Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – Frantic clamouring disrupts the usual noises at Israel’s Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, where thousands of Palestinian workers queue for hours, starting at 3am, to make it on time for their jobs in Israel.
Workers chat, bicker, joke, frustratingly shout, bang on the steel bars, and rattle the turnstiles that Israeli border police officials intermittently lock amid the heavy traffic.
“He has fainted. Everyone move! Call an ambulance!” The crowd becomes louder as a young man is carried outside the checkpoint. Numerous workers surround the man’s limp body stretched out on the ground, and others attempt to resuscitate him – to no avail.
Several of the bystanders shout: “Move, move! Make room! Let the journalist film! Show the world what is happening to us”, as they push people aside to create a cleared space for Al Jazeera to photograph the scene.
An ambulance arrives, and the young man is lifted onto a gurney and rushed to the hospital. The workers continue on through the single cement lane, sipping on small paper cups of coffee to push past their exhaustion. One worker looks at Al Jazeera and says: “Israel treats animals better than us.”
It’s a typical morning at Checkpoint 300.
Suffocation, broken ribs and death
Palestinians have long complained of the volatile conditions at the checkpoint – also referred to as the Gilo checkpoint. However, Palestinian workers tell Al Jazeera that the conditions at the crossing have worsened over the last two months.
The checkpoint was built more than a decade ago as part of Israel’s separation wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004. EAPPI, an organisation that monitors Israel’s checkpoints, tells Al Jazeera that 300 is “the worst (checkpoint) in the West Bank”.
Thousands of Palestinians from the southern occupied West Bank must cross this barrier to work in occupied East Jerusalem – part of the occupied Palestinian territory – or Israel. It can take up to three hours to cross the checkpoint during the rush hour. When traffic is less during the day, the journey takes just a few minutes.
Many Palestinians are escaping high unemployment rates in the occupied West Bank, while others prefer to work in Israel for the better wages – at times receiving more than double than what they would make in the West Bank.
The scene each morning is chaotic, with Palestinians squeezed together inside a single lane, and pulling themselves up on the surrounding steel bars, climbing over, and dangling among the crowd.
When Israeli officials unlock the turnstile at the entrance of the checkpoint, Palestinians push forward, passing one by one, until it is locked once again. Those who make it through then enter a warehouse-like compound where they meet more turnstiles, a security conveyor belt – where they must place all of their items – and a metal detector.
Finally, they arrive at the permit check, where Israeli officials verify work permits and take their fingerprints.
Abed Abu Shiera, who has sold coffee outside the checkpoint for 11 years, has seen first-hand the effects of the barrier’s harsh conditions. Every morning, at least one or two workers suffocate and faint from the lack of airflow, he says. Abu Shiera himself often has to call the ambulance to collect them.
The 44-year-old has witnessed legs being broken after Palestinians fall off the steel bars where dozens of workers hang from. Other times, he has seen workers get their ribs broken from the pressure of the crowd pushing forward each time the turnstile is unlocked.
Abu Shiera has even witnessed death. In October, a 65-year-old worker from Arroub refugee camp in the southern Hebron district reportedly slipped and fell on his head inside the narrow corridor of the checkpoint. He was rushed to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead.
Despite this daily reality, Abu Shiera echoed the voices of many workers Al Jazeera spoke with: “I have come here six days a week for 11 years,” he said. “But this past month and a half is the worst period I have ever seen.”
‘It gets worse and worse’
Palestinian workers tell Al Jazeera that before a few months, the large crowds would thin out by 7am. However, during Al Jazeera’s visit this week, even at 8am, the checkpoint was still crammed with people.
Amir, a 23-year-old Palestinian who has worked as a cleaner at the checkpoint for a private Israeli company for some five years, says that Israeli officials used to typically lock the turnstiles for five- to 15-minute intervals, before letting more Palestinians pass.
