The cheerful voice on the telephone brought good news: “I received approval to enter Israel again. And I went.”
The speaker was one of a group of men, all aged 55 and up, from the Bethlehem area whom I had met with in February. According to the procedures the army instituted a few years ago, Palestinian men in this age group are exempt from having to request a permit to enter Israel. If the computer at the checkpoint shows that the Shin Bet security service hasn’t blackballed them, they can enter. For women, the same goes from age 50. As the local comedians say: The Palestinians are the only people in the world looking forward to reaching age 50 or 55.
The men I met with in February told how last November each of them arrived at the Bethlehem checkpoint one morning, as usual, and the computer suddenly said “no entry.” The soldier said “turn around.” Everyone told me how all their lives they worked in Israel, from a young age. Then they asked a rhetorical question: “All our lives we didn’t do anything and now suddenly at age 60 we’d start?” – meaning they had never taken part in activities against the occupation. Or a slightly different version: “Our children haven’t done anything, they aren’t involved in anything, so why revoke the entry permit of the fathers?”
“We’re of the generation that has friends in Israel and wants to visit them,” said one, referring to the period before the policy of closure and separation that accompanied the Oslo negotiations process in the ‘90s. Another man told how, his request to accompany someone ill to the hospital in East Jerusalem, was rejected because of the ban.
We set up to meet at a public place, at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. At first, everyone refused to tell me their names but later agreed, but they still asked that their details be kept confidential.
Someone said there were “at least a thousand” more like them. They were sent to meetings with representatives of the military liaison and coordination office in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank. They were instructed to submit a special request to cancel the entry refusal – it sounds better in Arabic because it sounds like what it means: A plea for mercy, Istirham. They were given phone numbers to call for clarification. They lost time and hope – and nothing changed.
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“Some of them had their refusal revoked, so why them and not us?” was a typical complaint. During that period, activists from the group MachsomWatch recorded more and more such incidents of older people suddenly refused entry.
The explanation I heard from the military Civil Administration in the West Bank was that this was a punitive measure, taken after they had violated the condition placed on elderly Palestinians, who do not hold a personal entry permit: They are allowed to cross the checkpoint only after 8 A.M., when the strain from the large number of workers passing through has died down. Even though they all knew about that prohibition, they still left early and added to the crowding during the critical hours.
The assumption is that they were on their way to under-the-table jobs that the employers don’t report to the authorities – or hoped to find such an employer. But the exemption from the need to have a personal entry permit isn’t a substitute for an entry permit based on a proper job according to the law, the Civil Administration said.
It’s no coincidence that the problem arose mostly at the Bethlehem checkpoint, which is also known as Checkpoint 300 or the Rachel crossing. For years, the reports and pictures from this checkpoint – though not only this one – showed an embarrassing reality of thousands of workers who in order to reach work in Israel, on time, were waiting for hours, from before dawn, in a narrow lane for pedestrians, about half a kilometer long and sloping, fenced in like a cage.
The bars only got taller, after some people waiting tried to climb them to reach the front of the line. The accumulating reports and videos were also seen by those in charge of the checkpoints, especially at the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
Palestinians who have entry permits to Israel are required to undergo a security check and register at the 13 checkpoints from the northern West Bank to the south. The checkpoints – whether crowded or not – are one of the physical expressions of the separation regime and the existence of two legal systems between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Israelis don’t need a permit or to undergo a search or to register in order to enter the West Bank.
Most of the pressure is in the morning. A ban on early entry for older people was one way to slightly reduce the crowding at those times, but not the main one. For years the Defense Ministry talked about building new user-friendly terminals, but the planning and implementation proceeded slowly.
In March I was told that when the upgraded terminal in Bethlehem would be opened – as happened at the beginning of April – the ban on entry for older people would be rescinded, though not the requirement to pass through the checkpoint after 8 A.M. And that’s exactly what happened, as the happy voice on the other end of the telephone from the Bethlehem area told me.
In a no less happy tone, full of feelings of relief that left no doubt about their authenticity, two Israeli officers described to me the changes that had been made. On March 18, the head of the crossings and seam-zone unit at COGAT, Elisha Hanukayev, showed me the refurbished Qalandiyah crossing, which was opened in February.
