The con­struc­tion worker


“You never, ever want to fall down.” A fa­ther crams through a crowded check­point to get to work.

bethlehem, west bank — Un­der starry skies, a young Pales­tinian Every­man wakes be­fore dawn to be­gin his daily com­mute to work in Is­rael.

There are thou­sands like him. They are build­ing Is­rael. Five or six morn­ings a week, long be­fore the Mus­lim morn­ing prayers, be­fore the cocks crow, when packs of dogs still own the dump­sters, his alarm beeps. To­day it is 3:30 a.m.

His name is Tarek Al Taweel. He is a Pales­tinian con­struc­tion worker, not with­out skills. He builds mod­ern high-rise apart­ments in a Jewish set­tle­ment in East Jerusalem, where a five-bed­room pent­house sells for $600,000.

The job is okay, he said. He makes 250 shekels, about $68 a day, twice what he would make in the West Bank. He works be­side his fa­ther, un­cles and brothers. They’re proud of their crafts­man­ship. They keep photographs on their mo­bile phones of their alu­minum work, fine car­pen­try, elab­o­rate tiling.

It’s not the work. It’s the Is­raeli check­point. “I hate it,” Taweel told us. The daily cross­ing drains him. It makes him feel that life is des­per­ate and ugly.

“Some­times I wake up in the morn­ing and I don’t want to go to the check­point. Some­times I put my head back on the pil­low,” Taweel said. “My wife will say to me, ‘You have to feed our child. Get up. Get up!’ And I get up and go.”

The Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion of the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip be­gan 50 years ago in June. Taweel turned 30 last year. Like Taweel, four of ev­ery five Pales­tini­ans have never known any­thing but the oc­cu­pa­tion — an evolv­ing sys­tem by which the Is­raeli mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices ex­ert con­trol over 2.6 mil­lion Arabs in the West Bank, with one sys­tem for Pales­tini­ans, an­other for Is­raelis.

This sum­mer, the Is­raelis will cel­e­brate their near-mirac­u­lous vic­tory in the 1967 war, when in just six days, they took all of Jerusalem and their armed forces crushed the Arab armies thrown against them.

On the other side, the Pales­tini­ans will mark a mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion go­ing on for so long that many Is­raelis barely seem to no­tice any­more, ex­cept the young sol­diers sent to en­force it.

Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu refers to it, when he speaks of it at all, as “the so-called oc­cu­pa­tion.”

Some of his fel­low cit­i­zens say there is re­ally no oc­cu­pa­tion, be­cause all the Land of Is­rael was awarded to the Jews by God. Other Is­raelis ar­gue that Gaza is no longer oc­cu­pied, be­cause Is­rael uni­lat­er­ally with­drew from the coastal strip a decade ago.

What­ever it is called, it ap­pears to be nev­erend­ing. Shelves of books have been writ­ten about who is to blame for not mak­ing peace. Pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton, Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to find a “two-state so­lu­tion.” Pres­i­dent Trump says he wants to make “the deal of the cen­tury” be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, and just spent two days here.

But what does it feel like? To be “oc­cu­pied” in 2017, by a coun­try that boasts to be the only democ­racy in the Mid­dle East?

The first time we saw Taweel he wore dusty jeans and car­ried a plas­tic bag with a can of oily tuna fish and a short stack of pita bread. On the spur of the mo­ment he agreed to be a guide of sorts, not only through the chaotic Is­raeli check­point he dreads, but the emo­tions felt, but not al­ways ex­pressed, at the cross­ing be­tween his worlds.

His fa­ther cau­tioned him that speak­ing to two jour­nal­ists, even for an Amer­i­can news­pa­per, could jeop­ar­dize his per­mis­sion to en­ter Is­rael. “The per­mit is life,” the fa­ther told us. The Is­raeli do­mes­tic se­cu­rity ser­vice, Shin Bet, keeps vo­lu­mi­nous files on Pales­tini­ans, and it de­nies and re­vokes work, travel and med­i­cal per­mits ev­ery day, and need give no more rea­son than “se­cu­rity.”

“I don’t care,” Taweel said. “It’s okay.”

Em­bark­ing in the dark

It is dark out­side his fam­ily’s three-story home in He­bron when we ar­rive to fol­low Taweel on his daily com­mute.

