In 2011 I volunteered with EAPPI and at that time my colleagues and I understood that the Bethlehem Checkpoint was a nightmare. It was extremely poorly managed (perhaps by design) with little regard for people passing through,
I was not surprised to see nothing has changed for the better.
One of my EAPPI tasks has been to monitor Bethlehem Checkpoint 300 on Friday mornings during Ramadan. We count the number of men, women and children who pass through in their attempt to go to the Al Aqsa mosque to pray. Approximately 20,000 men, women, and children pass through between 6:00am and 12:30pm while we are there.
The first Friday, families came dressed in their finest clothes for the festive occasion. The first point of entry separated them into two lines, male and female. There were fully armed soldiers guarding this first check. At least twice while I was there, the soldiers activated their riot gear and pointed their guns into the crowd….for a reason I could not discern.
Bottlenecks formed, a rumbling growl from deep within the crowd arose as people were trapped, until at some point a decision would be made to let everyone through – even those without permits.
There would be a frenzied deluge of people rushing through to try and take advantage of the opening before the gates closed again. This breaking of the rules encouraged those who could not get permits because of age to hang around.
Monitoring the process was frustrating. The arbitrariness of the rules proved that security was not the issue. Control and harassment of Palestinian families seemed to be the actual goal.
On Lilat Al-Kader, the Holiest night of Ramadan, it was my day off. I joined thousand s of people trying to go through Bethlehem checkpoint en route to Jerusalem. I arrived at approx 4;00pm and did not reach my destination until 8:00. The bus ride from Bethlehem to Jerusalem usually takes 15 minutes..
Crowds were forming as I joined the women’s line and passed through the first point of entry into the draconian walled checkpoint under the watchful eye of fully armed soldiers. I walked the uphill pathway to the second point where I noticed people turning back from one particular line. That usually means trouble. My EAPPI vest offers some degree of protection so I deliberately joined the troubled line to see what was up. A soldier, obviously filled with his own importance shouted at the women because he didn’t like the way they were moving towards him – they were taking a step forward before he told them to. He shouted, pointed his finger, and forced them to step back, then step forward at his command. The female soldier next to him has the grace to look embarrassed. He caught the eye of a fellow soldier manning another line and laughed!
I got through eventually and moved toward the next point. Across the parking lot there was a gate fence. We surged toward it but it was closed. As we all puzzled about this, the crowd piled up behind me. I found myself towards the front of a crowd with more and more people coming from behind. Feeling potential danger in the air, I extricated myself and moved outside the group where I waited for the gate to open. I observed that it in order to open it had to push against the throng of people – a design flaw?
With great difficulty finally it opened!. We jostled toward the opening but before I could get through, the soldiers closed it again. I was about five feet from the fence and the force of the forward momentum threatened to crush us. I always avoid small confined spaces but now I was trapped.
I was at the head of a rumbling crowd. Because of Ramadan, everyone was fasting – no one had had anything to eat or drink since daybreak. The temperature rose to 35 degrees, and people continued to pile up behind me. I felt terribly it seemed vitally important at that moment that someone should know I was there. My friend Rev Lauren McGrail , who I was going to meet up with later that night, kept me company through text messaging until I felt safe again.
As my personal space was dwindling, along with that of all those surrounding me. I was particularly concerned about the children. One mother held a baby while her little girl clung to her. Another bigger girl was carried by her mother, until she became too heavy. Up, down! Up ,down! Mothers doing their best to protect their little ones.
Trying to stay calm we stood pressed together for half an hour.Tempers were fraying. Children were squeezed. The soldiers tried to open the gate against the pressure of too many bodies. If one child stumbled, or an elderly person fainted, or someone lost his temper it could be disastrous.
The gate was finally opening. The soldiers confronted the obvious difficulty of pushing it against the throng of people. We were squeezed back until there was enough space to slip through. We protected the children as best we could and then spewed out to open space and freedom.
Then we had to tackle the buses – but that is another story!
This how the Palestinian people go to pray on the Holiest night of their year under a brutal Israeli Occupation!