Checkpoint 300

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It is 3.45 a.m. and my team-mate and I arrive for our regular monitoring duty at Israeli Checkpoint 300, which allows entry through the Separation Barrier, from Bethlehem to East Jerusalem. Nearly 200 men are already queuing for the checkpoint to open and hundreds more are swarming in to join the crush at the bottom of the main entrance lane – a huge cage, 1m wide and about 300m long, totally enclosed by iron bars.

Over 5,000 Palestinians trudge through this checkpoint between 4 a.m.and 7 a.m. everyday. They are mostly men, eager to catch busses on the other side to go to work on building sites and other low paid jobs in Israel, because the occupation has strangled the Palestinian economy. The same osmosis is happening across checkpoints up and down the concrete and wire membrane that now surrounds the West Bank; 32,000 grey figures in dusty working clothes and heavy boots, filtering East to West in pre-dawn darkness, unseen by the world. Yet these people consider themselves the lucky few. They have been granted permits to work in Israel or to attend a hospital appointment in East Jerusalem.

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The men queue for up to 80 minutes each morning. Young and old, crammed together like cattle in the blue cage, shuffling slowly up the lane to a single turnstile. If someone should be taken ill, or injured, there is no chance of getting out until he reaches the turnstile. Only internationals and a handful of Palestinian women, children and old men with permits for hospital appointments, are allowed through the separate ‘humanitarian’ turnstile. After the first turnstile the younger men race across the tarmac to the terminal building, leaping barriers to get ahead in the next queue through more turnstiles, metal detectors and finally to the ID booths. Here each person must hold up his ID card to the glass, followed by his work permit and place his finger on an electronic finger print scanner. All this is checked by a bored and sullen Israeli soldier, wearing a bullet proof vest and an automatic machine gun behind the bullet proof glass. Private Israeli security guards with sub-machine guns prowl near the ID booths. A tannoy voice barks orders in Hebrew at the lines of Palestinians.

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This morning is worst than usual. The soldier controlling the first turnstile keeps locking it every few minutes. The bars rebound jarringly in the face of an old man and the queue halts for the fifth time. The crush of bodies intensifies for the next 20 minutes. Men begin shouting and complaining. Many climb over the top of the cage and queue-jump through gaps in the corrugated tin roof, desperate not to miss their busses and lose a day’s pay. When the turnstile finally opens again, 500 men surge through in 10 minutes calling ‘Yalla, yalla!’ (Go,go) to those ahead. One man stumbles, falls and is nearly trampled by the crowd pushing up behind. He is saved by another man who braces himself across the line whilst others haul the man to his feet.

I ring the military ‘Humanitarian Hotline’ three times. The soldier answering tells me it is a new unit on duty today and they don’t know what they are doing. After a few minutes two armed security guards appear from the main terminal to reinforce the soldier, rather than help people in the cage. I speak to the guards from my observation spot alongside the cage, asking them to do something before someone gets trampled or crushed. One of the new security guards finally turns and yells at me, motioning towards the crowd in the cage, ‘You do something! This is not Israel!’ as if the it is the behaviour of the Palestinians that is the problem. ‘That’s right!’ I respond in astonishment at this admission, ‘This is not Israel – it is Palestine! But Israel built the checkpoint and (Separation) Wall’. He turns his back on me.

My team-mate and I change places and I move to monitor the ID booths near the exit on the Jerusalem side. Only one of three metal detectors is open and the soldiers in the five ID booths keep turning men back. We try to speak to those who are refused entry to find out why. Most are given no explanation and we work with the Israeli human rights organisation, Machsom Watch, to find out. Sometimes the Palestinian has suddenly been blacklisted for unexplained ‘security reasons’. Sometimes his work permit has expired. People often don’t know that their permit has expired until they get to the checkpoint. The Israeli employer applies for the permits for their workers and sometimes simply cancel them when they no longer need the workers. The employee only finds out when he reaches the ID booth, after hours of travelling and queuing.

In addition to the thirty two thousand who are permitted to enter East Jerusalem and Israel, the Israeli authorities are well aware that another 20,000 West Bank Palestinians enter Israel without permits each day. Thousands of people, desperate for work, walk for hours across hills and through woods where the Barrier does not yet reach. The risks are high and many people serve repeated terms in Israeli prisons when they are discovered in Israel without a permit. A high proportion of the West Bank population was dependent on work in Israel before Israel began building the Separation Barrier in 2002. By then, the years of occupation since 1967 had dismantled the West Bank’s economy, with Israel controlling and taxing raw materials and products; the costs and uncertainty deterring investment.

After two and a half hours, people begin to stream through the terminal. The inexperienced Israeli army unit have finally given up and simply thrown opened the gates, allowing everyone to by-pass the security checks, as though acknowledging that security is not the real issue here.

And after enduring this systematic inhumanity and humiliation day in, day out, these Palestinians pass me at the exit with a smile and ‘Good morning’ – many kneeling for morning prayers on the exit slope – refusing to be humiliated, refusing to be dehumanised.

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Tuqu’ – a village under siege

A loud buzz of chainsaws greets our arrival following a call from Tuqu’ – a Palestinian village of about 12,000 people, south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. We find Israeli soldiers overseeing the destruction of row after row of mature olive trees.

25 Nov 2013 Palestinian woman pleading with Israeli soldiers as trees are cut down_A.Morgan

25 Nov 2013 Palestinian woman pleading with Israeli soldiers as trees are cut down_A.Morgan

The Palestinian farmers remonstrate with the army. They have land ownership documents dating back generations from the Jordanian, British and Ottoman administrations, but their arguments are ignored by the soldiers holding them back at the gunpoint. I notice a woman pleading with soldiers who order her away, but she will not let up.