For the past two months, however, Israeli officials have locked the turnstiles for up to one hour, Amir says, causing the already intolerable conditions at the checkpoint to exacerbate. Palestinians are now fainting more frequently, and some workers expressed fear of being crushed in the crowd.
Nasser Abu Maria, a 45-year-old construction worker from Beit Ummar in Hebron, stands to the side with a few dozen other Palestinians, waiting for the crowd to disperse before daring to enter the checkpoint.
A week and a half ago, Abu Maria suffocated and fainted inside the checkpoint. The lane was too crowded for workers to carry him outside, forcing them to hurl his listless body over the steel bars, where workers on the other side grabbed him and settled him on the ground.
He was then rushed to a hospital. “I am too scared to enter the checkpoint when it’s like this,” he said, gesturing to the sea of workers crammed and stacked on top of each other in between the cement and steel.
“All we want is for them (Israelis) to just stop locking the gate. Just let us pass. That’s all we ask. Stop putting us through all this humiliation,” he said. “The exhaustion I experience going through this checkpoint is more tiring than my eight-hour workday.”
Last week, frustrations at the checkpoint reached a boiling point, as Israeli officials locked the turnstiles for long durations throughout the morning hours. Abu Shiera tells Al Jazeera that out of frustration workers broke one of the turnstiles and a gate inside the checkpoint in order to rush through.
Abu Shiera says that the workers were suffocating, but an Israeli border police spokesperson claims the workers were “acting violently, shoving, pushing and breaking things”.
Israeli officials gathered the workers into an open yard inside the compound until they could fix the damage.
“This checkpoint has always been difficult,” Ibrahim Hushiyye, a 28-year-old construction worker from the town of Yatta in Hebron, told Al Jazeera. “But it used to be easier than these days.”
“Every day it gets worse and worse,” he said. “It’s far beyond just being intolerable. If someone has never experienced something like this, then I hope they never have to.”
‘We are humans’
The Israeli border police spokesperson confirmed that the Israeli army is expanding the area of the checkpoint, creating more lanes, and introducing technological upgrades in order to lessen traffic, similar to the recent developments at Israel’s Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah.
The exhaustion I experience going through this checkpoint is more tiring than my eight-hour workday.
However, he denied that this was the cause of the heavy traffic, instead telling Al Jazeera that it was the result of an increase of permits Israel has been issuing for Palestinians to work in Israel. Yet Abu Shiera says he has not seen any increase in the number of workers, and the main issue is the Israeli officials locking the turnstiles.
When asked by Al Jazeera if Israeli authorities were aware of the difficult conditions Palestinians are facing at the checkpoint, the spokesperson took a long pause, and said: “Yes.” But went on to say these issues are relegated to “the Palestinian side [of the checkpoint], not the Israeli side”, and said it was the responsibility of Palestinian authorities to address these issues.
A source at the Palestinian District Coordination Office, which coordinates with the Israeli army, spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity and said that the entire area of the checkpoint is Israeli-controlled. “We have no decision-making power with the Israelis. They don’t consult with us at all. We have no control over the Israeli checkpoints,” he said.
Even if the Israelis were to request Palestinian assistance at the checkpoint, however, the Palestinian side would refuse. “We won’t allow them to put us in front of the workers. Then the workers will fight us instead of the Israelis.”
“We don’t interfere at all,” he added. “The problem is the checkpoint itself and this is caused by the Israelis.”
The Israeli border police spokesperson assured Al Jazeera that a new, upgraded checkpoint would be open in the coming months and would solve the issue of traffic.
Palestinian workers, meanwhile, say that the Israeli army has been renovating a new portion of the checkpoint for at least a year and a half, and each time a date is set for its opening, it gets postponed.
“We are always told that the checkpoint is being renovated and it will get better. But I don’t think Israel is interested in making our lives any easier,” Abu Maria said.
“All of this is completely unnecessary,” he continued. “We pass through this checkpoint almost every day. They (Israeli officials) know us. We are carrying our lunch bags, not weapons. We are just trying to make it to work on time.
“We are not any less human than they are.”