Opinion

Palestinian Time in Israeli Hands

Hours a day, every day, at every gate in the separation fence, at every checkpoint, at every vehicle inspection post, Palestinians' lives come to a halt as they wait for armed Israeli soldiers to let them go past.

Palestinian workers at the Bethlehem checkpoint in 2010.
Daniel Bar-On

The chatter that arose near the separation fence’s gate made it clear the farmers had come despite the rain. About 30 of them gathered inside the tin shack, and the lighted cigarettes roughly highlighted their faces in the dark. Youths and adults from a number of villages in the area had arrived by 4:45 in the morning. The gate in the fence that divides them from their land will open at six. They want to save a good spot at the front of the line. On a clear day, the line of workers is much longer.

The military police arrive a few minutes late. Sheer luck. Sometimes they are much later. They walk slowly to the gate. One soldier protects the other, who opens the first lock and then lingers with the second lock and chain. They tell the farmers to approach in groups of five. The cold restricts their movements as they hold the gate permit and the ID. Then a female soldier in an elevated guard post checks the permits on the computer. Then they open the big gate – to tractors and trucks. There is not much work on rainy days, perhaps two to three hours' worth. However, the gate will only open again at 1 P.M. Some four hours will pass without the farmers doing anything, before returning home. That is how it is every day. At all the gates.

The man waiting for a ride at 4:30 A.M. at a curve in the road in Ein Arik village works in Israel. His destination is the Ni’lin checkpoint. Once he gets through all its turnstiles and electromagnetic gates, he and dozens of other workers will wait on the other side for two hours. They are early, because they prefer to burn those hours waiting, sparing them the congestion inside the checkpoint and the risk of missing the ride to work at 7. That’s how it is every day. At all the checkpoints.

It is 1 P.M. on the path that leads to the Ofer military court. Some young men wait beside a nameless gate. A few trailers, a car with Israeli plates, an Israeli flag and a guard tower are behind it. Soldiers broke into their homes at night and handed them a summons for a “conversation” with the Shin Bet. They’ve been waiting since 8 A.M. That is how it is every day. At all Shin Bet installations in the West Bank.

The line of red lights inched ahead slowly in the darkness toward the inspection post at the Beit El checkpoint. Some drivers gave up and pulled out of the line. Instead of advancing a meter per minute, they will make a 25-kilometer detour, weaving through several villages to reach more or less the same point. At least there is the illusion of choice and control over one’s time. At the checkpoint, by contrast, time is an obedient entity, under the command of three armed soldiers. One, on a mini-watchtower, signals that they have to stay about three meters from the car being checked. The rifle barrel enters the drivers’ field of vision. The second checks ID. The third, next to him, aims his rifle at the drivers.

The soldier takes identification from the one permitted to approach him. He examines it, shows it to the soldier next to him. He consults, flips pages. He looks at the driver. He peeks again at the identification. That’s how it is all day, and except for Shabbat – every day. Also at the other checkpoints.

There is no need for economists to calculate how much the economy and every family lose because of those thousands of hours (and liters of fuel) that Israel routinely makes Palestinians waste. You don’t need sociologists to understand the process by which social structures, compositions and relationships break down, fall apart and wear out. Even without a psychologist, it is clear that the stolen hours leave a residue of missed opportunities, humiliation and frustration.

And there is no need to wait for the archives to be opened in another century, where IDF Order No. 1 will be found: Rob time. Rob life. And the reasoning: The longer their time is in our hands, the tighter we control them.