICH LIES TO RIGHT AND ACROSS THE TOP OF THE SMALL VILLAGE OF A SEEFER

I have gone through this Check Point several times and I can assure you that each time I go through it doesn’t get any more enjoyable. As part of our role as Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs)in the West Bank we escort A Seefer school children through the Check Point on their way back from attending the only school in their area located in the nearby community of Imneizel. Each time that the children enter from going to school they undergo a physical check. Kindergarten children up to age 16 years of age are all subject to daily searches of the back packs. When we are present the children are processed fairly fast, however we are informed when we are not present it may take the young children up to a half hour to go through. Any children over sixteen years of age are subjected a more rigorous examination and are often delayed for long periods of time. No Palestian who doesn’t live in A Seefer are allowed through the Check Point ever.

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 BEIT YATIR CHECK POINT – Photo by J. Zucali

Having walked through three times taking from 20 minutes to 30 minutes each time to go through even though there were no other people on any of these occasions being processed. We are of course recognized and are wearing our EA clearly marked and identified vests but have to turn over our Passport and Visa before going to another building where we go through a more thorough check. All our documents etc. are checked for explosives. On the other side of the Check Point are Israeli Settlements that almost surround the small community of A Seefer. That is all. The one time that another EA and myself drove through with Mahmoud after having interviewed him right outside of the Check Point it took one hour to be processed. Mahmoud had only driven through, stopped for the interview in plain site of the guards and drove back after the interview. Mahmoud did say that normally if we had not been with him it takes two hours for him to be processed. Each time his car is thoroughly searched inside of an enclosed building.

Mahmoud’s ancestors came from an area called Quaryeitin, (means two villages), which was destroyed in 1948. At its peak there has been 10 – 12 families residing in this small community. When asked if he has ever considered leaving, Mahmoud stated “God forbids even now my kids want to stay in A Seefer even if we have to live in a cave. I am hoping to God that we install in them the love of the land and that we are not going to leave this land”

Living in A Seefer brings many difficulties. They can’t of course have friends and relatives over for visits. Mahmoud is particularly concerned for his daughters who he feels may have significant difficulty in being courted and eventually to be married. His son, who would like to get married will also have major obstacles in his attempts to obtain the necessary papers and permits for any future wife to go through the Check Point and reside with him. Mahmoud sais “Social isolation is a very difficult life, very isolated, nobody can visit”

There are other challenges living in this community pertaining to the Check Point. He is only allowed to bring small portions of food supplies through at one time, sufficient for only a day or two. He often cuts through his farm land where there is no fence or wall after crossing after driving back gravel roads in order to bring larger supplies of food home. He requires permits to live in the community, permits to purchase a vehicle, permits for every aspect of his life. Permits that are often delayed or refused for no reason. There are demolition orders outstanding on many structures in the community now. A mobile toilet and animal shelter were demolished a couple of years ago.

They are subjected to frequent vandalism, rock throwing etc. from the nearby settlements and outpost. The Settlers use the army to prohibit the shepherds from A Seefer from accessing their own pastures, often resulting in the shepherds being detained for hours before being released. Sheep have even been stolen from his children when they have been shepherding. The Army conducts frequent night searches in the village in hope of catching people perhaps trying to sneak into Israel through the many gaps in the fence.

Removing the Check Point would be the single best thing that could be done to improve the life of those living in A Seefer according to Mahmoud. When one looks at what exactly is being accomplished by having this Check Point located here, other than to perhaps protect the residents of the Settlements from some unknown threat, you have to wonder about what is the point of it, including the major costs that coming with having it here at one of the ends of the Separation Wall.

Talking to Mahmoud you cannot help but be impressed with his resolve, his spirit and his determination despite what seem to be insurmountable challenges and impossible living circumstances. He is staying put, this is his land, he wants to ensure his family has the opportunity to love and respect the land as much as he obviously does. I have sat and enjoyed his hospitality and tea under the canvassed covered shelter that serves many purposes, but on that very hot day permitted me to sit back, enjoy the breeze and shade and perhaps for a moment truly appreciate why he is so passionate about his land, his home.

