“Think for a minute. There’s a person who all he’s doing is moving a cucumber, and this entails a procedure in which he gets an M16 in his face every time he passes,” one reservist told the group Breaking the Silence.
“This was during the period of stabbings, so we were a bit on edge, so we’d open the gate for them with helmets, rifles and vests, and what resulted was a situation where a person would come out of the gate and there was already a soldier aiming his rifle at everybody. A person came out of the gate, went to the checkpoint, and another soldier would aim his rifle at his face. Three different soldiers would aim their rifles at him.”
This reservist’s job was to open gates in the West Bank separation fence two or three times a day and protect the military policemen who would check a computer to see if a farmer’s entry permit was genuine. The gates are there so that farmers have access to their land.
As part of its effort to monitor Israel’s restrictions on Palestinians’ access to their land, Haaretz spoke with three soldiers who spent part of their military service at the separation fence a few years ago. One of them served in the district liaison office of the Civil Administration, which administers the permits regime to which the Palestinians are subjected. Here pseudonyms are used for every soldier.
One of the three soldiers, Zohar, said: “It took me a long time to understand what was expected of me. At one agricultural gate [Faroun, that opens only three days a week] there are no Military Police, so we had to check the permits, and I didn’t even know what a permit was. Nobody explained to me what a permit was, and we were always calling the [army’s] liaison office to ask about all kinds of cases. They told me to check the validity, but there were all kinds of comments [on the permit] that I didn’t understand.”
As he put it, “In the end, it’s my decision whether to let a person through or not. Personally, I think I was a compassionate guard at the crossing. But there are lots of people who make problems – for instance, if the permit is too crumpled.”
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It’s not easy for the farmers to know who’s responsible for any given restriction placed on them by the soldiers. Is this caprice on the spot or an order from on high?
Consider the ban on passing through the gate on an electric bicycle to reach a faraway plot of land. This ban, which was enacted last October or November, is a change for the worse in policy, wrote Irit Eshet to the Civil Administration’s ombudsman on November 15. Eshet, a client advocate at the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, asked that the status quo be restored. She noted that the plots are usually a considerable distance from the gates, so an electric bike makes a farmer’s life easier.
Well, here’s some good news: On Monday the ombudsman informed Eshet that the ban had been revoked. Officials at Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and other “relevant parties” strove to revoke the ban, a process that took a long time, the ombudsman wrote. That’s why it took him five months and three weeks to respond to the complaint.
The separation barrier, 85 percent of which is deep inside the West Bank and is 465 kilometers (289 miles) long, has only 13 agricultural gates that the soldiers open every day. Nine others are opened only three days a week. Another 55 gates are opened only a limited number of days in the olive picking and plowing seasons, and the farmers say this isn’t enough to finish their work: weeding, tree trimming and picking.
What for the farmers is an existential matter – their livelihood, family property and a deep emotional attachment to their land – is just dull routine for the soldiers.
“At some point, we were acting like robots,” Zohar said. “We didn’t invest any thought in this; we said, ‘Let’s do it, we’ll drive to the gate, open it, close it and return to the post to sleep.’ Sometimes we went out at night to make arrests in the villages, so we were tired during the day.”
Despite the military experience he had accumulated, Zohar says he didn’t know anything about the fence. He remembers a gate where it was possible to pass through with tractors and a gate where this was possible for horses and carts.
The patrol would go from gate to gate, open it for 15 minutes, close it, and later stop at specific points along the fence “ostensibly known to be places of [illegal entry], maybe for deterrence,” until afternoon came and the soldiers went to open the gates again. In between, “orders came from above about what couldn’t be brought in, also WhatsApp messages from the company commander,” Zohar said. “For example: ‘Today pruning shears are not allowed in.’ They don’t explain in detail why.”
Tamir, who served in the district liaison office, also remembers the calls he received from the Military Police and the Palestinians on the spot. “They would call because of what was called ‘Shin Bet [security service] rejection.’ For its own reasons, the Shin Bet enters a rejection into the computer, regardless of a permit,” Tamir said.
“The MPs at the gate have a computer but it’s possible to enter an ID number in our system .... This is a system where all the Palestinians are listed, from babies to old people, and all their history is listed in it, parents and relatives, too. There’s information on everybody. You can also find the profile of Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]. It says about him: VIP. For somebody else you see written ‘commander at the Palestinian liaison committee’ so that there aren’t any embarrassments.
“The MPs would call and ask what and whether they could let something pass through: equipment, fruit, agricultural tools. Usually I didn’t know the answer. The crossings officer has the authority to determine who can pass and with what. I have no idea what his criteria were. A lot of times we were stuck: He was in a meeting and we didn’t have a way to give them an answer, and if you can’t get ahold of him, you speak to the operations officer, but it’s not his job. That’s how it happened a lot of times when they said no to a load of vegetables or some grain. Sometimes it helped to call, because I found the crossings officer and he would approve it.
“Because there’s a limited amount of time until the gate is closed, about 15 minutes, the process of finding an answer ends after the gate is closed. Then the person doesn’t have time to return and has to call the brigade for them to come and open it for him. When a Palestinian is late for the opening of the gate, a ‘rejection’ is entered [into the computer]. Then he can’t come back and pass through the gate the next day. He has to go to the liaison office and ask them to handle the rejection.”
Rain or shine
A common phenomenon is when soldiers are late in opening the gates and dozens of farmers have to wait for them in the pouring rain, in the blazing sun or during the Ramadan fast.
“Being late happened all the time,” Zohar said. “If you were held up a little at the first gate, then it was unavoidable to be late at the other gates. A lot of delays were caused because of vehicles: The ones they gave us were really bad, always breaking down. We had a vehicle that was falling apart, and sometimes you’re two hours late. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it shows that opening the gates isn’t a top priority.”
Danny, who also protected the MPs at the gates in the fence when he was in the reserves, said that “if a vehicle was in maintenance or a vehicle was missing, opening the gates was a lower priority. If you had a warning at the fence you could be 45 minutes late.”
According to Danny, before he started doing reserve duty, “I didn’t know that the route came at the expense of the Palestinians. The farmers aren’t allowed to pass through a gate that isn’t written in the permit, even if the gate is closer to their home. The Military Police know the people, and if they don’t stand in an orderly line the MPs yell at them. And these are adults, in the middle of a field. I saw policemen who told the Palestinians: ‘Go through your own gate, you aren’t supposed to be here.’
“The instructions that were given were very clear: You’re there to guard the policeman because he comes in contact with the civilians up close, and you’re two and a half meters [8 feet] from him, in the range of the weapon and sight. You’re not supposed to speak, look or check. Just stand on the side and see how it works. Usually they told us that the place was very calm and the population cooperates with the army.”
Still, they were told “to remember that there were quiet villages that during the intifadas got hot” – participated in the protest – and “we have to let the farmers cross every morning and return in the afternoon so they can farm their land.”
Danny also said that he and his colleagues wondered during their service about the reason farmers have to cross through gates in the first place. “We got the feeling that the Palestinian Authority sent people there intentionally so they would work the land. After all, as far as the army is concerned, there are lots of Palestinian agricultural spaces, so why work there specifically?” he said.
“With all the arrangements, what the farmer maybe gets is 100 shekels [$28] a month. So there’s a national issue here; it’s impossible to conclude otherwise. It wasn’t something they told us in the army, but that was our impression: They’re doing it on purpose. And then arguments started between the guys about why the Palestinians go and work their land there specifically, on their miserable seam line.”