Slumped against the concrete slabs of the graffiti-covered security wall, I drifted off to sleep as I waited for the line of Palestinians to shuffle forward toward the checkpoint. The sun shone weakly through the dark early morning clouds, a cold wind did its damnedest to extinguish the cigarettes that hung from almost every pair of lips, and the only sound was the rustle of paper bags as the workers ate their breakfasts al fresco - as if they had a choice...
Welcome to rush hour at the Bethlehem checkpoint, where the difference between a day`s paid work or a wasted morning`s queuing followed by a mournful trudge home all rests on the whims of the bored teenagers manning the turnstiles inside their bullet-proof sentry boxes.
My own presence in the midst of the interminable line of laborers was down to my guides for the day, three Israeli women from Mahsom Watch who had encouraged me to use my British passport to pass through the checkpoint into Bethlehem so I could time how long it took me to return to the Israeli side. A trio of middle-aged Charlie`s Angels, the women come every Thursday morning to the checkpoint at the crack of dawn to keep an eye on the army`s treatment of those crossing the border, and to intervene when required on behalf of the helpless Palestinians whose complaints fall on deaf ears.
AS THE QUEUE edged forward agonizingly slowly, I looked around me at the world-weary faces of the men in their tattered work clothes as they stared helplessly at the red and green lights that hung above the turnstile. Those at the front of the semi-dark hall were bathed in the luminous glare of the red light, as it beamed out its warning to stand still and not come any closer to the booth 10 meters ahead. A couple of muttered cries of `Open another window, please` punctured the silence, but had little effect on the stony-faced soldiers manning their posts.
All of a sudden, the green light flashed into life, and the crowd surged forward as though scrambling for a place on the last helicopter out of Saigon. Five seconds later, and the light was cruelly switched back to red, with less than a dozen people having managed to make it through to the promised land. Eventually, the floodgates opened once again, and this time I was propelled forward by the swell as we pushed our way through the iron doorway.
As we rounded the corner, the men began removing their belts and holding up their trousers pitifully with one hand, as they clutched their valuables with the other. When we reached the x-ray machines, paint-spattered workboots were kicked off and placed on the conveyor belt, along with bags of food and bundles of clothes.
FORGETTING MY current status as merely another body to be searched, I walked through the metal detector without removing either my belt from my waist or my keys from my pocket. The siren screamed out its annoyance at my slip, and I retraced my steps and tried again.
Again I failed, thanks to the lighter in my back pocket, and the men behind me angrily motioned for me to take the situation more seriously. This was no good-humored queue of holiday-makers making light of inconvenient airport security - this was real life, and time was money to the impoverished men desperate to get through to find work on the other side.
Once I`d reattached my belt and rejoined the queue, I stood morosely in line for another 15 minutes. Those ahead of me had their hand-prints read by the computer monitors and handed their papers to the soldiers through the gap in the glass. Brandishing my British passport like a shield, I strode up to the cubicle, where the bored girl gave my maroon-encased papers a cursory glance before nonchalantly waving me through - evoking jealous stares from the green-ID-carrying masses behind me.
ON MY return, I rejoined the three Mahsom Watch women and we spent another half-hour observing the machinations of the checkpoint. When it became clear that there were not enough windows open to deal with the burgeoning number of people crossing, Ruti phoned the local army commander, who agreed to send a soldier to man another stall. I was standing next to the door of the troop`s barracks, and a sharp blow from behind announced the arrival of the extra soldier dispatched to deal with the crowd, as she kicked the door open and strode into the hall.
Expecting her to apologize for knocking me sideways, I looked plaintively at her, and received a glower and `Nu, what?` in return. I responded in kind, but she`d spotted our Mahsom Watch badges by now and knew full well who was responsible for the sudden end to her break time. She sneered at me and flounced away, gun swinging from her shoulder in time with her footsteps.
EVERY NOW and then, an incoming Palestinian would stop and greet Ruti and her comrades, exchanging pleasantries and thanking them for their work. Outside the reception hall stood half-full minibuses, and those exiting the checkpoint hurled themselves at the bus doors, fighting one another for a coveted place aboard that would guarantee them a day`s income on a building site in Jerusalem.
As the queue finally thinned, our observation job was nearly done for the day, and we got into the car and headed off into the hills for the next stage of the proceedings. We drove to Neve Yunis, where two Palestinian men were stranded after receiving fines from the police. Thanks to yet another malicious trick on the Israeli authorities` behalf, a Palestinian who gets a speeding ticket, for example, will have his papers confiscated until he pays the fixed penalty at the appropriate office. Except, of course, he can`t get to the offices without his papers, since the army won`t let any Palestinian through a checkpoint without his ID documents. No payment, no papers; no papers, no payment - which is where the women of Mahsom Watch come in.
