Who ever thought that replacing ordinary soldiers with military police would be considered an achievement? It certainly makes no difference for the farmers living in three West Bank villages west of Salfit. What matters to them is whether the gate in the intimidating separation fence that divides them from their groves opens on time.
The army’s name for the gate is Magen Dan, which is also the name of a neighborhood in the nearby settlement of Elkana. It is opened and closed three times a day for about half an hour each time.
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For years, soldiers opened it belatedly, with delays of half an hour, 45 minutes, an hour or more. Farmers from the villages of A-Zawiya, Mas’ha and Rafat wasted thousands of precious hours waiting for the soldiers, in rain, in burning heat, on fast days during Ramadan.
Contempt for Palestinians’ time is in the DNA of Israeli rule. There has never yet been a gate that soldiers scrupulously opened on time. But at Magen Dan, lateness has become a chronic disease. Soldiers come and go, but the delays never change.
I monitored the situation back in 2015, when a couple in their sixties from A-Zawiya regularly went to their grove, caged now by the settlement of Elkana, and wasted several hours a week waiting for the gate to open. In 2017, complaints about the delays submitted to Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual multiplied.
Hamoked staffers checked with the army in real time about what was happening and why. They heard explanations (“disciplinary problems in the brigade”) and excuses (“a security alert in the area”). They heard lies (“the delay was only 10 minutes”) and were even told “to stop nagging.” Sometimes nobody answered the phone. But they kept nagging until they heard from the farmers that the gate had opened.
Once, in February 2018, the soldiers who came to open the gate were four hours late, arriving only at 8:15 P.M. The people waiting in the cold and dark were a couple from Mas’ha and their six children. That morning, soldiers had opened the gate half an hour late.
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When complaints arrived from the farmers, Hamoked staffers would call the army’s liaison office, its operations room, the brigade commander, the territorial brigade, the public complaints officer. They would write to the army’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and to Central Command.
Sometimes there would be some improvement for a few months. But then the tradition of delays would resume, and soldiers at Central Command and the Civil Administration would say that complaints should be directed to the legal adviser.
Thick files at Hamoked’s office contain the records of reports of hundreds of delays from 2017 to 2019, amassed with legal precision – the desperate call from the farmer, the phone calls to an army command post, the farmer’s report that the gate had been opened. The records include the names of the soldiers who answered the phones – On, Lior, Shadi, Amit, Idan, Wael, Lia, Yael, Dana, Chen, Yair, Shuli. Sometimes Hamoked staffers would speak with three soldiers on the same day.
But the soldiers who showed up late remained anonymous, and the delays continued. Until Hamoked finally decided to petition the High Court of Justice. After all, when the court heard petitions against construction of the separation fence, it ordered the state to ensure that the harm done to farmers was “proportionate” and that the authorities respected their right to reach their lands.
Before the court heard the new petition, in the middle of September, the state prosecution announced that from now on, military police would be the ones to open and close the gate – three times a day, seven days a week. On the basis of this promise, the petition was canceled, but the justices said Hamoked had the right to petition again.
Monday morning, farmers confirmed to Haaretz that the gate had been opened properly, but not on Friday and Saturday, in defiance of the court’s order.
The theft of time demonstrates both feelings of superiority and means of control. It’s another weapon that Israel has perfected to further and complete its theft of Palestinian lands. The soldiers wear down the Palestinians at the gate over hours and days and months to get them to despair of reaching their lands, even after they have successfully navigated Israel’s torturous bureaucratic obstacle course to obtain a permit to pass through the gate.
Once that happens, their unreachable land becomes a park – a green lung for a Jewish settlement. How clever. When the unwritten order to the soldiers is to arrive late, a carefully calculated move to annex can be wrapped in a cloak of coincidence.