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Checkpoint 300 – Bethlehem

(January 5, 2020, Bethlehem) Sundays begin early. We leave the house at 4:55 and walk to the checkpoint among a crowd of workers disgorged from the Hebron bus. Taking the turn with them we pass an unusual sight: a Palestinian Authority Police vehicle, black and white SUV with official decals and an official loudspeaker saying something. At one point it blocks vehicle access to the checkpoint. We’re not sure why.

First day of the Palestinian/Israeli workweek in Jerusalem means lots of activity. We arrive in fairly heavy rain, standing to greet folk heading for work. It is dark, wet and cold, the lights under the overhang are out and only a flashlight illuminating bread confections and the occasional flare-up from the samovar beside us brings some relief. Peering down the ramp we discern a steady stream of figures wrapped and touqued against the cold, silhouetted in brisk walks against the floodlight street below. It reminds me so much of ‘plant gating’ with Tom Barrow in Flin Flon during election campaigns. Not quite as cold, perhaps, although the damp has a penetrating way about it. Here, as there, not everyone responds to  Good Morning—“Sahab Ilther” most are lost in thought on the day ahead. Or maybe too wet and inadequately clothed against the rain.

The checkpoint is reached via a long outdoor ramp, leading to two turnstiles through which, if both are opened, the crowds find their way up another ramp leading to 8 more turnstiles, each electronically controlled. Sometimes all are opened, sometimes two or three. Today all function, letting five or six people through at a time, then locked while they strip their jackets and belts, passing them and their bags through the conveyor system (much like the airport) that checks for harmful goods. Next step, permit and identification control.

You must have both a permit and identification to go just about anywhere in Occupied Palestine if you’re Palestinian. That includes, of course getting through the checkpoint, both sides are on Occupied Palestine Territory. Lack of one or the other means you are sent back. Permits are not easily obtained, and are available for a limited set of reasons, through a local office, located in a settlement near Bethlehem. For a fee. Identification is also issued by the occupying authority. A permit can be cancelled at any time, for any reason. Finding out why means another trip to the permit office and a long interview with occupation authorities. People don’t know much more than ‘permit cancelled’ or entry denied, when we ask them why they are turned back, pointing to a list of potential reasons we provide, in written Arabic.

Soldiers control the entire process and can either allow folk through who are denied by the scanners or decide to send them back no matter what the scanners say. We hear stories of both. It seems more an arbitrary system than a logic-based process we hear a lot about that, in Palestine. It might be more understandable were Israel not in control of both sides of the process. It is as if the government of Canada decided to require citizens of Alberta to get a permit before entering BC and then refused most Albertans permits while arbitrarily revoking others, from time to time…

Keeping an eye out for returning people, I cause a momentary excitement in our group when, having walked to the street to see if the police vehicle remained in place, I notice a number of people leaving from the Humanitarian Gate. I assume they can get out that way if turned back at the top end and am just about to begin questioning them as to the reason they’ve come back when one of the experienced team members tells me they are actually coming over from the other side to work or attend school here. That gate is right beside the Humanitarian Gate, which is, as always, firmly shut…

Not as many are actually turned back today. Maybe 15 or 20 out of several thousand. Some because of permits, some because the job has been cancelled due to weather.

We meet one of the men who looks after the exterior of the checkpoint. He tells us the police are there because it is Epiphany Sunday and the Patriarch of one of the churches will be coming through the street. They are keeping the way unclogged. Normally many vehicles park here and, as we heard during our last visit, tensions can rise quite highly with raised voices and significant hand gestures while drivers jockey for position.

Seven o’clock finally (we are very cold) rolls around and we leave for the house, stopping for fresh bread (pita) to supplement breakfast at home. Along the way, we notice the vehicle checkpoint has been closed. Happens occasionally we’re told. No one knows why, when the last team called to ask they were told: “It is raining.” Nothing beyond that. Perhaps the technology doesn’t do well? An hour later, with the rain slackened off, it reopens.

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