Israeli Capriciousness as I Witnessed It at the Bethlehem Checkpoint

The soldier seemed amused as she closed the gates and made Palestinian laborers late for work, not that this hard-heartedness did anything to enhance the country’s security

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The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank, as shown by the Israel Television News Company.
The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank, as shown by the Israel Television News Company. Credit: Screengrab

Almost two years have passed since I arrived in Israel to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Earlier this month a close friend came on a visit. After accompanying her across Tel Aviv on the city’s Tel-O-Fun green bicycles, and after sharing a great meal at a restaurant near Carmel Market, I sent her to Jerusalem for a tour of the Old City. Then we went to Bethlehem in the West Bank.

We spent a fascinating night there. The next morning my friend continued on a typical tourist tour of the city while I tried to make my way back to Mount Scopus for a class. The hotel we had stayed at was near the army-controlled border crossing. After consulting with hotel staff, I chose to return to Jerusalem on foot through a nearby crossing, with the intention of boarding a bus on the other side of the separation barrier.

I have to confess that as I made my way toward the checkpoint I was tense. Since I've come to Israel, I’ve crossed such checkpoints several times, but I've always been in a car surrounded by friends. This time I was on my own, on foot.

As I walked along Hebron Street, I passed by hawkers offering me food, and here and there people greeted me with a “good morning.” The street ended at the separation barrier, from which three identical lanes continued, separated by shoulder-high concrete barriers over which was an iron mesh creating a kind of cage.

I saw no sign or marking directing me where to go, so I followed two men and a woman. The woman was elderly and walking slowly, but it felt unseemly to overtake her. I followed her until we reached a revolving gate that for some reason was locked. Ten Palestinians were waiting in front of it.

For many minutes nothing happened, then the men started yelling, hoping their voices would make the soldiers on the other side of the wall open the gate. That didn’t work. One young man gave up and walked back; then you could hear his voice from the neighboring lane.

It turned out you could pass through from that lane, and he told other people about this. We all hurried to that lane, and I wondered why the soldiers hadn’t marked which one allowed people to pass through.

We passed through one by one. Then we crossed an open space a few dozen yards long; it looked like a no man’s land on an international border. At the other side was a path leading to what looked like a construction site, a wide waiting area with many people in it. This is where documents are checked and security checks are made using metal detectors.

I saw four revolving gates, all of them locked. There was a red X above each one, indicating no entry, but there was a line in front of each. I was the only foreign tourist and the only one with a backpack. Schoolgirls around me were carrying schoolbooks, women were carrying small handbags or plastic bags. The men carried nothing that couldn’t fit into a pocket.

Crestfallen faces

I was trapped for 15 minutes in this crowd, with no instructions given. There was no explanation as to why the gates were locked when laborers had to get to work in Jerusalem; there was no hint as to when the gates would open. A few despairing men tried unsuccessfully to pass between the metal railings; not even a child could pass through. The loudspeakers along the wall were silent and it seemed the crossing had been abandoned by the army.

I gave up and turned back, crossing the open space. I encountered three soldiers who saw the obvious question mark on my face but chose to ignore me. When I asked they said the gates would be opened but refused to say when. I returned to the line in front of one of the gates, choosing at random the right-hand side.

The minutes passed and the class I was supposed to attend would be starting soon. I was impatient, tense and surprised at the calm of the people around me – four lines of people waiting with crestfallen faces.

Half an hour passed. An old man approached and suggested in English that I return to Bethlehem and try to reach Jerusalem on a tourist bus. I knew I’d definitely be late if I chose that route. I asked him how much longer he thought we’d have to wait, and he answered pleasantly that he couldn’t tell. He asked if it was also like this in Europe – I clearly wasn’t part of that crowd. I told him that obviously it wasn’t.

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And then, to our surprise, our gate opened – for no reason, just as it had been locked for no obvious reason. Instead of the red X a green arrow appeared; how lucky, it was the gate in front of my lane. The other gate remained locked. Four people passed through, and a few moments later another four were allowed through. The lines in front of the other gates broke up as everyone rushed to join our line, with a lot of commotion and overcrowding.

Only 20 people were ahead of me – the nightmare would soon be over. Then, suddenly, the green arrow disappeared and the red X returned. Ten more minutes passed without an explanation. Then the green arrow reappeared, but this time in another lane, the one people had left. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the struggle to get back into this lane. People who were at the front of the right lane now found themselves at the back of the line to the new gate of mercy.

Now I too was much farther away from the long-sought entrance. The left-hand gate let a few people through and then it too closed with no reason given. Many minutes passed and a green arrow now appeared over another gate. The onslaught resumed, this time more desperate. I panicked until the commotion subsided, but then the gate closed again with another one opening.

The world beyond

The earlier calm had long dissipated, including my own. It was replaced by anxiety. How easy it is to transform a quiet crowd into a despairing one. People started climbing over the metal barriers that separated the gates, pushing one another, trying to enter in twos when the gate opened. When this happened, a female soldier’s voice came over the loudspeaker saying in Arabic “wahad, wahad” – “one by one.” She sounded amused and I realized she could see the scene on a screen; it was highly amusing to her.

She was the one controlling the game of the gates, locking the ones where everyone was lining up, opening the ones where no one was, repeating this over and over. I realized that at any point she could have informed the desperate crowd when and why the gates would open, but she chose not to.

The game continued until I finally passed under a green arrow to the world beyond. A female soldier behind a protective glass fence looked impassively at my European passport, indicating with a nod that I could proceed. I made my way to the bus with a bunch of schoolgirls and some hardscrabble laborers, probably street cleaners or construction workers employed in Jerusalem. I missed my class in the same way they were late to work – the way they make their living.

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We bought our tickets and finally headed out, but later two female soldiers boarded the bus and randomly chose three passengers to take off the bus. The tickets they had paid for were now useless, and they would have to endure the security check again. I realized that what I had gone through that morning they go through every day.

I know the conflict here is complex. I don’t presume to express an opinion about it, I don’t know your history well enough. But there was nothing complex in what happened that morning at the Bethlehem border crossing. What should have been a simple process became something deliberately bad and complicated. Laborers wanted to cross a checkpoint that was designed for them, but they were taken through a long saga of unnecessary abuse – ugly and dismal.

All this did nothing to enhance the country’s security. Everything was done capriciously with nothing gained – just like that, out of indifference, complacency, equanimity, hard-heartedness and possibly evil. I know my story isn’t dramatic or blood-soaked, it’s a small tale, but maybe because of that it symbolizes well what’s happening here.

Unfortunately, I’m not giving my name here. My studies at Hebrew University are dear to me and I don’t want unnecessary questioning at the airport. I keep reading about this phenomenon in the newspapers. I don’t suppose I’m too brave, but this isn’t my country. I’m a guest here.

The writer is taking courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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