Holy Places and DisplacementsImmersions

at the Bethlehem checkpoint

The van couldn’t take us any closer; the roads were closed due to the arrival of the Palestinian president. We would have to walk about half a mile to the checkpoint.

Cold arrives as soon as the sun sets, here in Palestine.  Our group was underdressed for the cold, windy weather, having been lulled into a false sense of security by the balmy weather of the previous few days.  We walked the half mile as quickly as we could, our guide Peter telling us to imagine it rainy and even colder, and three in the morning.  Men passed us going the other direction, singly and in groups, hands in the pockets of their thick coats and scarves pulled up over our faces.

“Hey,” said a teenage boy.  “Hey hey hey.  Anyone want to buy a souvenir?”  He played a few notes on a wooden flute.  “Please help, it’s cold and I want to go back to my home.”

The checkpoint didn’t look like much: an iron gate surrounded by men selling roasted corn, date paste, and fresh fruit.  It was now quite dark.  We gathered around Peter as he explained how the Palestinians would come here with permits for day labor and start lining up early in the morning, hoping to end up on one of the trucks that would take them to Israel where work was.

The other side of the gate turned out to be a chute, with concrete and iron prison bars on either side.  It was pitch black; we couldn’t even see our feet.  Suddenly, a flashlight flared in the darkness: it was the teenager with the wooden flutes.  “Shukran,” we told him.  “Buy a souvenir,” he said.  “Don’t you want to help?”

The chute ended at a turnstile, which we passed harmlessly through.  We crossed a parking lot to another structure, where metal walkways criss-crossed under the high sheet metal ceiling.  Peter told us that at busier times, there would be armed guards on those walkways up there.  There was no one there except for a lone Palestinian man on his cell phone, holding his belt in his hand, stopped by another turnstile.  We got into line meekly behind him.

He finished his phone conversation.  “Do you see that camera up there?” he pointed.  “They can see us.  They know we’re here.”

Eventually, a voice came over the loudspeaker.  “He’s telling us to go to gate number three,” said the man.

But none of the stations were marked.  We went to the wrong one before finding gate number three and passing through the turnstile.  We walked through metal detectors while they scanned our bags.  By this time we’d been joined by a few others: an elderly pair carrying plastic bags; a man and a woman bearing a bouquet of roses.  We got into line behind them, waiting for our turns to press our passports (with visa in view) up to the plexiglass for inspection.  On the walls, faded advertisements extolled the carefree fun at Tel-Aviv and Jaffa.  Because we were not Palestinians, we didn’t have to undergo a fingerprint scan or present permits or day passes.

Once through the other side, we located our van and got in.  Some of our classmates had opted not to undergo the long, cold walk and gone through the checkpoint on the van.  They said their experience was brief and uneventful: the experience of, say, Americans on a tour bus.