Although it might take him three or four hours to get to his con­struc­tion site in East Jerusalem, the en­tire trip is only 20 miles as the crow flies.

His un­cles, brothers and their fam­i­lies live in the kind of ex­tended fam­ily com­pound many Pales­tini­ans pre­fer. A lit­tle af­ter 4 a.m., the first lamps ap­pear in the win­dows, just for a minute, switched on, then off, as if some­one is look­ing for a lost boot and doesn’t want to wake ev­ery­one in­side.

One of his un­cles comes out to of­fer a cup of cof­fee. “We leave in the dark and re­turn in the dark,” he said. “It’s un­nat­u­ral.” Taweel has a high school diploma and a hand­some face that is hard to read. He’s got hazel eyes, square shoul­ders and an ath­letic build.

He is re­cently mar­ried, and when we see him away from the check­point, with his fam­ily, he doesn’t look anx­ious, but alive with plea­sure. Nine months ago, his wife gave birth to a chubby-cheeked boy they dress in cute lit­tle track suits.

Taweel is skilled at stonework, dry­wall and plas­ter. His com­pe­tence got him a job. But it was his baby that got him his per­mit. Is­rael is closed to Pales­tini­ans with­out travel or work per­mits, ex­cept for res­i­dents of East Jerusalem, who have a special sta­tus. Pales­tinian women over 50 and men over 55 may en­ter for a day with­out a per­mit from the West Bank, if the check­points are open. All Pales­tini­ans liv­ing in Gaza need special per­mis­sion.

Con­struc­tion work­ers from the West Bank who seek per­mits must gen­er­ally be at least 23 years old, mar­ried, and have a child, so Taweel could not get an Is­raeli work per­mit un­til his son was born.

To­day there are more than a hun­dred kinds of per­mits is­sued by the Is­raeli mil­i­tary author­ity for move­ment.

A per­mit to travel or study abroad, pray at the Jerusalem holy sites, visit rel­a­tives, at­tend a wed­ding or fu­neral, get med­i­cal treatment and work on the other side of the sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier.

To get out of Gaza — which is un­der the con­trol of the Is­lamist mil­i­tant move­ment Ha­mas, a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion — is even harder. Is­rael pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 but still main­tains a land, sea and air block­ade with re­stric­tions on travel and trade. No Pales­tini­ans from Gaza com­mute to work in Is­rael.

Taweel’s work per­mit al­lows him to en­ter Is­rael in the early morn­ing, but he must leave by the end of the day.

The Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers as­sume that fam­ily men like Taweel are not only less likely to carry out ter­ror­ist at­tacks, but less likely to com­mit any crimes — such as smug­gling or spend­ing the night in Is­rael — for fear of los­ing their per­mit.

Around 4:20 a.m., Taweel and six co-work­ers walk to the end of their street and pile into a

van for the ride to Bethlehem. Ev­ery­one but the driver im­me­di­ately nods off. Taweel said, “More sleep is a bless­ing.” Head­ing north on two-lane High­way 60, they pass the Pales­tinian town of Saer, home to many con­struc­tion work­ers and also a dozen of the young stab­bers and car-ram­mers in last year’s wave of vi­o­lence, which left 35 Is­raelis dead.

Across the high­way is Kiryat Arba, the Jewish set­tle­ment in­fa­mous as the home to the Amer­i­can-born physi­cian Baruch Gold­stein, who mas­sa­cred 29 Mus­lim wor­shipers with a ma­chine gun at the Cave of the Pa­tri­archs in 1994.

Taweel’s van speeds to­ward a cross­ing called Check­point 300, or Check­point Rachel, be­cause it abuts the Tomb of Rachel, the bib­li­cal ma­tri­arch, a shrine sa­cred to Mus­lims and Chris­tians and con­sid­ered one of the holi­est for Jews.

Check­point 300 passes through Is­rael’s high con­crete walls, tagged with Pales­tinian graf­fiti and Banksy mu­rals, erected dur­ing the sec­ond in­tifada, or up­ris­ing, in the early 2000s, when Pales­tinian sui­cide bombers were tar­get­ing Is­raeli civil­ians.

