I passed through the checkpoint in Bethlehem whenever I went to Musalaha’s office in south Jerusalem. Musalaha, which means ‘reconciliation’ in Arabic, is an organization that brings together Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians through a shared faith, attempting to dismantle the dividing wall of hostility. My attitude always changed for the worse, toward something like hostility, when I walked through a dividing concrete wall, under metal awnings and heard Hebrew barked over loudspeakers at people who mostly don’t speak Hebrew, and watched old Palestinian men ordered back through the metal detector five times. Countries retain the right to have border control, but the seven hundred Israeli checkpoints are not built on any accepted border. They are on Palestinian land. Almost seventy-five percent of the main roads in the occupied West Bank are controlled, or are completely severed, by checkpoints. The World Bank cites checkpoints as the primary reason for Palestine’s critical economic situation. And the Red Crescent Society has reported one hundred and twelve deaths and thirty-five stillbirths at checkpoints because ambulances were denied permission to cross. And not from Palestine into Israel, but from one part of Palestine to another.
The checkpoint in Bethlehem is on the Jerusalem side of the Israeli separation wall, which splits Hebron Road, the main road between the ancient cities, in two. Countries retain the right to build barriers between themselves and other nations, leaving aside whether or not good fences really do make good neighbors. The United States is building a barrier on the border with Mexico, a debatable representation of “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But the United States is not building that barrier in Mexico, on Mexican land. Over eighty percent of Israel’s twenty-five foot high structure slices into the West Bank, pulling more and more land into Israel. Less than twenty percent is being built on the internationally-accepted Green Line, and none of it is being constructed on Israeli soil. When the good fence cuts into the good neighbor’s yard and annexes the good neighbor’s driveway, water tank, and garden, the claim that the fence is for security becomes suspicious.
The wall cuts off Hebron Road in two places as it curves like a horseshoe, forming a small enclave in between. Every morning, dozens of taxis crowd in crisscrosses beneath the wall’s shadow, waiting to overcharge unsuspecting tourists as they arrive from Jerusalem. A metal fence, like a grated tunnel, runs along the side of the wall’s concrete slabs, now canvases expressing a voice of resistance through a chaotic tapestry of images and words overlaying words. The grated tunnel leads to a door through the wall and into a small fenced area. A small guarded booth and metal detector must be passed before entering a wide parking lot, the threshold of the low-lying roofed checkpoint. Three terminals line the hallway beneath the florescent lights; two are rarely open at a time, no matter how many people are waiting to pass through. And the passing through always takes longer because people in Palestine do not line up for anything. Instead of lines, people form massive stagnant clots; those just entering casually cut and jump to the front and the long line never gets shorter. At least twelve document inspection stations wait on the other side of the metal detectors and conveyor belts and I’ve never seen more than three open at once. All Palestinians must show their special passes that allow them to leave the West Bank and then place their hands on an electronic fingerprint scanner. I can pass through very quickly, flipping my unopened American passport at different windows and pushing through worn-down turnstiles. Usually, the guards barely looked at me and waved me on with a sharp flick of the wrist. Sometimes, soldiers motioned to me to bypass the queue through another gate but I always refused. In some small way I wanted to be with and as the people there, to force myself to experience what they’re experiencing by denying myself the easy option, because I did always have the easy option.
I was on my way to the office on the last Friday of Ramadan. I heard an unusual amount of noise coming from the area next to the wall, and when I came around a fruit stand I saw that every Muslim in the greater Bethlehem area had come that morning to this checkpoint. They had received special passes because of Ramadan to visit the Holy City and pray toward Mecca at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, next to the golden-domed spot where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven on his horse. The grated tunnel was completely filled, the wired sides almost bulging with the capacity, and every new person squeezing in was like a falling block in Tetris trying to find any available space, except the bottom level in this game didn’t fall away so quickly. Once I got inside I couldn’t get out unless I moved forward with the swarming throng. The noise was deafening as everyone around me was yelling and screaming at one another. Someone climbed up the fence, clambering over people’s heads, and swung toward the front of the horde. A row of weathered Muslim women in hijabs sat in the dust outside the fence and watched as the grated tunnel shook with the pushing and shoving.
I suddenly felt my feet start to lift off the ground as my legs were pushed further apart. I looked down and an old woman on all fours was crawling between my knees. She disappeared between the knees of the next person. I finally got closer to the door in the wall and the small area where soldiers watched through sunglasses beside the armed booth. They started yelling at the disorganized group, attempting to herd them into some kind of line. They tried in vain, because when you dehumanize people to the status of animals, corralling them like cattle through pens and gates and branding them with color-coded IDs, they will begin to act the part.
The turnstiles creaked with the force of three and four people crammed between the swiveling bars. People began pushing more and raising elbows as they carved their way through the person in front. A man next to me held his toddler close to his chest, his protective arms wrapped tightly around the wide-eyed child. The man turned slightly to his left, toward me, and threw up on the cardboard littered on the asphalt. As I waded my way to the door, a small old woman tried to slip in front of me. But by then the swelling crowd was hammering into my back and she became pinned between my body and the wall. I thrust out my arms and pushed against the wall to keep from crushing her; she quickly hopped through the door in the briefly acquired space.
I finally got to the document inspection stations after almost an hour-and-a-half. Tacked between two windows was a poster that only Palestinians and internationals see, because entering the West Bank is illegal for Israeli citizens. The poster showed a family in front of the Roman aqueduct on the beach at Caesarea Maritima. They were all smiling, staring wistfully out to the Mediterranean that reflected their gaze in broken strips of glass-like tide. The daughter held a beach ball and an American football sat in the sand next to the dad’s feet. Israelis don’t play American football. Above the faces and the American football that only Palestinians and internationals see were the words: “Israel- Where it’s vacation time all year round.”