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Mid-Term

Sunday the 14th until Saturday 20th of September was the scheduled Mid-Term break for Group 53, the current EAs in Palestine and including our Team South Hebron Hills (SHH).  It is a time scheduled for providing updates and new information as well as an opportunity to take a break.

In our absence there are a couple of incidents worth noting.  One of the shepherds we had been providing protective presence for right up until we left was attacked on his pasture by two Settlers.  They also attempted to scatter the shepherd’s sheep.  The two Settlers then attacked two volunteers from an Italian humanitarian organization “Operation Dove”, who were providing the same protective presence that we normally do.  Their video cameras were taken, and one smashed by the Settlers.  Afterwards the two volunteers and the shepherd were taken to the Police Station, subsequently being released five hours later without charges.  They had been accused by the Settlers of throwing rocks at them, which they had not done.  To our knowledge no action has been taken to date against the Settlers involved.

A second incident that occurred while we were away involved eight sheep belonging to two Palestine shepherds being struck by a vehicle on a highway that connects eight Israeli Settlement killing six sheep and injuring two.  The police were summons to investigate.  Nothing further to report at this time.  Appreciation to Operation dove for the information on this incident and the assistance they have provided in our absence.

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EAPPI Office in Old Jerusalem

For me the most compelling presenter was Michel Warschawski, co-fonder of “Yesh Gvul” which translated has three options for meanings; 1) There is a Border, 2) There is a limit, 3) Enough is Enough.   He was born in 1949 in Strasbourg, France, the son of a Rabbi .   Warschawski emigrated to Israel at 16 year old in 1965 and has led an active life as a leading Jewish activist against the occupation of Palestine.  I took seven pages of notes of his presentation which I will make available to anyone that interested once I have had time to transcribe them.  There are many sites to visit on his intriguing life on the web site which I won’t begin to list.

A representative of EWASH gave an overview of the critical water situation in Palestine due to Israeli diversion and control of all the water in the Palestine Territory.  I have a power point presentation that I upon request I will email.

We also had a presentation from Shay Davidovich, a former soldier with the Israeli Army and co-founder of “Breaking the Silence”.  This organization has recruited many former Israeli soldiers who tour and give presentations of the atrocities committed by many in the Israeli Army and the Settlers.   He is also involved with the web site “+972” which exposes many issues from the Israeli movement to end the occupation and to tell the real stories on the occupation and oppression of Palestine.  One has to really appreciate how courageous Davidovich is to have spoken up realizing that he could destroy his relationship with his family, friends and former comrades in the army, only because he knew what was happening was totally wrong and had o be exposed.

We also travelled to Haifa where we visited the Dheisheh Refugee Camp where we given a tour and treated to a very entertaining dance and musical performance performed by a camp’s youth Drama and Choir group.  These youth later joined us for a traditional dinner which certainly capped off the evening.  This refugee camp is actually similar in size, history and overall appearance to Fawwar Refugee Camp in the South Hebron Hills area which has been talked about in previous articles in the blog.

 

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Dheisheh Refugee Camp

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Haifa

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Path along crest of hill at Stella Maris Resort

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A visit in the morning to the Baladna Centre, an Association for Arab Youth in Israel located in downtown Haifa in the morning finished off the morning explaining many of the International award winning programs that they have created and are running.  I certainly encourage you to visit their web site at http://www.momken.org for full information of this inspiring organization.

On the return trip to Jerusalem we toured Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom, a community founded in the early 1970’s to show that Jews and Arabs could live together.  Again I direct you to their Web site at http://nswas.org.  This “Oasis for Peace” currently consisting 50 families, 50/50 split Jewish and Arabian offers many programs in the pursuit of peace for particularly youth but are branching into programs for adults.  They expect to soon offer a Masters Degree program for Peace.  A truly beautiful and tranquil haven for peace.

