Walk with the men through this checkpoint at Tarqumeya

Walk with the men through this checkpoint at Tarqumeya

Written by Joyce Cassel, former Ecumenical Accompanier in Tarqumeya

Palestinians from the Southern West Bank who work in Israel pass through one of two major checkpoints. Tarqumiya, built on Palestinian land near Hebron, services workers bound for Tel Aviv or Haifa. (The other is the entry point for Bethlehem to Jerusalem.)

Recently Tarqumiya was remodeled to add electronic technology and better facilities. But as observer Joyce Cassel of Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel saw, an improved checkpoint simply normalizes the restrictions and controls imposed on Palestinians.

To work in Israel Palestinians from the West Bank must get security clearance from Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). After clearance, they apply for a work permit. If it’s granted, they will also be finger printed. Their permit includes a photo and relevant information. Most of the workers work in construction, infrastructure, services, and agriculture.

Walk with the men through this checkpoint:

3:30 a.m. Sunday. The full moon shines brightly in the dark black sky as an Ecumenical Accompaniment group arrives at Tarqumiya checkpoint. They have been passed on the road by speeding vans full of men heading for the same destination. The monitors arrive at a large parking lot. A few cars and vans are parked. It is a dark, desolate landscape close to the border between Israel and West Bank, not far from Gaza. Stands are already set up to sell cigarettes, phone cards, candy and snacks, boiled eggs, fruit, falafel and, of course, strong Arabic coffee and tea.

Tarquimeya_0061.jpgAbout 200 men are already waiting at the first turnstile for the arrow to turn green, signaling their admittance. At 3:45 a.m. the arrow turns green. A congenial Palestinian working the gate allows about 75 to go through the first turnstile. He does this for three groups. The men then stop to go through a second turnstile. Now they are on their way for ID check. Do they have the correct permit? Is the time correct? Has anything changed over night?

By 4 a.m. the turnstile revolves constantly. Men move through the first turnstile to the second intently, some run. Most carry a lunch sack and a backpack; a few tote a third bag. They are hoping to be on their way to work.

A monitor notices large Israeli buses dropping off potential workers. The buses travel around Hebron, pick up men and drop them off at Tarqumiya checkpoint. The men then pick up a second Israeli bus on the other side of the checkpoint for their ride to their work site. Others hop into vans, which will take them to their work sites.

By 4:15 a.m. 1,157 men have passed through the two turnstiles. Ten were denied permission to go on to work. The monitoring group stands by and continues to count the men–and one woman–passing through the two turnstiles. A translator asks the returning men why they were denied permission to go to work this day.

By 6:30 a.m. 7,930 men have presented IDs, had their finger prints read to see if they match, and given or denied entrance to Israel for work. But 125 were denied entrance for a variety of reasons: permits withdrawn by employer, wrong permit issued, permit withdrawn by an action of another member of the person’s family, too early (those workers just got back in line), could not read finger print. A few of those going in the opposite direction were returning home from their night jobs in Israel.

By now the monitoring group needs to leave but men are still arriving on their way to work. The parking lot is now full of vans and cars. No toilets are available at the checkpoint. Also no trash cans. This is the everyday morning start for Palestinian men going to work in Israel. At the end of the day, they will reverse the trip. Returning to the West Bank, they will easily move through the checkpoint (Israel does not care who is returning to the West Bank).

Tarquimeya_0486.jpgThe first day of the week is the busiest. Later in the week many men choose to stay in Israel rather than get up at 2 a.m. to begin their work day. Others have a limited number of times they may enter Israel. As the men learn the system, they learn to adjust their lives for the least inconvenience. But these choices are not easy ones: Whether to stay away from home days at a time and sleep at the work site in rough conditions or arrive home in time for a quick meal, then off to bed for a few hours sleep before the 2 or 3 a.m. alarm.

When this checkpoint was monitored in 2012, conditions were vastly different. Rather than assembling in an orderly line, men crowded into a shed that looked like it was designed for cattle. Rather than wait in the serpentine queue, some workers tried to get to the front of the line by climbing into overhead rafters. The keepers of the turnstile were inconsistent. Some days they permitted the men to pass through without difficulty. Most days they would delay the turnstile. Men never knew how long it would take. Would they get through in time? The wait line often sprawled outside the cowshed-type building with 100 to 200 men waiting with no shelter in rain, snow and cold to go to work.

The remodeled Turqumiya is a “triumph” of technology – electronic IDs, finger print readers, newly constructed bigger-and-better facilities. However, all these “improvements” simply normalize a most restrictive and controlling situation. It’s all about control, not security.

I am serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) as an Ecumenical Accompanier. Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the WCC. Please do not forward or use any part of this communication without permission. Thank you.