Twilight Zone / Just Another Morning in Bethlehem

Dawn at Checkpoint 300, under the gaze of security personnel and a handful of foreign volunteers.

Since the second intifada, the Palestinian workmen who once flooded our streets, built, renovated, washed up and swept, have all but disappeared from view. Yet even now, more than 32,000 Palestinians cross the Green Line every morning and are granted entry into Israel to work, according to data from the coordinator of government activities in the occupied territories. Many thousands more sneak in without permits. They arrive here after a trying journey and the rigmarole of getting permits (if they have them), to support their families on Israeli starvation wages, which are Palestinian no-choice wages.

It is shortly before 5 A.M. Dawn is tarrying, and with it the night chill is late to dissipate. On the Palestinian side at Rachel's Crossing, known in the army as Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, hundreds of men are huddled in groups, alternately standing and then kneeling during their morning prayers. Others sprawl on the pavements on the Israeli side of the checkpoint, draped in ragged blankets, trying to salvage a bit of sleep from their short night.

They set out an hour or two ago from their homes all over the southern West Bank and now are waiting for an Israeli contractor to pick them up. They are relatively few today, only some 2,000, because of the public transportation strike announced on Monday in the West Bank, to protest price rises.

A group of laborers from Beit Ommar is stretched out on the pavement, among them Mohammed Bahar, 43, a father of eight, sporting a "Rondo Tires" shirt and a tidy beard. He is one of only 700 of his town's 14,000 residents who has a work permit, which he must renew every six months. Bahar, as well as his friends on the pavement, laborers from Kafr Haras, near Hebron, say that they must pay their employers NIS 2,000 a month, in return for the crucial letter of employment. They say that many laborers have to bribe their employers in this manner to obtain such letters from them, but without it they cannot receive a permit to work in Israel. Now they are working for a construction company in Talpiot, Jerusalem. Everything is "under the table," as they put it.

The spokesman for the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Guy Inbar, replied this week to a query from us on the matter: "We are not aware of any allegation regarding collection of payments [by employers] from the laborers. If such a thing indeed takes place, it is of course illegal and we invite the laborers to apply to the appropriate supervisory authorities in the Civil Administration and file a complaint. In addition, the matter will be looked into."

The chance that these workmen will file a complaint against their employers is slim. Meanwhile, about half of their wages goes toward this bribe, while another chunk goes to cover travel expenses, totaling several tens of shekels a day, depending on the distance. One of the laborers sprawled on the ground recounted that last week he put NIS 12,000 in his employer's pocket, for a half-year's right to work. And still they come.

We enter the terminal. It's not like the Erez checkpoint (on the Gaza border) in its good days, which were actually pretty awful: Conditions here are more humane, but it's still a convoluted system of burrows, "sleeves," iron gates, "carousels," cages, armored checkpoints and noisy PA systems - all overseen by an army of soldiers, policemen in blue, military police and private security guards, armed to the teeth.

The sight resembles a border crossing between two countries, not particularly enlightened ones, but this one is not between two countries, merely between two regions of the same country, the sovereign and the occupied. The instructions on the signs posted everywhere are direct: "Prepare your papers for inspection and approach the nearest checkpoint station"; "Place your belongings on the conveyor belt, go through the gate and wait for the checker's instructions"; "Additional inspection, Room 2"; "Insert your papers in the slot and wait for the checker's instructions"; "Place your right finger in the machine intended for that"; and "Exit to parking lots, have a pleasant and comfortable stay." And the announcer squawks: "Sleeves, halt traffic."

We go from the end to the beginning. At the final station, right before the exit into Israel, a soldier in a woolen hat sits behind bulletproof glass. The laborers already know what to do: plaster the permit up against the glass where the soldier can see it, shove their right finger in the slot lit up by a bluish light in the biometric ID system - and hope for the best.

Both the Palestinians and the soldiers consider this checkpoint to be the most amenable in the West Bank. The Palestinians know that the inspection conditions here are more humane than, for example, at the Tarqumiya checkpoint, perhaps because No. 300 is also designed also for tourists and pilgrims. Because of this, even Hebron residents wishing to reach Be'er Sheva, which is close to where they live, will head northward all the way to here just to spare themselves the humiliation and crowding at Tarqumiya. The line here moves quickly and efficiently.