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We also attended a Friday evening service at Kehillat Kol Haneshama, a congregation associated with the Israeli movement for progressive Judaism http://www.kolhaneshama.   We were certainly made to feel welcome by the Rabbi and the congregation.

We have now returned to work where in the first couple of days it has been relatively quite.  We provided 4 hours of protective presence to a community that had received information of a pending encroachment by nearby Settlers.  Although many were observed around the perimeter, only one Settler Shepherd with his flock of sheep actually intruded onto the Palestine community’s property.

So all in all that was the highlights of our mid-term week break.

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 A little of the Beauty that we got to Appreciate on the Break

 

Mixed Bag

I thought for this week’s blog I would take you with me for the highlights and I suppose you could say the lowlights of the week.  Sunday afternoon I headed off to Jerusalem for two days of Placement Visitation (working) and a day off (my first).  Upon arrival in Jerusalem I accompanied two EAs to Notre Dame Cathedral.  I suggest you check out their web site at: http://www.nortredamecentre.org to see what a spectacular site this is.  After walking through the wine and cheese restaurant we took in the incredible view from their roof top dining room.  We then attended an inspiring service led by a Mexican Father with the subject of his sermon being on praying for Peace.  Walking to the Jerusalem Team’s living quarters we passed by a tree alive with chirping wild parakeets, something you don’t see everyday where I live.

Monday morning started with a 7AM brisk walk through Old Jerusalem to check on the gates an generally assess the situation.  School kids in the uniforms were making their way through the narrow streets, laughing and gleefully off to start a new day.  Shop keepers were busy setting up, cleaning and getting ready for what they hoped would be a productive day ahead.  We checked a number of the gates including the North, the Lions and the Damascus gate before making our way to the Haram esh Sharif, where some of the finest Islamic buildings are located like the 8th Century El-Aqsa mosque and the spectacular Dome of the Rock.  A truly inspiring site early in the morning, people scattered around the large plateau quietly praying, making their way to a mosque or having an intimate conversation.  Off to the side school children offer inspiration of their own with their laughing and talking as they play in advance to entering the schools off to the side of this truly incredible location.

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In the afternoon we are off a couple of demolitions where there appears to be no logic or rational to explain why this took place.  At one site a livestock barn was destroyed killing all of the chickens that were in their pens inside.  The owners did get their larger animals out in time.  Their metal shop was destroyed complete with some very expensive tools.  Around the corner a bus used as an office on a recently purchased property that was being landscaped to improve its appearance was totally destroyed.  There were no demolition orders in place, none given and nor was there any explanation.  They both owned their properties outright.

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On the way back from the demolition site I was shown the property of a man who is forced to live alone and without his family, totally trapped, unable to leave for any reason what so ever.   He has a large piece of property with fruit and olive trees.  This property has been in his family for generations, however the Government has designated the land “For Future Development”  There is one access road that runs past his house.  A barricade has been placed on the road on each side of his property.  Access through one end can be gained through a Check Point.  He can not leave the property for fear of damage being done by nearby Settlers.  There is a very large Settlement high up on a bank overlooking his property.  No other properties are affected by this roadblock and there has been no reason given for it being in place.  On he surface there appears absolutely no justification for this blockade.

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That night I went downtown to grab something to eat however I had to return an hour later having spent the entire hour pretty well surrounded by rioters and riot police, complete with their horses.  I tried many back roads and alleys only always have one or both of the groups going by me in both directions.  Burning dumpsters, rocks, paint, ambulances and plenty of media.  Fortunately I was of no interest to either side that particular evening.  The riot happened because of the death of a 16 year old boy who had died earlier in the week after suffering an injury during a confrontation with the Israeli Army two weeks earlier.   Earlier that day when we passed the dead boy’s home which was surrounded by family, media, police and friends.  We caught the site of what has got to be one of the youngest “rock throwers” posing for the various media just outside of the family’s home.

