So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).
Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.
Genesis 35:19-20 (NRSV)
Today, Rachel’s Tomb lies adjacent to Checkpoint 300 (also known as the Gilo Checkpoint). Several thousand people must navigate this checkpoint between 4 am and 7 am each weekday (Sunday through Thursday, for the Muslim population), to reach their jobs on the other side of the Israeli separation barrier. At this hour, these people are almost all men.
Israel began creating checkpoints in the 1990s, with the stated goal of enhancing the security of Israel and Israeli settlements, following the March 1993 deaths of nine Israeli civilians and six members of the Israeli military.
Many Israelis consider checkpoints the “last line of defense” and critical to Israel’s security. Without them, “...terrorists and deadly weapons would move into Israel with ease,” military police Erez Battalion commander Lt. Col. Gil Mamon told the Jerusalem Post in 2015, expressing a common perspective. While this viewpoint is highly contested by many within Israel and throughout the Palestinian territories, the idea that checkpoints are an ugly necessity is accepted by many within Israeli society.
Every country has a right to defend and control its borders, of course. But checkpoints are found throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, not just along the separation barrier. And it is important to remember that the separation barrier itself does not follow the border (known as the Green Line) established by the 1947 armistice agreement, but instead snakes deep into the West Bank.
Once or twice a week, my team monitors Checkpoint 300.
Please don’t imagine airport security. Checkpoint 300 isn’t intended to be welcoming or comfortable. It consists of two large terminals connected by an open area about the size of a basketball court. Entering the checkpoint from the West Bank side, one proceeds for a few hundred feet through a tunnel constructed of concrete block and iron bars. The tunnel is just wide enough for three people to stand abreast. The concrete block walls rise on either side to a height of about five feet. The iron bars top the concrete walls like a picket fence. As the tunnel becomes crowded with men shuffling slowly forward, some of the younger and more limber among them leap up, grab the bars, pull themselves above the men below, and move hand over hand and foot over foot along the bars, bypassing those ahead of them. Checkpoint etiquette seems to allow for this, and having thus moved up the line, they’re allowed to drop back down and join the queue.
Presently, workers come to a turnstile. If the turnstile is unlocked, they can pass through into the open area. At this point, many men sprint across to the second terminal, where they follow a snaking lane that’s wider and more accessible. But their progress is soon impeded again by a second set of turnstiles that stand just before the metal detectors. Here the line slows to a crawl as the men push one-by-one through the turnstiles, pulling off belts as they go. On the other side, belongings are piled on the metal detector’s conveyer belt and the men walk through a scanner. If there is no angry buzz from the scanner (forcing them to retreat, check their pockets for a forgotten bit of metal, and pass through again), they navigate one last turnstile before proceeding to one of the exit booths, where they must show their permit (no West Bank Palestinian is allowed to pass through without a permit issued by Israel), and put their hands on a fingerprint reader. With luck, their permit won’t be challenged and they can finally emerge into fresh air to catch the ride waiting for them on the other side.
Yes, every day. Just to get to work. Does your daily commute seem more manageable now?
I dread checkpoint duty.
The alarm shakes me awake at 3:30 am and I drag on lots of layers. It’s cold in the terminals. The street outside my apartment is empty, but the street outside the checkpoint entrance teems with activity: taxis discharge workers, men stream toward the entrance, vendors sell coffee, cigarettes, energy bars, containers of hummus, fruits, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs. A man fries falafel in a big vat. Many of the workers have driven an hour or more from their homes to the checkpoint and they need breakfast.
Already, the tunnel is filled with men, and I join them. I feel perfectly safe. Women are generally treated deferentially here, and most people seem to recognize and respect the EAPPI vest that I wear. If the first turnstile stays open, I reach the metal detectors within 10 minutes or so. That will be my post for the next 90 minutes. My purpose is simply to observe and to record problems – turnstiles locking, tense exchanges between workers and the soldiers who patrol the catwalk above or staff the booths on the other side. I stand near a sign that says, incongruously, Keep This Terminal Clean in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. The terminal, though free of litter except near the entrance, is anything but clean.
Occasionally, I make eye contact with a worker and we exchange greetings. But their minds are elsewhere: on the wives and children they left sleeping, on the workday ahead, on their need for another cup of coffee. They’re just like any crowd of working men, all ages, dressed in jeans and hoodies. Some wear work boots, some wear Adidas. Some wear backpacks, some carry tools. Some wear ballcaps, a few wear traditional Arab headdress. I spot American brands: Under Armor, Tommy Hilfiger, Hollister, Hugo Boss. They smoke, fiddle with their phones. At around 5 am, a group spread prayer shawls on the dirty concrete and prostrate themselves for morning prayers.
On a good day, the turnstiles lock only briefly, the line keeps moving, and there isn’t much angry shouting from the military and private security guards on the other side of the metal detectors. On other days, there’s lots of shouting. I can’t understand their words (Arabic? Hebrew?) but their tone is confrontational. Or the guards lock the turnstiles and they stay locked for long minutes, delaying the line, creating restlessness and agitation as men risk missing the rides waiting for them on the other side. Many of the men are day laborers. Missing their ride means a day’s wages are lost. Why do the guards lock the turnstiles? No way to tell.
On one recent morning, the turnstiles were locked for an hour and forty-five minutes, creating chaos throughout the checkpoint.
Adjacent to Checkpoint 300 is another, this one for vehicles. Our apartment is located just a few hundred feet from the vehicle checkpoint. Big tour buses rumble through day and night, bearing loads of tourists behind tinted windows. They’ve come to see the holy sights in Bethlehem. What would they think, if they could also see the pre-dawn gauntlet Palestinian men must run daily?
Checkpoint 300 is an ugly place, cold and dirty and demeaning.
This is life under occupation.
Susan Brogden is a short-term volunteer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme (EAPPI) in Palestine and Israel.