“The crossing was terrific today,” one of the Palestinian laborers at the Tarqumiya checkpoint told Tzion, the Defense Ministry employee who manages the crossing.
So too did the other workers at the crossing seem pleasantly surprised by the speed at which they made their way through the maze of metal cages and turnstiles at 5:30 on Sunday.
Were the searches really smoother than in previous weeks? Were workers really winding their way through the maze of bars more quickly?
Tzion and the Defense Ministry would have you believe the change was only in the Palestinians’ imagination − the crossing is always smooth and fast, they maintain.
According to the Defense Ministry, it takes about seven minutes for the average person to cross from the start of the roadblock to the plaza where Palestinians catch their rides to work.
Yet independent observers calculate that on a good day − like last Sunday, for example − it takes at least 28 minutes. And according to calculations from May 26 it took as long as 71 minutes per person.
The disparity in these figures encapsulates the debate over the very nature of the border crossing.
“This is the most humane crossing system,” an official from the Crossings Authority who was at Tarqumiya on Sunday told Haaretz. The laborers, meanwhile, describe it as a place of physical and emotional exhaustion, of humiliation and contempt.
Palestinians from the West Bank who have permits to enter Israel are required to cross, on foot, through one of 11 crossings managed by the Defense Ministry’s Crossings Authority. The security checks are conducted by two private security firms: Sheleg Lavan, in the southern West Bank, and Modi’in Ezrahi in the central and northern sectors.
The Defense Ministry says that more than 25,000 Palestinians pass through these crossings daily. Tarqumiya is one of the busier crossings, though not the busiest, with some 5,000 people passing through it between 4 A.M. and 7 A.M. The agricultural workers leave home the earliest, followed by the construction workers, and then the women and the merchants.
There are 50 Sheleg Lavan employees, male and female, manning the inspection stations at this southern crossing. Armed guards employed by the Defense Ministry also wander around the checkpoint, as does an administrative team.
In recent months laborers had been complaining that passing through the Tarqumiya checkpoint had become tortuous. They claimed all the crowding and pushing were making it difficult to breathe. People were getting bruised from the jostling. Others were fainting.
On Sunday, June 2, activists from Machsom Watch came to the crossing to speak with the laborers. When they arrived they learned that the situation “was better than in previous days.” On June 6 two activists submitted a report listing detailed complaints to the Crossings Authority.
On Wednesday, the Defense Ministry spokesman told Haaretz that “Contrary to what is claimed, we are not familiar with complaints of pushing and crowding.”
Yet photographs from recent weeks − which are blurred, since they were taken surreptitiously − show people crowding into the various barred areas within the checkpoint. Some appear to be climbing up the bars; others are hanging from them. Still others are shown standing on narrow, raised surfaces within the compound − perhaps to breathe, perhaps to jump the queue when the turnstiles open.
One hundred men were already waiting outside the checkpoint facility when we arrived at Tarqumiya at 3 A.M. on Sunday. A few dozen more gathered in the roofed waiting area − which is surrounded by tin sheeting − where they were lying or sitting on pieces of cardboard. These people had arrived before 2 A.M. so they could be the first to enter the inspection compound.
At 3:40 A.M. they got up and took their places in the “sleeve,” a winding cage that guides the queue toward the turnstile, the first of at least five gates that every person must go through before they exit the checkpoint.
At 3:50 A.M., someone pushes a button and turnstile No. 1 opens. The line outside advances quickly. Then, suddenly, it stops.
In waiting area No. 2, between turnstile No. 1 and turnstile No. 2, a few dozen laborers have gathered. In this waiting area, which is also roofed and barred, there is a control booth. Through the dark glass one can make out computer screens, buttons, an operator or two, and a man with a long rifle.
There are cameras embedded in the ceiling. One of the laborers says there are also listening devices installed, which transmit every whisper to the control room. There are loudspeakers through which instructions are issued from time to time.
The first group is split and routed to two turnstiles that lead to a third space, which in turn splits into four lanes, each one with an electromagnetic gate and an X-ray machine for bags and suitcases. Every two lanes has a control room, and each room has five or six inspectors.
After that come the stands where identity cards are checked, and then the biometric station, where the laborers are identified by their fingerprints. Another two gates still separate them from the plaza where they wait for their rides.
Apparently the secret lies in the amount of time between the opening of one turnstile and the next, and in the waiting time between each inspection station and the next. On bad days, the laborers say, the inspectors seem to be “hanging out” in their control booths. They take their time checking documents, make groups wait until the very last person from the prior group exits the inspection station. They joke among themselves. When this is the case, it can take an hour or more to pass through the checkpoint.
But this Sunday when I joined the laborers, the waiting time between each inspection station was short.
Some of the Palestinians − based on some unknown criteria − are sent for body scans. They get there through a waiting room that is sealed with a heavy metal door resembling that of a shelter. The inspectors gather a few people into the sealed room and then take them, one by one, to be scanned.
Machsom Watch was told that no more than 12 people are gathered in the sealed room at any time, but laborers say that groups of between 20 and 40 are routinely crowded in. There they wait be screened; they are given no information about the potential radiation exposure or other possible hazards to their health.
On Sunday a man of about 50 was almost in tears when he told Haaretz how he’d been asked to go through the scanner four times, and how he was told to take off his clothes for the final screening. He ended up spending an hour in the scanning room, and when he finally got out of the checkpoint, he found he had missed his van − and had no choice but to turn around and go home.
Other laborers also told of being scanned more than once − and of all those waiting in the meantime in the sealed room, sometimes gasping for breath. They never know if the scanning equipment has malfunctioned, or whether the inspectors on duty simply don’t know how to operate it properly.
According to the Defense Ministry, “The body scanning systems, like the ones positioned in airports, are meant to reduce to a minimum the need for physical searches. People are kept in the scanning area no longer than six minutes. Needless to say, an additional scan is preferred to a body search, which also takes more time.”
The ministry added that the scanners are all in working condition and are inspected daily.
Because I had not cleared my visit to the checkpoint in advance, I was not permitted to see the sealed room. But on June 2, two Machsom Watch activists who spoke with one of the inspectors asked about the sealed room. They say the inspectors referred to it as “the death room.”
The Defense Ministry vehemently denied that inspectors had referred to the sealed room as “the death room.” Be that as it may, being locked up and having to wait, standing, for a prolonged period of time in that sealed room has become everyone’s nightmare.
At 3:30 A.M., when we could no longer see all the way back to the end of the line, Daoud, a 58-year-old construction worker in Tel Aviv who has been working in Israel for 35 years, asked to say something: “When you buy merchandise you want it new and fresh. … You Israelis are buying our workforce, the Palestinians, and it comes to you used and tired.