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The next day we monitored a check point, one a lot more civilized and much more humanly run than the one in our area.  Another tour of old Jerusalem and I was off for a day.  A lot of walking in some pretty hot weather required quite a few breaks.  One stop I made was the Austrian Hospice in Old Jerusalem.  An oasis in the middle of all the hustle of the vendors etc. where under the shade of many trees,and surrounded by beautiful flowers I enjoyed some great Austrian coffee and fresh apple strudel.  An other interesting place to rest and east is the old Jerusalem Hotel where in a restaurant with loose rock floor, parakeets singing in the foliage above the open ceiling you can enjoy a good old fashioned hamburger.  In a scene almost our of Casablanca, people sit around reading, enjoying others company or like many taking advantage of several large water pipes supplied by the restaurant to use one of the many exotic tobaccos that they have available.  And no, because I quit smoking on one of my daughter’s birthday in 1999, I did not try this.

Coming back to Yatta on Thursday myself and another EA had to go to the Fire Zone, where we walked in and down the side of a mountain in order to provide protective presence to a family who had experienced issues with settlers the day before.  We ended up spending overnight with the families teenage boys, a couple of Italian volunteers with an organization called “Operation Dove”.  A very pleasant night with no unexpected guests.  We slept in the family cave the is complete with solar supplied electricity with sufficient energy to power lights, a fridge and television.  The boys prepared a great traditional Bedouin meal for supper.   The stars were out in full bloom, the moon just past being full and the only sounds were crickets and the occasional bark from the owners two dogs chasing unwanted animals.  In the morning we walked back up the mountain, seeing a gazelle just cross our path.  We walked most of the way back to our flat, stopping to see shepherds on our way.

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Which brings me wrapping this up for now.  We have more duties tomorrow before going off to Jerusalem and Haifa on Sunday for our mid-term break and more training mixed in with a bit of relaxation.

 

Forced Displacement

In my opinion the Israeli Government has many tools for which to intimidate, oppress and harass Palestians. Demolition under the pretext of collective punishment, punitive reasons or administrative rational is one of these weapons. The majority of these demolitions, which have become so routine in the eyes of the world, go almost totally unreported by the press. It no less traumatic for the families involved. If you are interested in getting a better grasp on the International Laws being infringed upon and the futile efforts by many organizations and Governments to put a stop to this practice over the past decades please refer to:
http://www.ochaopt.org and http://www.btselem.org

Demolitions have been going on for many years in the occupied territory of Palestine but lately with the Gaza War coming to an end things have escalated through-out the West Bank. Of note the seizure of 400 hectares in the Bethlehem area as a stated act of revenge for the killing of the three Israeli youth earlier this summer. This so called revenge started almost immediately after the kidnapping even though the kidnapping has been widely reported that the Israeli Government knew full well within hours of the kidnapping that two renegades, not associated with Hamas were responsible. With this knowledge the Israeli Government and Army embarked on a wide range campaign of searches, arrests, detentions and harassments including well into Fire Zone 918 in the SHH area.

Demolition Jul 14 Photo Ron Pond

What appears to myself an others to be the case is that for many years now there has been an organized plan to force Palestine farmers and shepherds to move to urban areas like Yatta where of course they will end up living on welfare and losing a way of life that their families has proudly sustained on for generations if not centuries. One purpose could be to clear areas for military exercises. One of the main reasons however more plausible is to provide even more ability for the Israeli Settlements and Outposts to keep expanding. Currently it estimated in excess of 300,000 reside in these settlements and outposts which have been declared totally illegal under International Law. Under Israeli law most Settlements are legal but all Outposts are illegal. Even with that said the Outposts are all provided the full support of the Israeli Government including supply of electricity, paved roads and ample water to say the least. Normally what happens is that Settlement will be established and soon there after an Outpost will be created on a hill nearby. From there on efforts are continued to link the two and to expand on their territory taking in all of the fertile land and water resources in the area.