25 Nov 2013 Israeli Border Guard weeping as Palestinian trees destroyed_A.Morgan

25 Nov 2013 Israeli Border Guard weeping as Palestinian trees destroyed_A.Morgan

An Israeli Border Guard, a young woman who speaks Arabic, is called to deal with her. I watch as the young soldier stands listening and silently drops her head, turning her face to wipe away tears.

Finally, the buzzing stops, but it is a temporary reprieve. The Israelis have declared this ‘state land’ and the farmers are given four days to cut down hundreds more trees themselves, or the world’s fourth largest army will return to defend Israel from the olive trees.

‘How can we do this?’ asks one farmer ‘It will be like killing our mothers!’

Israeli military harassment of children in Area C

About three quarters of Tuqu’s land is in Area C*, under full Israeli military control, although this was supposed to transfer to the Palestinian Authority within 5 years of the Oslo Agreement. Tuqu’ has already lost hundreds of hectares to the illegal Israeli settlements of Teqoa, Noqedim and Ma’ale Amos that surround it to the north, south and east.

Our team comes regularly to Tuqu’. It is one of four Bethlehem villages where we accompany children to school as part of a UNICEF ‘Access to Education’ programme. Every day, children of six to 18 must run the gauntlet of armed Israeli soldiers and we have been present when the army has tear-gassed the schools. The soldiers obstruct the school entrances with jeeps, and patrol the footpaths with guns, forcing the frightened children to walk across rough fields or along the busy road.

‘It is emotional harassment’ says the mayor.

Israeli Soldiers in one of the  villages where we accompany children to school_A.Morgan

School children pass by Israeli Soldiers in one of the villages where we accompany  children to school_A.Morgan

Recently we met a 16 year old boy who showed us the X- ray of a bullet still lodged in his back since a recent military incursion into Tuqu’. The mayor also tells us that over 20 children have been arrested in the last three months.

Two weeks before the trees were cut down, Tuqu’s mayor had called us because Israeli settlers, accompanied by soldiers, had begun putting up Israeli flags and tents on Tuqu’ land each afternoon.

One of the Israeli settlers I spoke to – a woman with an American accent – justified what she was doing, saying,

‘It is no different than what the Americans did to the Native Americans’.

Following this we saw the army erecting a series of concrete pillars along the roadside, with two red signs warning Israelis that this was a dangerous Palestinian village.

Soon after that, settlers erected a large marquee and put up provocative posters with a picture of a car being fire-bombed. The Palestinian landowner protested, but the military commander told him the settlers would take the land for two days for a party.  There was nothing the farmer could do to stop this, but the village held a peaceful protest, whilst a large Israeli military force guarded the settlers.

20 Nov 2013 Nadia Matar, Women in Green at Tuqu'_A.Morgan

20 Nov 2013 Nadia Matar, Women in Green at Tuqu’_A.Morgan

The people of Tuqu’ know that this is how it starts; a few tents, some flags, then some caravans – an illegal settlement outpost is born. With Israeli state protection and financial inducements it will soon grow to thousands of settlers. More land theft, house demolitions, movement restrictions and violence against local Palestinians will follow.

Two days after the party, the settlers are back. They include a vigilante group called Women in Green** led by a Belgian-born woman called Nadia Matar. We ask what she thinks about the 16 year old Tuqu’ boy who was shot it the back whilst going to visit his grandfather.

‘ He was probably throwing stones.’ She replies ‘Kids who throw stones should be shot in the head ’

During a visit to Tuqu’ a week after the tree cutting, we see scores of settlers coming towards the village, many bringing young children. A large number of Israeli soldiers position themselves across the road and fields, aiming their rifles and teargas cannons at Palestinian children coming out with their unarmed parents for another peaceful protest.

The settlers hold a ceremony and light candles. It is Hanukkah, and they tell us they are renaming this area with a new Hebrew name.

Under international law it is illegal for Israel, as an occupying force, to transfer its own population into the occupied Palestinian territories. Despite this, Israel’s massive settlement programme has continued unabated for decades, with thousands more homes being planned during the current Peace talks. With many settlements to the east of Bethlehem and other Palestinian centres, the Israeli strategy seems clear: to expand the eastern settlements westward to join up with Jerusalem, bisecting the West Bank and corralling the Palestinian population into a series of isolated cantons. EAPPI is keeping international agencies informed about these developments in Tuqu’ and a legal challenge is underway, supported by UNOCHA and the Norwegian Refugee Council.


* The Oslo Accords led to the West Bank being divided into Areas A (under Palestinian control), Area B (Palestinian civil government and Israeli military security) and Area C (Completely under Israeli military law). Areas B and C were supposed to be transferred to Area A – full Palestinian control, within 5 years. Instead, 20 years on, Israel has consolidated it’s control over Area C, illegally building hundreds of thousands of settler homes. Area C represents over 60% of the West Bank. It is the only contiguous area and therefore control over Area C is essential for communications. It also includes most of the West Bank’s fertile land and water. Israel prohibits Palestinian construction in Area C. Israeli control over, and settlement building in Area C is a major obstacle to a peaceful solution to the conflict.

** Women in Green is a right wing group that opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports Israeli settlement of the West Bank, which it proposes Israel should annex. WiG also opposed Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.  Nadia Matar, the Belgian-born leader of WiG claims that the ‘Arabs’ in the ‘Holy Land’ are descended from relatively recent immigrants, and should be ‘transferred’ to neighbouring Arab countries.