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.
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.
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.