Ruti and her colleagues play the middleman in this particular game of chicanery, ferrying the money and the papers between the two sides until the situation is sorted, and so it was this morning. The two grateful men poured out their hearts in thanks, before clutching their documents to their chests and heading off down the dirt track toward their village.
Next up was a visit to the DCO offices, where a large crowd of young men stood resignedly outside, waiting for a chance to plead their case for a permit to work inside Israel`s borders.
AS WE approached the group, a white-haired man called out to Ruti, hurrying over to her and begging her to help him. `I`ve been put on the Shabak list,` he cried, `and I don`t know why. They say I`m banned from entering Israel, and they won`t give me a hearing to put my case to them. I`ve got six children to feed, and all my work`s in Israel - I don`t know where to turn.`
Trying to calm him, Ruti thrust into his hand the phone number of her colleague Sylvia, who is well-versed in intervening with the security services in cases such as this. `I`ve spoken to her,` he replied, running an anxious hand through his thinning hair, `but she hasn`t been able to do anything so far.`
`It`s getting desperate now at home,` he went on - `what am I meant to do?`
Save for encouraging him to try Sylvia again, Ruti was unable to give him any other practical advice, having calculated the odds stacked against him. Afterwards, she told me that often Shabak wait until people like him are on the verge of penury, and then approach them quietly and tell them all their troubles could be over - if they`ll just provide them a name of a terrorist in their village. Even though their quarry might not have a clue who is or isn`t on the extremists` books, he`ll often give any name just to get his papers back and regain the chance to work - and thus the cycle continues.
AS WE drove back to Jerusalem, Ruti waxed lyrical about the status quo that is allowing such criminal deeds to occur. `Occupation has to involve dehumanization,` she told me. `If you have feelings, you can`t kick someone down - so we`ve conditioned our soldiers to have no feelings for the Palestinians. We`ve brought up this third generation [of Israelis] to act like conquerors, and to have contempt for the conquered.`
I suggested that the plight of the Palestinian workers is similar to that of battery chickens. No one likes to think of the conditions battery chickens are forced to live in; instead they prefer not to dwell on the issue at all, so long as they get their cheap meat (or cheap labor, in this case). Ruti agreed, saying `Israelis just don`t want to know what goes on, they don`t want to see themselves as the bad guys. People need to feel good, so they simply close their eyes to reality.`
Which is what makes the work Mahsom Watch does so crucial to breaking the silence. These women and their colleagues are all Israeli Jews, and their publicizing via the Israeli media the atrocious conditions for Palestinians means that their message reaches parts that international activist groups can`t reach. At the same time, `we show the Palestinians that not all Israeli [Jews] are enemies, and that`s a vital part of our work,` said Ruti.
`Once, at Kalandiya checkpoint, a man brought his six-year-old daughter to meet us to make her understand that there are good Israelis as well as bad. She was reluctant to meet us, and shied away at first, but he soon got her smiling and talking to us.`
THE ARMY and the authorities will always be able to justify the tight security measures they use to keep the Palestinians at arm`s length, and so too will the Israeli public themselves. However, what they won`t, or can`t see is that it`s the daily humiliation and hardship that breeds the next generation of bombers, and guarantees the hatred is passed down from father to son and beyond.
I`m not suggesting for one minute that the checkpoints themselves be dismantled. For all that there is much wrong with the behavior of elements of the IDF and security forces, the underlying necessity for tight security is indisputable. Anyone who thinks differently only need pay heed to the daily streams of murderous rhetoric from the extremist groups on the other side of the security wall.
But the man who returns home without a day`s pay to a hungry and desperate family won`t blame anyone but the lackadaisical soldier who didn`t switch the light from red to green in time for him to clamber aboard the minibus - and neither will his children. The man with no means of getting his ID card back other than coming cap in hand to a group of tirelessly devoted volunteers from Mahsom Watch won`t ever forgive the authorities for the misery they put him and his family through. And the man forced to turn collaborator just to put food on the table for his six kids won`t ever forget the cruelty of the occupiers who put him in such an awful predicament.
IF WE don`t want terror on our doorstep, we`d do well to treat those over the garden fence with at least a modicum of respect and consideration. If we don`t; if we refuse to retreat from our entrenched position of mistrust, mistreatment and misanthropy, then there`s no hope for any kind of resolution that doesn`t involve more bloodshed for years to come. Unless the call is heeded now by those with the power to help the Palestinians, a bitter harvest will once more be reaped by the very people the army is meant to protect with their actions.
The writer is currently traveling through the West Bank and the Golan gathering research for a book about Israeli settlements to be co-written with Josh Freedman Berthoud. This piece was originally published on Commentisfree.co.uk on The Guardian Web site. Freedman grew up in London and worked as a stockbroker for six years before moving to Israel.