The cross­ing to­day is the scene of fre­quent clashes be­tween young Pales­tini­ans throw­ing rocks and burn­ing tires, and young Is­raeli sol­diers who fire tear gas, rub­ber-coated bul­lets and live am­mu­ni­tion.

Into the scrum

It’s now al­most 5 a.m. Bethlehem is asleep, only the bak­eries are bright. But as the con­voys of taxis, vans and buses reach the check­point, men stir and rush to­ward Is­rael’s sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier, here a 26-foot-tall ce­ment wall with watch tow­ers.

There are al­ready swelling crowds. It’s a Sun­day, busiest day of the week, with thou­sands of men shov­ing for­ward, squirm­ing un­der flu­o­res­cent bulbs.

Taweel was not ready to risk the crush. He is perched above the en­trance to the check­point on the Bethlehem side, squat­ting on his heels, el­e­vated on the rub­ble of an old stone wall, watch­ing the shov­ing match be­low. “It’s too crazy,” he said. “Let’s wait.” Taweel saw his im­pa­tient un­cles and brothers shoul­der first into the scrum, fol­lowed by his fa­ther. They pushed on the back of the man in front. His fa­ther smiled weakly up at his el­dest son through the bars. Fa­ther and son looked sad.

Later, Taweel ex­plained that they were ashamed that a for­eigner had come to watch such a spec­ta­cle.

A few years ear­lier, Taweel’s fa­ther suf­fered cracked ribs, when he was crushed at the check­point. An un­cle with high blood pres­sure once fainted and had to be res­cued. Dur­ing our visit to the check­point, one man had a heart at­tack and an­other with asthma col­lapsed.

“You never, ever want to fall down,” Taweel warned.

There are now 70,000 Pales­tini­ans work­ing legally in Is­rael, most of them in con­struc­tion, plus an ad­di­tional 30,000 to 50,000 work­ing with­out per­mits, who scram­ble through drainage pipes and scale walls with grap­pling hooks and hand­made lad­ders, to en­ter Is­rael.

There’s no panic this morn­ing. Real panic is rare. But you could see eas­ily how it could hap­pen, like a stam­pede at a rock con­cert or a soccer sta­dium. It looks a lit­tle scary, we said. “It is scary,” Taweel said. There are 13 ma­jor cross­ings that al­low Pales­tini­ans with work per­mits like Taweel’s to en­ter Is­rael. Pales­tini­ans will ar­gue which check­point is the slow­est, fastest, the most crowded, the eas­i­est, with the rud­est or most pro­fes­sional sol­diers or pri­vate se­cu­rity, and the most vile toi­lets.

Some cross­ings have vastly im­proved. But Pales­tini­ans say Check­point 300 is still one of the worst.

Thou­sands of work­ers from all over the south­ern West Bank must squeeze through each morn­ing. There are no real al­ter­na­tives. If you’re from He­bron and work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, it is the straight­est line.

As we watched the crush, the Pales­tini­ans we asked con­jured fan­tas­ti­cal words in Ara­bic to de­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ence to come.

First the work­ers say they’re fun­neled into “cages,” the long barred pas­sage­ways, then jammed into “chicken pluck­ers,” the click­ing turn­stiles. Then they pass through the “aquar­i­ums,” where the bored Is­raeli sol­diers sit be­hind thick bul­let­proof glass, match­ing green IDs to faces.

It doesn’t take a psy­chol­o­gist to see the mean­ings be­hind the metaphors. The Pales­tini­ans say the words all de­scribe an­i­mals in a zoo.

The crowds were thin­ning a bit. The line was mov­ing.

Af­ter about 30 min­utes, Taweel said, “Let’s go.” ‘They do it de­lib­er­ately’

The men are wear­ing work clothes still dirty from the day be­fore. The older ones in coats and the young in hood­ies. They are rugged­look­ing, a lot of them skinny, with hack­ing coughs. They are car­ry­ing ta­ble saws and joint knives.

The men move as a kind of wave, back and forth, two steps for­ward, a step back.

On this side of the sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier, there are no Is­raeli sol­diers or se­cu­rity. No Pales­tinian po­lice ei­ther. The move­ment for­ward is by re­mote con­trol of the Is­raelis watch­ing closed­cir­cuit TV screens. Once into the chute, we stand three shoul­ders abreast, ev­ery part of your body touch­ing some­one or some­thing.

