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The sun has not yet risen on Eyal checkpoint in the northwestern city of Qalqilya. Already hundreds of Palestinians queue up and wait to cross into Israel and begin the workweek. In the coming hours, roughly four thousand Palestinians from the Qalqilya region and the northern West Bank will pass through the encaged L-shaped corral, through the single turnstile all destined for work in Israel’s cities and towns.
42-year-old Erak is eating his breakfast and drinking his morning coffee, each purchased from one of the many makeshift food vendors that line the road leading up to the checkpoint. Noticeably tired but relentlessly friendly, Erak describes a routine that echoes the lives of many of the Palestinians waiting to cross over. From Sunday through Thursday, Erak arrives at Eyal checkpoint no later than 3am. The early arrival is required due to the long waits (up to 3 hours) and subsequent bus ride which ferries Palestinians to their respective places of employment. Erak’s home, wife and four kids are in Jericho, a two-hour bus drive that compels Erak to stay in Qalqilya district during the week, away from his family.
Each night he returns to Qalqilya at 5pm from his job in Tel Aviv, a fourteen-hour day that begins and ends at the same Israeli checkpoint that so many Palestinians are required to navigate in order to seek better wages. This brutal schedule has been created by a situation all too familiar throughout the West Bank, where an elaborate system of physical and administrative obstacles restricts the movement of Palestinians both within and outside of the occupied Palestine territories.
It is almost 6 am and Fawis is at the on the edge of a large and increasingly impatient crowd of Palestinians pushing and sometimes climbing over one another to gain entry to the turnstile. A private Israeli Security officer remotely controls the passage of Palestinians through the gate, buzzing each man in one by one. As the morning progresses the speed in which the workers are allowed through has slowed considerably. As Fawis talks, an Israeli officer barks instructions over the loudspeaker, denying entrance to those who do not have the proper paperwork.
Fawis is a 61-year-old resident of Qalqilya who works construction in Tel Aviv. Fawis spoke about the frustration and hardship of this life. “Every day at least 13-hours from when I wake up to when I get back home. Sometime I wait three hours to get into Israel. When you come back to the house you take shower then go to sleep. Next day it’s the same thing.”
Fawis worked in Qalqilya and Ramallah for years, but as work became harder to find he sought out employment in Israel. When asked about the reason for working in Israel, Fawis spoke about the increasingly difficult conditions in Qalqilya. “I tell you life is not easy, too hard, the life is very expensive now, the money is not enough here. Fourteen years ago, it was different but now here we have few other choices. Israel is [strangling] Palestine. We don’t have anything in Palestine, we buy only their food, their products.”
Fawis has his Palestinian ID, magnetic identification card and his work permit, which he explained were required for him to enter into Israel to work. Fawis’s Israeli issued work permit is for only three months, requiring him to go through the often torturous process of getting a new one when his runs out. When asked about this process, Fawis lamented, “it is difficult. Sometimes you wait 2 weeks, one month or even three to get your permit and sometimes you don’t get one at all. Each time it is different.“
The checkpoints and the permit regime instill an anxious uncertainty in Palestinians, where control over their basic livelihood is left to chance and their very movement controlled by an occupying power. In cities like Qalqilya, who have felt more acutely than others the dramatic economic effects of occupation, work in Israel is a necessity, even if the process of getting there is arduous and dehumanizing. As Fawis put it, “All I have is the work, it is not easy being over there but I have to work.”
The Qalqilya district, where Fawis is from, is considered one of the most agriculturally fertile in the West Bank. In the past, the region prospered as many Israelis and Palestinians came to the general market in Qalqilya to buy produce that was grown in the surrounding land.
All that changed during the second intifada in 2000 when Israel instituted the system of restrictions on Palestinian movement, culminating in the construction of the “security barrier” (x).
In 2003 Israel completed the section of the illegal barrier that now encircles the city on four sides, with one checkpoint and one “fabric of life” road allowing Palestine access into and out of the city. The route of the wall separates the district into isolated districts, cutting off cities and towns from one another. Like much of the wall that resides inside Palestine (85%), the route of the “security barrier” in Qalqiya was designed to encompass and physically annex large settlement blocks that dot the district, becoming the de-facto border of Israel proper (xi).
When the wall was completed around Qalqilya, 50% of the city’s agricultural land was confiscated, nearly 1000 acres (xii). The majority of the agricultural land in the district is located in area C or in the seam zone between the green line and the separation wall. These areas, which are under direct control by the Israeli military, can only be accessed through a series of Israeli controlled agricultural gates and only by those who have a permit to do so.
According to B’Tselem’s “Arrested Development” report on the impact of the separation barrier, these restrictions on farmers access to their lands has had a dramatic affect on the economy of the region. Many farmers were forced to abandon high profit crops that require daily cultivation and the severe restrictions of movement have made access to markets for perishable goods increasingly difficult (xii). Furthermore, the seizure of thousands of acres of land to establish settlements, without compensation to the farmers, has only exacerbated the problem (xii).
The cumulative effect has been that, in Qalqilya district, unemployment in 2009 was at 23.4 percent, the highest in the West Bank (xii). Much like Gaza, Qalqilya is under economic siege by the Israeli occupation. The construction of the barrier and placement of the two checkpoints has led to the closing of some 622 businesses in Qalqilya city. By 2006 Israeli restrictions on new construction made the population density in the city the highest in Palestine, higher even than Gaza city (xii). These conditions have pushed many Palestinians to work in Israel even as the process of doing so has become increasingly difficult.
7:30 Eyal checkpoint
Eyal is a wholly different place in the light of day. The throngs of Palestinians have gone, the vendors are packed up; all that is left is the series of fences, gates and towers that dominate the area. Walking back through the city you can see the metropolis of Tel Aviv in the distance where both Fawis and Erak will be laboring in the months to come.
Unfortunately their plight is not unique, the hardships faced by Palestinians at Eyal checkpoint and Qalqilya in general are products of a system of Israeli control that is part of so many lives in the occupied territories. Eyal is a constant reminder of the degree to which every aspect of these peoples’ lives, work and travel is dictated by the relentless Israeli project to make life as difficult as possible for all Palestinians.
Yet in the midst of this hardship, I recall what Fawis said at the end of our conversation. “This life is hard, but I am a Palestinian! I would never leave and maybe one day when I am very old, all this [as he points to the checkpoint] will be gone.”
Fawis returns to the restless crowd of Palestinians waiting at the gate. The light on top of the turnstile turns from red to green allowing one more body to pass into Israel. And while much of the daily lives of these men and women is controlled by an occupying power, people like Fawis will continue to hold out hope that life can and will change for the people of Palestine.
Sam Gilbert writes for Palestine Monitor.
(x) “ACT Palestine Forum.” actpalestineforum.org. N.p., 22 02 2012. Web. 10 May 2013.
(xi) “Alternative News: Qalqilya’s Checkpoint for Workers.” www.alternativenews.org. Alternative Information Center, 19 03 2012. Web. 10 May 2013.
(xii) Hareuveni, Eyal. Arrested Development: The Long Term Impact of Israel’s Separation Barrier in the West Bank. B’Tselem, 2012. Pri