Elsa Weihe, a retired computer worker from a suburb of Oslo who volunteers with the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, observes the action. She is dressed in a khaki vest with the image of a peace dove on it. If problems concerning treatment of the Palestinians arise she will report to her friends in the Israeli organization Machsom Watch and they will deal with it. She says that she tries to keep a low profile and that the soldiers treat her politely. Four days a week, from 4 to 8 A.M., she stands here; this weekend she will wrap up three months of service and return to her country.

On the far side of the terminal stands her colleague from Finland, Kati Jaakelainen, with a small device in hand: She counts the laborers who pass through here each day, to what end it is not entirely clear. As though she were a bouncer at a nightclub. A selection also takes place here, of course, but there isn't much entertainment. Just the humble silence of those passing through, who are used to all this, and the mechanical moves of the soldiers, who are likewise used to it already. Elsa from Norway says that she has learned a lot from the experience: She saw the effect that the occupation has on people. The security fence shocked her more than anything else. Yesterday was tough, she says, because a new group of soldiers arrived at the terminal, and the line snaked all the way to the parking lot in Bethlehem.

It is almost 5:30 A.M. now, and traffic picks up. On an average day, some 3,000 Palestinians cross into Israel here. From time to time, muted shouts emanate from the Bethlehem end of the terminal. "It's because of the crowding," explains "Lt. Gadi" of the military police.

Above are observation positions, to which one gains access via staircases. From the burrows we ascend and dozens of Palestinians, old and young, gaze at us from below.

Lt. Gadi tells us that "there's a big church" in Bethlehem and that is why a lot of tourists also pass through here later in the day. That is also why the place is decorated with dusty Tourism Ministry posters of the Dead Sea and Eilat.

"Sometimes," he says, "the computers crash and that generates pressure, and then the volunteer from Norway thinks we're doing it to them on purpose. But this is a relatively quiet crossing, no one is looking to pick a fight here. Here the bnei mi'utim [or "minorities," a euphemism for "Arabs"] are calmer. This is Bethlehem here. People are more dignified. It's a classier crossing. There are some who already know us and form friendly ties with us. Sometimes we get people without permits, we take them for inspection and if they have something on them, it can make some trouble for them."

Does he like his job, we ask. Says Lt. Gadi: "Love it. It's protecting the country. This is a military police job, which doesn't get enough recognition in the army."

It's after 6 already. The laborers who keep arriving are joined now by a few businessmen, bureaucrats, teachers, church employees, women and children on their way to work in Jerusalem or medical care at Al-Makassed Hospital.

"Sleeves, resume flow," the speaker shrieks again.

We move through the burrows on our way to the other side of the terminal, to Bethlehem. Lux lamps illuminate in yellowish light the row of food stalls that welcomes these dawn laborers, along with the smell of coffee. Pretzels, penny sweets, cans of tuna, leben (like yogurt ), sausage and sodas. The coffee vendor refuses to accept payment from us for the coffee. His neighbor sells plastic bags with a tomato, cucumber and onion - a vegetable kit for the Arab laborer.

The lights of Bethlehem twinkle. Tardy workmen are hurrying toward the terminal, where hundreds of people now crowd into the iron cage that leads inside. The line clears here with notable alacrity. But this too does not change the main picture.

"For years you've been writing and photographing and nothing comes of it," one of the men in line calls out in our direction.

Kati, the Finnish volunteer with the counting device, shows me an interim tally: between 4 and 4:30 A.M,. 227 laborers entered; from 4:30 to 5 A.M. - 572; from 5 to 5:30 A.M. - 492; and from 5:30 to 6 A.M. - 480.

A likable second lieutenant in the Civil Administration, who has been in his post for a year, explains his job: "If there are humanitarian cases, I pull them out. In Arabic we call that: 'Hilat al-insiniya. Yumaniteriyen kess.'" The young lieutenant, who asked that his name be withheld, explains that he is also the one whose signature is on all of the humanitarian permits in the hands of the humanitarian cases. This past Ramadan, for example, he, personally, signed 29,000 such permits.

It's 7:15 by now. A driver from Tzurim Tours comes to collect a few of the last remaining laborers. Good morning, Israel. Good morning, Palestine.