On April 18, the head of the army’s Bethlehem District Coordination and Liaison office, Moshe Avi, showed me the crossing he’s responsible for. The tours displayed how the three main goals the Defense Ministry had set for itself had been achieved: a significant shortening of waiting times at the crossing’s entrance and of the security checks inside the terminal, comfortable waiting and crossing conditions, and a noticeable change in the aesthetics. These are the components that Hanukayev described a number of times as the “crossing experience” and Avi called a “revolution.”
If in the past, Palestinian workers gathered at 4 A.M. at Qalandiyah and at 3 A.M. at Bethlehem, and exited the terminals irritable and humiliated at around 5:30 A.M., 6 or even 7, today they can show up even an hour and a half later. More sleep, less fatigue at work. Tardiness to work has also dropped, so the workers can return home earlier from the construction sites and farms, as Avi explained.
Waiting and pedestrian lanes have been added at the entrance to the terminal, and they’re wider. The security-check hall is no longer divided into what looked like humiliating cages. The narrow and fenced-off lanes have been replaced by a wide and spacious corridor, and the separation between people entering and leaving at Bethlehem leads to a broad building equipped with ceiling fans where the stages of the security checks are conducted. (And at Qalandiyah the lanes are set off by drywall panels.)
Israeli ‘service provider’
From an aesthetic and architectural perspective, the change in the message is clear: It’s no longer that the Israeli authorities see those passing through as detainees without identity or feelings, like cows to the slaughter – or to the milking parlor (the Palestinian expression). Rather, the attitude is that of a service provider and counterpart.
Even if the change was made only to upgrade the image, especially at the two checkpoints where many foreigners come and also report on, it’s still welcomed. Even the presence of armed macho guards and the bars that haven’t been removed (particularly at Qalandiyah) look less aggressive thanks to the other civilian-like characteristics at the new crossings.
Not including the waiting time outside the terminal, which depends on the number of people in line and the time of day, the rest of the procedure – from the moment the worker enters to the time he leaves – takes six to 10 minutes. This happens thanks to the addition of scanners for checking bags and belongings, and mostly thanks to the “smart gates” à la Ben-Gurion Airport; 27 of them have been installed at Qalandiyah and 28 at Bethlehem.
Such devices, which read biometric data, were placed at other checkpoints in the West Bank in 2018. You place a biometric ID card on them, one issued by the Civil Administration, in addition to the ID card issued by the Palestinian Authority, and go through. Right away. Here the lack of human contact doesn’t merely speed up the process, but also makes it easier psychologically.
Before this change, anyone crossing into Israel needed to show documents and permits to a member of the Military Police in a booth. The soldiers weren’t always available, or sometimes they examined the permit for a long time from behind the thick glass. Sometimes they spoke crudely or didn’t speak at all, chewed gum apathetically in front of a worker hurrying to his job, or a patient who had an appointment for a medical test.
And after all, every 30 seconds of a check or delay is multiplied by the number of people crossing. This is how the process lasted forever, even if all the Military Police officers were at work at their stations – and often not all of them were manning their booths.
As of Thursday, 383,200 Palestinians from the West Bank carried smart cards. In the middle of March the number was 382,000. In the weeks since, COGAT has noticed that many older people have asked for and received these documents, which promise a quick crossing.
Those who don’t have such a card go to the manned security post and present their ID card; for example, residents of East Jerusalem who pass through the Qalandiyah checkpoint and West Bank residents who do not enter Israel often. COGAT is still planning other ways to make the crossing easier, like a bridge at Qalandiyah, and a computerized public-address system to direct people at the checkpoint to the shortest line.
On Sunday, 120,060 people passed through the 13 checkpoints and entered Israel. At Qalandiyah about 10,000 people crossed and at Bethlehem about 16,000. It would be nice to hope that at least at these two checkpoints the people didn’t suffer.
Still, the human factor remains. “When they want to, they can slow things down,” said a Palestinian worker at the exit of the Bethlehem checkpoint – meaning the Military Police at the gates separating the stages of the security check.
He was proved right a short time later when I toured the place with Avi, the commander of the liaison office. The time was 8:15 A.M., and only one security-check position was manned, based on the assumption that the number of people crossing had dropped greatly at this hour.
But the checks there too were halted for some reason, and a large number of people had gathered waiting. One woman turned to Avi, who was in uniform with his rifle hanging down from his shoulder, unthreatening – and lodged some criticism as a customer would to a service provider.
He phoned to wherever he phoned, and in a few minutes the line had disappeared. What happens when the commander isn’t there remains a question for the women of MachsomWatch to check.