Bethlehem Checkpoint: Waiting in a Line vs. Waiting in a Line under Occupation

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Bethlehem chkptGoing through checkpoints in the West Bank is often described as similar to going through airport security before leaving on an international flight–with much more unpredictable waits, fussier metal detectors, and the added humiliating features like full-body turnstiles between caged passage ways that resemble cattle chutes. Instead of encountering airline security officials who smile patiently at successive discoveries of forgotten back-pocket change, I’ve watched armed soldiers yell at Palestinians in Hebrew from a glass booth.  At Bethlehem checkpoint occasionally I’ve watched soldiers stand on platforms above my head.  I’ve watch them yelling at the Palestinian workers below as their guns hang on their shoulders, at an angle giving me a clear view to see up the barrels of their guns. 

Instead of presenting a passport, Palestinians with West Bank IDs trying to get to Jerusalem have to present electromagnetic ID cards (in addition to their West Bank IDs). Instead of showing a plane ticket, they have to present a permit for entering Jerusalem. Palestinians with West Bank IDs going to Jerusalem have to have their hands scanned as well. Instead of spurring a widely reported debate in the media about the ethics of mandatory fingerprinting–as its use in US and UK airports has–precious few US media reports have even mentioned Israel’s widespread use of biometrics at checkpoints.

Thousands of Palestinians and large numbers of tourists depend on Bethlehem checkpoint to enter East Jerusalem and Israel daily. It is also called Gilo checkpoint, named after the nearby Gilo settlement. When I first moved to Bethlehem I was confused about the name, originally assuming that "the Gilo checkpoint" would be a checkpoint that Gilo settlers would have to use. Why would a checkpoint only for Palestinians be named for Jewish-only settlements, residents of which don’t ever have to use this kind of checkpoint?

But if you take a look at the full list of the 69 permanently staffed checkpoints in the West Bank as documented by UNOCHA in its November 2009 report, you’ll see a long list of Palestinian-only checkpoints named after the adjacent Israeli settlement (Shave Shomeron, Yitav, Beit Hadassa, etc). These major obstacles to Palestinian movement are often named after the nearby settlement for which these Palestinians are ostensibly being obstructed.

Seems like a blatant admission that individual checkpoints for Palestinians are installed by Israel primarily to serve these illegal settlements–rather than the Israeli citizens living within Israel. In fact, all of these checkpoints–along with over 600 other closures–are within the occupied West Bank, an area approximately the size of Delaware.  (None of the checkpoints located on Israel’s Green Line border are not included in these figures.) 


Bethlehem chkpt 2Perhaps the most mysterious difference between waiting in line at a checkpoint and nearly every other line I have ever waited in is that I’ve rarely had any idea what causes these checkpoint delays. The soldiers are hidden from view until you get up to the very front of the checkpoint, so it’s often impossible to tell. One time at Qalandia checkpoint I waited behind a turnstile while I watched female soldiers inside a glass booth take turns sitting on each others’ laps and gleefully snapping pictures of each other with their digital cameras. (Perhaps they were all tagged in an "IDF on Duty" Facebook album later that day?)

I watched a soldier at Bethlehem checkpoint nod sleepily, with his eyes closed, hooked into his I-Pod. Not until I yelled "Shalom" several times and rattled the full-body turnstile repeatedly did he open the first of a series of turnstiles at the checkpoint. (I’d love to know how long he would have waited if I had been a Palestinian, rather than a non-Arab looking Westerner waving a U.S. passport.)

Most lines I’ve waited on–whether at movie theaters, grocery stores, or even at airport security–operate with some sort of correlation between the number of people in line and the anticipated wait time. At checkpoints such logical principles rarely apply. The delays are often caused not from shuttling people through the metal detectors but rather from the soldiers failing to open the gates to the metal detectors at all. Sometimes it has taken me 5 minutes to get through the checkpoint, often it takes two hours, and not infrequently for workers in the early morning hours, it takes 5 hours.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) has a team that regularly monitors Gilo checkpoint. According to Stefan Olsson from the EAPPI team, 2,000 workers line up at Gilo checkpoint by its 5 AM opening time in order to work in Israel and in Israeli settlements every work day. These workers are among an ever dwindling number of Palestinians (45,000 with West Bank IDs) who have been given permission to do so after extensive security checks.  While these workers are permitted to work in Israel, they are not allowed to drive their cars into Jerusalem.  Even though the same number of workers pass through Gilo checkpoint daily, it can take between 2.5-5 hours to shuttle the workers through, depending on how many gates soldiers open and how often soldiers close those gates.