Needless to say the shepherds and farmers are faced with ever shrinking land to graze their livestock or grow their crops. With even less water resources due to most of the water being diverted to Settlements and Outposts their ability to grow profitable crops and raise livestock is substantially reduced. Much of the demolition occurs because the Palestinians have difficulty establishing ownership of the land in Israeli courts. If they do have title it often dates back as far as the Ottoman Empire and the paperwork does not stand up to today’s legal standards. Once property is demolished by the Army if new structures are re-built on the site of the now destroyed structure, the new structure can be destroyed without a new demolition order. Many Palestinians receive good legal advice through the Norwegian Refugee Council and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).

A recent demolition that we attended saw the three residences, two animal shelters and three mobile latrines destroyed by the Army in a matter of minutes. A total of 40 adults and children are now displaced because of this action. Numerous organizations responded to assist the displaced families including Ocha, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), B’Tselem, Operation Dove and food agencies. The Palestinians can apply for new building permits but they are very rarely ever granted.

Demolition Sep 14 Photo Ron PondDemolition Sep 14 Photo Ron Pond (2)

The residents of the Settlements and Outposts however continue to expand through every means possible seldom ever being challenged by the authorities. I reported in one of my past blogs on how a Settlement has won the right in Israel courts to expand onto Palestian Land, where I guess one could say that even the original construction of the Settlement was on Palestian land. We also documented recently Settlers planting trees on land that is owned by Palestians. The Palestians have no legal authority to destroy these trees on their land, rather have to go through the legal process of trying to have the Courts rule that the trees be destroyed. If they are not successful then over a certain amount of time this Palestian land also reverts to the Settlement based on the record of them growing trees there.

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These demolitions by the Army are only part of the story.  The Palestian shepherds and farmers also have their buildings and crops regularly vandalized or destroyed by the settlers with very little if any action on behalf of the authorities to curtail these actions.

Displaced Resident Sep 14 Photo Ron Pond

Check Point Turmoil

One of the many responsibilities that Ecumenical Accompaniers have in all the placements is to monitor Check Points. There are a couple of different types of check points, one being agricultural and the others are providing accesses to Israel via the Green Line and the Separation Wall. We don’t have agricultural check points in our area but they provide the farmer or shepherd access to their land. In writing this article I can only represent what occurs at the check points in our area.
In 1948 when Israel declared itself a country an unofficial border was established called the green line. Israel built the Separation Wall commencing in 2003. It was to follow the green line as a deterrent to attacks from Palestians. Although far from being completed, major portions of the Separation Wall that has been completed now have deviated into Palestians territory encompassing valuable land and water resources in the process.  Due to the Separation Wall not being completed there are many large gaps and therefore in reality hasn’t become the security blanket for it was originally intended.  But that is an issue for another day. The Seam is the area between the Separation Wall and the Green Line where in fact many Palestians still forge a difficult life requiring hard to get if not impossible to obtain permits to leave the area where they live and cross either the Green Line or the Separation Wall for such essentials as employment, medical care, basic shopping needs, visiting family or attending religious activities.
In our area we in fact have families living in the Seam where we frequently monitor the check point to ensure that their young children can attend and return home from school without undue harassment from the border guards. When we are in attendance the back packs etc. of these children as young as 6 years old are searched. Then without too much delay they are permitted to proceed through the check point. When we aren’t in attendance they are frequently delayed anywhere from a half hour to over four hours if for no apparent reason other than to humiliate and harass them. These children go through this routine every single day they attend school.
Every Sunday morning between 4AM and 7AM we monitor our main check point that provides access between the Separation Wall and Palestine, in our case Southern Hebron Hills.   As I attempt to describe the situation that greets us each Sunday morning at this check point I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the difficulty that I have had in coming up with the words to actually describe not only the visual impact of what we see, but the emotional and physiological impact these few hours have not only us as volunteers but on everyone that is witness to the human tragedy that unfolds before us. My colleagues and I have discussed the check point duty several times and are in total agreement on how heart wrenching, how traumatic these few hours are. Photographing of the check point is not allowed and as a result there is minimal visuals of the scene.
We drive the three quarters of an hour from our residence to the Check Point taking a mixture of rough gravel roads and modern highways being passed by an assortment of vans and vehicles all racing to the same destination. Upon arrival at the entrance to the Check Point we are waved over by heavily armed police to park beside their armored personnel carrier. We go through the routine of having our identification checked even though they seem to be fully aware of who all of us are and then waved through. As we are going through this process a number of Palestians run just feet from these police up and over a hill, apparently headed to a hole in the Separation Wall where they will enter illegally the Israeli side of the border. The police seem oblivious to this activity.
The roadway leading to the actual Check Point is lined on one side with a variety of kiosks where venders are peddling anything from fresh coffee (very strong), orange juice, freshly cooked food and other wares. These stalls are all powered by plugging into their vehicle parked in the gravel parking lot behind. Meantime the vehicle and pedestrian traffic past these stalls is relentless generating the hubbub you might see in a large city market area.
The Check Point sits straddling the Separation Wall with numerous fences, gates all secured but ready for a quick opening if need be by security forces. A watch tower is situated on the left side of the main structure where vehicles are cleared and the another watch tower is located in the middle providing surveillance to those entering through the entrance shed which leads to a heavily barred chute, turnstile and on into the security area where to two lines led to actual screening stations. Cameras cover every inch of the facility.
People enter the approximate 40’ x 40’ three sided metal shed and immediately enter into a metal piped snake similar to at most airport departure gates. The open side of the shed faces the inside towards the tower and is closed off with heavy gauge wire. The snake path eventually leads to the piped chute and turnstile. This is where we stand for three hours.  The Check Point is scheduled to open at 4AM. Our role, as the two EAs present, is to track the number of people going through every half hour including the number of women and children. This is done to assist a number of agencies including the United Nations. We also intercept the many individuals returning through a special gate, to ascertain why they have been rejected. The majority of people going through this Check Point are going to jobs on the Israeli side of the border. Some are going for other reasons including medical, visiting family in prisons or assorted other personal reasons.

