crossing - Daniel Bar On - Sept 22 2010
Palestinians in Bethlehem waiting to cross into Israel Tuesday. Photo by Daniel Bar On
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In Bethlehem, several hundred meters from the separation fence, a vague commotion is audible. Moving closer to the fence, you can see the full, unpleasant scene.

It's 4 A.M. and underneath the fence, hundreds of people are cramming into a corridor bounded by iron bars. The corridor is several hundred meters long and a meter and a half wide.

Young men in their 20s push their way next to others over 60. They yell, argue, hit and do whatever else they need to in order to get through the crossing as quickly as possible. Almost all work legally in Israel, building Israelis' dream homes.

The rumble starts whenever someone starts pushing. The workers grasp the bars, trying not to be trampled and to keep their place in line.

Nowhere does the West Bank's economic development seem further away than here, with the thousands of people desperate to cross into Israel to find work.

They come from Bethlehem, Hebron and the villages between. Some arrive before 3 A.M. so that they can make it to work on time. Taxis come one after the other to drop off workers, then return to pick up more.

On the eastern side of the road are stands selling hummus, cheese, falafel, coffee and cigarettes. Most of the products are Israeli-made.

Musa Abu Khamis waits at the far end of the corridor. "They let 10 in every time, then close the gate for a few minutes," he says. Several bystanders say the wait can be three or four hours.

A nearby corridor set up by the Civil Administration allows women, the elderly and "humanitarian cases" to pass through more quickly.

Abu Khamis says he makes NIS 200 for a day's work in construction, and is docked NIS 50 for every hour he arrives late. The taxi to the construction site in the upscale West Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot costs him another NIS 30.

'We're like animals'

"What law in the world allows someone to leave home at 3 A.M. to get to work at 8? We're standing here like animals," says one man from Bethlehem.

Around 5 A.M., the mass of people starts to move. The gate is opened. One man displays his blood-stained T-shirt. "It happened at the beginning of the line," he says. "They pushed the man next to me with a piece of metal. He bled on me."

A little after 6 A.M., the tension in the corridor has diminished, and by 6:30 it's virtually empty. Today, the gate will be closed for security reasons over the Sukkot holiday. Next week, the same disturbing scene will return.

Police: No one waits three hours

A statement from the Jerusalem District Police said, "The workers undergo a comprehensive, time-consuming security examination as part of an effort to thwart terror attacks. The inspection is performed with maximum consideration of the individuals passing through. At all of the crossings, weapons and explosives have been found on Palestinians seeking to enter Israel who were carrying documentation that would have let them through.

"We try to reduce the amount of time the inspection takes as much as possible, and no Palestinian worker is forced to wait three hours at the crossing," the statement said.

"That said, the police do not intend to make any compromises in their security checks, as human lives are at stake."