Bethelehem chkpt 3I met Khaled at the Gilo checkpoint on April 26th, a morning when it took four hours to get the workers through, causing hundreds of workers to lose a full day’s work. Khaled works at the Gilo settlement which is less than 3 kilometers away from his house. He granted me permission to use only his first name since he fears that otherwise Israel could revoke his permit for entry into Jerusalem for criticizing the situation.  His anxiety was understandable. In 2007 he spoke with a reporter about the difficulties at the checkpoint and within a week his permission to work in Israel was revoked for 4 months. The Israeli authorities didn’t explain the reasoning behind their decision, simply stating that his permission was revoked for "security reasons".

The Gilo checkpoint has three metal detectors, making three separate lines possible.  The soldiers on duty only opened one of the gates for most of that morning. According to Olsson from EAPPI, they rarely ever open all three. Usually workers have to start work at 7 AM. By the time the soldiers allowed all of the workers inside of the checkpoint through at 9:10 AM, many had already left. For some workers, if they don’t arrive at their jobs at 7 or 9 AM, their bosses won’t allow them to work at all that day. If this happens often enough, they can lose their jobs altogether.

Khaled told me "this is a political program to inflict physical and psychological punishment to force people to quit working in Israel". Rather than make an explicit policy to keep Palestinian workers out of Israel which would possibly draw criticism from the international community, he explained that the longer and more arbitrary waits at the checkpoint would progressively discourage more and more workers from attempting to cross the checkpoint. That way, Khaled reasoned, "Israel can say to the whole world that Palestinians don’t want to work–that it’s the Palestinians’ problem".


Some workers I talked to that morning arrived at 4 AM, while others had arrived even earlier. According to the AP, workers can make up to $50 a day in Israel, which is four or five times what they could make in the West Bank, where unemployment hit 19% in 2008.

Khaled said "waiting at the checkpoint is more work than my job". He was sure that many if not most workers at the checkpoint felt the same way. Most of these men work in construction or other jobs involving hard manual labor. But having to go through the checkpoint is like having a second job–one which requires you to wake up in the middle of the night and wait for hours in holding pens behind metal bars until a series of 18 year old Israeli soldiers press the right buttons allowing you passage.


When you finally pass through Gilo checkpoint, you have a wide open view of the Wall cutting Bethlehem off from the ever-expanding Gilo settlement. Buses for the Old City in Jerusalem wait just outside, running not according to any schedule but the arbitrary speed of the checkpoint. As I watch women put their earrings back on and men slip the belts through their belt loops after having to take them off for the metal detector, the airport metaphor seems quite appropriate. The buses, just waiting on passengers to fill them up, remind me of shuttles at the airport driving passengers from one terminal to another across stretches of tarmac.

While international airport-security procedures are usually determined by internationally recognized borders between countries, a settlement in violation of international law determines the placement of this checkpoint. Unlike an airport security line where every passenger is required to endure long lines and metal detectors, this checkpoint is only for Palestinians and tourists–not the settlers who have bypass roads connecting them directly to Jerusalem.

Comparing Gilo checkpoint to international airport security grossly understates the humiliation involved. But it’s a valuable comparison in that it gives you some idea of what kind of message it must send to Palestinians when going to Jerusalem.  The entire process of traveling to Jerusalem–or even between different cities deep in the  West Bank–simulates the experience of going through an international border.  It’s not just the settlements that say "this is not yours" to Palestinians, but it’s also a clear message from the checkpoints that accompany them and the very process of crossing them. 

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