Saturday, December 5, 2009
Bethlehem Checkpoint (photo courtesy of Alessandra Gola)
For two days in a row I’ve had to make the trip from Bethlehem into Jerusalem. It shouldn’t be a big deal. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are, depending on your map and politics, between 6 and 15 kilometers away from each other. However, the prospect of a shared taxi to a Palestinian bus to the checkpoint to an Israeli bus all combined with traffic and witnessing everyday oppression is always a physically and emotionally exhausting headache. Of course it is a headache I am privileged to have as my Palestinian neighbors can only travel to Jerusalem with a special permit or by sneaking in.
A word about Palestinians sneaking into Israel. It’s easy, very easy for them to do it. Any argument Israel puts forward that its wall is about Israeli security is completely undermined by how easy it is for Palestinians to get into ’48 (Israel) surreptitiously. And I’m not talking about people who are willing to use any means necessary and want to blow themselves up. No sneaking under fences in the night here. I mean folks who are separated from their family in East Jerusalem and have no desire to die or spend years in prison going in through the checkpoints. My friends do this, it causes them and their family anxiety and concern but they want to see each other. If these otherwise law abiding, normal, cautious folks can get in so easily (but not without risk of prison or fines)… The security argument is bull. Like I and others have said before: it’s not about security it’s about occupation.
But back to the checkpoints. Even though it is time consuming for me as an international to travel between Israel and the West Bank, that is usually all it is time consuming. When I go through the Bethlehem checkpoint after walking through the metal detectors and turnstiles the solider sitting in the bulletproof booth, usually with his or her feet up on the desk, just waves me through without even looking at my passport photo. At the Gilo checkpoint I get off the bus like all the other Palestinians, we stand in line, their documents are collected for inspection. My passport is given a cursory glance and we get back on the bus.
Today, at the Gilo checkpoint, when they saw my passport I was instructed to step out of line. What now? I thought with a slight bit of trepidation. A female solider was called over, glanced at my United States passport, asked if I spoke English and then proceeded to tell me that this checkpoint was no longer open to foreigners. She was so sorry but I would have to go back to the Beit Lahem checkpoint if I wanted to get into Jerusalem. It took me awhile to realize that Beit Lahem meant Bethlehem but once I figured out what she was talking about it still didn’t make sense. Since when, I asked her. It’s a new thing she said but its been a long time coming. That’s interesting I said I traveled through here yesterday. Yeah it went into effect today she said it’s a military order. Can I see the order? I asked. She skirted around the request and kept apologizing. I kept asking to see the order. It was in impasse, Palestinians on the bus were waiting, held up by this power play. I asked her where exactly I was supposed to go seeing as we were standing in the middle of the highway, was I supposed to walk back to Bethlehem? Oh no she said, just go stand by that hill there (the intersection of the busy highway) a bus going back to Beit Lahem will pick you up…
I didn’t want to make the Palestinians on the bus wait any longer so I began hiking my way back to Bethlehem. Of course there was no bus, they don’t come through that often because not that mnay Palestinian’s have permission to go to Jerusalem. A kind Palestinian family saw me walking after 10 minutes and offered me a ride back to town. I tried in my incredibly inadequate Arabic to explain my frustration to them. They listened kindly, clearly didn’t understand either my broken explanation or why I was frustrated (Israeli soldiers making your life difficult, what’s new about that? I imagine they might have said if they were less polite) and offered to drive me to the other checkpoint.
At this point although something seemed fishy, especially the part where they wouldn’t show me the military order, I thought that perhaps this was at least temporarily a real thing. The Israeli military does have a history of enacting orders which don’t stand up in Israeli courts of law which after they become public are quietly brushed under the carpet (see the incident of fining Palestinian farmers for inviting internationals to help them harvest their olives). I wondered if this meant there would be additional security at the Bethlehem container checkpoint, questions about why I was in the West Bank for instance.
This was not the case. I got to the checkpoint and wound my way though the caged maze and turnstiles to find the place empty. It was the middle of the day. The busy hours are in the morning and late afternoon when the lucky few with work permits wait in long crowded lines.
I wandered around awhile trying to find which lane was open. They all seemed closed. Another part of the “make life difficult” aspect of the occupation. How hard would it be in a multimillion dollar facility with state of the art “security” equipment to have a sign that says “open’ or ‘closed’ in front of the processing lanes? A Palestinian woman and I joined forces and eventually a solider opened up one of the lanes and I was waved through without much more then a glance at my passport.
When I mentioned this at my meeting, to which I was late, with Gershon Baskin director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) he was incredulous and managed to immediately confirm with someone very high up the military checkpoint chain that there was no such official order. I was very much within my legal rights to freely use either checkpoint.
So why was I turned away? Both my and Gershon’s guess is it was because I was traveling on a bus with Palestinians. And officially and unofficially Israel as a state and many Israelis want to dissuade internationals from visiting Palestine and Palestinians. And I’d add to that; because they can. Because when you create a racist, apartheid state what you create are many citizens who internalize those same traits. And then you give them a gun and a boring job. It is not surprising that they don’t strictly adhere to all the sanctioned forms of oppression but invent new ones of their own.
Bored with Guns
UPDATE 12/7/09; It's an actual operational order. I tried to go through the checkpoint again, they wouldn't let me. Would not show me the order. Soldiers tried to refuse to give me their identification information, which they are required to give by law. Threatened to arrest me if I tried to get on the bus. Gershon, from IPCRI drove down and talked with them/called lots of higher ups. Its a real thing. At the discretion on the area commander, or however the military chain of command goes, he/she can prevent foreigners from traveling through the checkpoint if they are in a car or bus with Palestinians coming from Bethlehem area. If I was in an Israeli bus or in an Israeli plated car coming from the direction of the illegal settlements I would be allowed through. Operational orders are supposed to be used in emergency situations. Evidently foreigners with Palestinians is an emergency for the Israeli military/state.
Posted by Jo Ehrlich at Saturday, December 05, 2009