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.