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When we arrive at 3:45 AM there are in the vicinity of 600 people already crammed into the shed with the line extending out into the entrance road. The mood at this time is resolve, if not relaxed. Shortly after 4:05 the turnstile is opened and the people steadily make their way through. It doesn’t take long for the atmosphere to change as it will several times through the three hours we are at our post. The noise level accelerates and almost immediately the lengthy line compresses, trampling and tightly squashing everyone the length of the line, young, old, healthy and those not so healthy. At the same time individuals start climbing the walls and re-enforcement piping that rises across the width of the room. They start making their way to the front of the procession, often climbing on the heads and shoulders of those unfortunate to be beneath their path. Upon reaching the front, they calmly make their way to the front of the line. Those already at the front always let them in without protest. One of the first individuals to climb his way to the front and jump down on the last Sunday when we were present broke his ankle upon landing. He had to remain just across the fenced wall from where we were standing without medical attention almost until the end when he could make his way back through the incoming crowd.

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Those rejected are rejected because of expired passes, carrying an unacceptable parcel, being on one of the many blacklists, many other reasons and just because. On the other side of the Check Point, those that have successfully made it through walk a lengthy pathway between the structure and the Separation Wall. A steady stream of individuals make their way to the fence to relieve themselves. When they reach the far end of the structure operators of numerous taxis, buses and private cars seek to attract the attention of the dreary faced individuals. A concession on the exit side also pushes the thick black coffee. Throughout the hours that this process takes place men get down and pray where ever there is a clear spot out of the way.

It is very difficult to imagine unless you have witnessed this event. It is difficult to imagine livestock being treated in this manner. In fact as I was standing counting off the people as they passed one individual commented to me that it must be like counting cattle. This process is very humiliating to all involved, it is dehumanizing and could very much be organized in a fashion to ensure the security the authorities are seeking while treating individuals with respect. Those going through, including those that have been rejected accept this as part of life in Palestine.  This is truly a very unpleasant part of our job.  I cannot accept this as normal.