Commuting from the West Bank
By Ammar Awad
There are two ways for Palestinian workers to cross into Israel every day. Those with work permits can pass through a military checkpoint. Those without a permit have to find a way through the controversial Israeli barrier, and sneak across the border. Both ways are time consuming. Neither is pleasant.
“I have no other choice,” said Tayser Sherif Abu Khader, a 57-year-old Palestinian from Qalqiliya who for two decades has been making the commute. “If I don’t work in Israel, I will die from hunger.” I met Abu Khader in line with hundreds of other Palestinians who were waiting to cross through the Eyal checkpoint in the northern West Bank. He told me that about 7,000 Palestinians cross daily through the checkpoint. He had gotten there before dawn to make sure he would be at the front of the line and make it to his job on time. You can never tell how long the wait will be, he said. There are fingerprint scans, x-ray machines for their bags, and sometimes workers are delayed for additional questioning. But the hassle is, at the end of the day, worth it. The work opportunities are better in Israel than in the West Bank, where the economy is struggling.
Abu Khader works in construction in the area of Tel Aviv and was one of the few willing to talk to me. He is considered one of the veterans of the group and is in charge of a small group of volunteers who every morning make sure people stay in line. It is common for workers to try to cut the line, and that could quickly cause a scuffle. When things go well, Abu Khader returns home at night with 300 shekels. That’s at least four times the average salary in the West Bank, Abu Khader said. But if there are delays, or if for some reason he misses his ride to the construction site, he loses a day’s pay.
“I’m already thinking about how we will suffer at the checkpoint tomorrow,” Abu Khader said upon passing through after nearly two hours. Once in Israel, some of the workers lay down outside to catch up on sleep before their rides came.
Abu Kader recalled it wasn’t always such an unpleasant experience. The situation became difficult during the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, about 10 years ago. Palestinian suicide bombers coming from the West Bank were carrying out deadly attacks in Israeli cities. The Israeli army went on an offensive against militant groups in the occupied territory and Israel built a separation barrier. “Before the intifada and the separation wall, we could easily go and work in Israel and make a good living,” Abu Khader said.
The barrier that snakes through the West Bank is made up of mostly fences and some cement walls. It is the primary hurdle for the more than 30,000 thousand Palestinian laborers, who work illegally in Israel, and crossing it comes with different risks.
I went to the central bus station in Hebron, the biggest city in the West Bank, and found a smuggling network that helps the workers cross over. As expected, they were hostile to a journalist and, in some cases, aggressive and asking me to leave.
One person, however, agreed to let me ride in his pick-up truck. I piled in with seven workers in the back and four more up front. Forty minutes after leaving the central station, we arrived at a hilly, desert area regularly used for such crossings. The passengers in the trucks grew visibly anxious. Only one of them spoke to me. He gave me a fake name, Muhammed, and said he is 29 years old. He came from a village near Hebron and had worked illegally in construction in the area of Tel Aviv for the past five years.
“From the moment we leave the bus station until I arrive at my job, I am scared,” he told me. He was scared of being turned back, of being arrested, and even being shot. Workers without permits, he said, make 100 shekels less each day than legal workers.
We drove along the fence to a section that had been cut open earlier by smugglers, but were met by an Israeli patrol. The soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at our truck, but the patrol did not give chase and we sped off to another spot. Our driver was coordinating with a second truck on the Israeli side to arrive at the crossing point together. We stopped about 30 yards from a second large gap in the metal wire fence. The workers jumped from the truck and sprinted for the border. I followed to the fence, but did not cross through with them. On the other side, the group ran a few yards to a pick-up that was waiting.
At that moment another Israeli army patrol pulled up and grabbed three of the bunch – one woman and two men – who did not run fast enough. Those three were taken into the army jeep, and depending on whether they had been caught before, were either sent home or arrested. The rest drove off in the direction of the city Beersheba.