The men smoke cig­a­rettes to the fil­ter, even in the lines. Ven­dors sell pa­per cups of cof­fee, which are passed through the bars. The men joke, flash anger, and check their phones.

The later it gets, the more the work­ers be­gin to push.

As Taweel gets closer to the turn­stiles, Pales­tini­ans are climb­ing over the bars and al­most step­ping on our heads.

The work­ers call them “wall crawlers” and “snakes,” the young who jump over and slither un­der the bars to cut the line. Those who did not cut in lines said the crawlers de­meaned them­selves — and that this was in­ten­tional, that the Is­raelis wanted this to hap­pen. Why else would they let these con­di­tions per­sist year af­ter year, they asked.

When or­di­nary Pales­tinian work­ers at Check­point 300 are asked what it feels like to be “oc­cu­pied,” they use three words, con­sis­tently. Frus­tra­tion. Hu­mil­i­a­tion. Pres­sure.

With the word “pres­sure” they some­times grabbed their chests, mim­ick­ing a heart at­tack, or held their hands to­gether and squeezed, like it felt in the cages.

“I think they do it de­lib­er­ately, to put us in our place,” said Abu Rafat, 51, a stout bar­rel of a man with gray hair, a tile worker.

Be­fore we en­ter the cross­ing, Abu Rafat points at a scrawny man hov­er­ing at the edge of our con­ver­sa­tion. The man is grow­ing anx­ious, keeps look­ing at his mo­bile phone, be­cause if he doesn’t make it through the cross­ing by 7 a.m., his ride to Tel Aviv will leave with­out him and his boss will dock a day’s wages.

“Look at his eyes,” Abu Rafat said. “Does he want to kill him­self ? Or some­body else? You can’t tell.”

We reach the turn­stile. Three men crowd into a space for one. It is locked, then opened, then locked. You can’t see by whom — a dis­tant se­cu­rity of­fi­cer or young sol­dier. “Watch your hands,” some­one shouted. Taweel and oth­ers rush to­ward the aquar­i­ums. They rip off their belts. Their things are scanned. They passed through metal de­tec­tors. They press their thumbs on fin­ger­print read­ers.

If the work­ers don’t make it to their job site, they also lose money be­cause most pay a Pales­tinian bro­ker (who likely pays a cut to an Is­raeli con­trac­tor) 2,000 shekels, or $550, a month in ex­cess “com­mis­sions,” charges that both the work­ers and Is­raeli gov­ern­ment con­sider a bribe.

The work per­mit sys­tem has been con­demned by Is­raeli hu­man rights groups, as well as the Bank of Is­rael, as riven by cor­rup­tion. The Pales­tinian work­ers are as likely to blame their own peo­ple as the Is­raelis.

“Per­mit mil­lion­aires,” one la­borer de­scribed the mid­dle­men. “Scam­mers,” said an­other. “Thieves.” A worker with a bristly beard and hands like sand­pa­per, named Abu Omar, 42, said: “We’ve lost our lead­ers. Our gov­ern­ment doesn’t care.”

He waves to­ward the check­point. “Look at us,” he said. “We’re sheep with­out a shep­herd.”

On the Is­raeli side, Taweel runs to­ward his ride.

He is late for work.


Thou­sands of West Bank Pales­tini­ans do con­struc­tion work in Is­rael. But to reach their jobs each day, they must jam through the chaotic Check­point 300. Says one worker: “You never, ever want to fall down.”

Tarek Al Taweel, 30, above, lives in He­bron in the West Bank with his wife, Iman, and their 9-month old son, Azem. Taweel must wake up as early as 3:30 a.m. to travel to East Jerusalem, where he earns about $68 a day build­ing high-rise apart­ments. Work per­mits al­low some Pales­tini­ans like Taweel — gen­er­ally those who are at least 23 years old, mar­ried, and have a child — to en­ter Is­rael, but they must leave by day’s end. Top, Line jumpers try to dodge the traf­fic jam at Check­point 300 by climb­ing along the bars and squeez­ing un­der bar­ri­ers. They are nick­named “wall crawlers” and “snakes.” At right, a Pales­tinian woman passes a stream of work­ers head­ing to Check­point 300 in Bethlehem.


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