Checkpoint 300: The World’s Worst Commute
“Qahua, qahua, qahua!” shouts Amin Jebreen, whose coffee cart, bellowing steam in the frigid morning air, is doing a roaring trade despite the fact that it’s 2:30am. Amin’s stall is one of many selling bread, biscuits, cigarettes and falafel, all under the watchful gaze of guard towers that rise above the border wall separating the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. His busiest trading hours are between 2 and 4:00am.
A collection of men gather around the cart, impatiently handing over 2 shekels (.75 AUD) for their morning brew, wasting no time in racing up alongside the border wall to a fenced-off area where, already, hundreds of people are lining up. By the time they’ve queued for a coffee, two vans have pulled up and emptied 30 more, who are now in front of them in the stationary line.
The majority of the men waiting at the checkpoint are construction workers, most of whom don’t start work for another four to five hours, yet day after day, they’re forced to commute to work in Israel long before the first morning prayers echo from the mosque’s loudspeakers.
Such is the reality of passing through a security checkpoint as a Palestinian.
The checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, otherwise known as Checkpoint 300, is one of the busiest and most congested arteries linking the occupied West Bank and Israel. Each day, more than 7000 workers pass through rigorous and tedious security protocols in the early hours of the morning to get to their jobs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on time.
On a good day, they can pass through in just over an hour, though many workers said on average, this time stands anywhere between two to three hours. Several processing lanes exist, but each day just one is opened by Israeli border guards, more often than not causing chaos as droves of workers arrive.
“Every day is like this,” explains Morad Wahash, a 33-year-old from Hebron who makes plates in a factory in Tel Aviv. “We feel like we’re in a zoo, there are walls around us, we cannot move where we want. We don’t know freedom — we haven’t felt freedom. You don’t think about tomorrow, because you don’t know if you will get to work on time today and have a job tomorrow.”
Palestinians continue to endure these tough and at times humiliating conditions simply because of the pay packets they receive in Israel. Construction jobs – the most common occupation for Palestinians working in Israel – pay on average 300 shekels ($110AUD) a day, while in the occupied West Bank, they’ll receive around 100 shekels ($37AUD).
“Sometimes, they close the checkpoint for 20 or 30 minutes for no reason,” Morad continues. “When they do this, hundreds of workers continue to arrive, and we will be late for our jobs. When we are late usually just one time, we lose our job. The Israeli guard will keep his job, but hundreds of Palestinians will lose theirs. This is very bad for the people.”
When they do manage to pass the first turnstile, workers are subject to three security checks. The first, a scan and body search for contraband; the second, scrutiny of their permits; the last is a fingerprint scan to confirm their identity. This system utilised by the Israeli guards, nicknamed Basel, is highly sophisticated, with the infrastructure made possible by tech-giant Hewlett-Packard. There are currently international campaigns to boycott HP for their facilitating of this system.
In spite of the fact that over 70,000 work permits have been issued to Palestinians, they are extremely difficult to obtain, not to mention expensive to maintain. Workers are often exploited by either their Israeli employers or by third-party recruitment contractors, both of whom recognise the potential of exploiting Palestinians’ aspirations to work on the other side of the border wall (the West Bank has an unemployment rate of around 29 per cent, according to World Bank statistics).
Morad tells me that his work permit costs 2,500 shekels ($922AUD) each month, a price his employer refuses to contribute to. Work permits are issued by Israeli authorities on the following conditions: an applicant is over 30 years old, is married, has children and is on Israel’s whitelist of Palestinians deemed safe to enter. Largely due to this vetting process, unemployment in the sub-30-year-old demographic stands at a staggering 60 per cent.
There have been announcements from Israeli authorities that as many as 20,000 new work permits will be issued, which will enable more Palestinians to increase their standard of living, but will ultimately cause more chaos at checkpoints.
Morad explained that last month, the situation at the checkpoint was particularly bad following the stabbing of an Israeli security guard in the Old City of Jerusalem. Conditions at checkpoints are, and continue to be, inexplicably linked to the political landscape, with collective Israeli rage channelled at Palestinians through the slowing-down of processing and even closure of checkpoints for hours.
“Every day we hear peace is coming, and then a 15-year-old boy is killed in Gaza, so we have to protest, to make our voices heard. When we do this, they kill us, and it goes on,” he says.
Amin, the owner of the coffee cart, explains that he has never been able to cross over into Israeli territory. “I’m on the blacklist,” he says, handing over a cup of coffee to a man who wastes no time in rushing to the checkpoint. “Watch him,” Amin says. “He’ll climb the fence.”
It’s commonplace for late arrivals to jump the queue. Colloquially referred to as “monkeys”, they try to beat the crowd by scaling the wall. Sure enough, as I look up, the man jumps up onto the large slab of concrete and begins to walk along its edge, to the abusive screams of members of the crowd who have been waiting patiently in line.
I turn back to Amin, who explains to me the reason he was blacklisted before he was even 18, eliminating any chances of obtaining a higher-paying job in Israel.
“In 1999, Israeli soldiers came to my family’s land and started destroying our olive and almond trees. When my mother ran out to meet them, they told her the dogs will eat you if you don’t leave.”
Amin, 17 years old at the time, ran out and threw rocks at the soldiers. He was arrested, and spent six weeks in interrogations followed by a year in prison. His family’s land was confiscated by Israeli authorities and later turned into a settlement. As a result of his imprisonment, Amin’s family sold their sheep and goats to pay the 20,000 shekel ($7360AUD) fine.
Ultimately, due to his aggressive behaviour towards Israeli authorities, Amin has received a figurative tattoo that he’ll never be able to wash from his body, making it impossible for him to cross the border into Israel for work, leisure or even medical treatment.
In 2015, Israel passed legislation under which Palestinians caught throwing rocks can be prosecuted with up to 20 years’ imprisonment.
As my time with Amin draws to a close, he offers the following monologue: “If I become president one day, I will make sure that all people, Palestinian and Israeli, know that the land is for god, and we’re all children of god. Not to fight the other, or take the land of the other. I hope one day that peace will come to this land, because we need a good future for our kids.”
In a world with steaming tensions, aggression from both sides, backflipping dialogue and unease, two things remain constant at the border crossing: tomorrow morning, workers will arrive at Checkpoint 300 as early as 2am, and Amin will be there with this cart to pass out cups of qahua, awaiting a day he doesn’t have to come to work so early.
All photos by the author, bar inset 4, sourced from Facebook