Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Numbers add up

Palestinians have to put up with a lot when it comes to getting from A to B. First there is the separation barrier itself. Then there are the checkpoints and gates at which they have to wait before being allowed to get on with their journey.

But there are other things that make for stress and uncertainty in everyday life. One is the issue of the permit. As well as having to have an ID card, Palestinians have to have permits for getting about – and, apart from making sure you have the right one for that day’s journey, you also have to make sure it is still in date. But what if you have the right permit and having got to the gate or checkpoint, you discover that it is closed? Or what if the soldiers at the checkpoint tell you that your permit isn’t valid that day? A close look at how the system works, and it turns out that rules and regulations change from day to day – with no warning. Palestinians know this.

Thanks to statistics and published reports, international bodies can know this too and make public the abuse of human rights that is entailed. From a detailed study on the matter based on careful analysis, for example, a research team from the World Bank concluded:
‘Permit requirements are rarely published and are highly changeable’.
On the one hand, they reported periods of time when entry through checkpoints was refused to men between the ages of 16 and 35 – which these men only learn about when stopped at the checkpoint by the soldiers. During Israeli public holidays, too, the report documents closures across the West Bank with access to school, family, healthcare, work - all stopped.

For working life this is bad. For family life it’s not much good either. In conversation with people in Tulkarem, we find there is a kind of resigned humour about this. Last Friday two of us got into conversation with Durgam, a shopkeeper. This is what he said.
"We used to go to the hills and make a barbecue. I don’t want to do that now. There are soldiers. There are the settlers. (His voice tailed off, he shrugged and bent down to pick up Fouad, his little boy.) I want my son to play football. I want him to be free. The Israelis make this impossible. Money is not the problem. It’s that we are all nervous. When is it going to end?"
The case for the barrier to be put up in the first place was as a means to protect Israelis from terrorist attack. As the World Bank report recalls, part of the agreement that it should be built was a commitment to maintain usual access for Palestinians to their communities and work. Instead, what their study showed, seven years on, is that today
‘freedom of movement and for Palestinians access within the West Bank is the exception rather than the norm….

One of our jobs as Ecumenical Accompaniers is to listen to experiences like Durgam’s. Another is to stand by checkpoints and gates and write down times and numbers, to send them on for the use of studies like this. Standing by a roadside counting cars and lorries, checking timing and watching soldiers can sometimes seem a futile thing to be doing in the long struggle for peace here in Palestine. The day after talking to Durgam, two of us were doing this counting when we saw two other women, further down the road. We met Hanna and Sara and talked. They are Israeli women, members of Machsom Watch, and have been doing this work for over five years. As the cars and trucks crawled past, Hanna told us how they saw it:
"It's very important, the perseverance. Even if you don't change much. It's a kind of protest against the situation. It's the least we can do."
The numbers add up. Next week, so as not to duplicate scarce resources for doing the counting, we have changed our rota time. Meanwhile, it was good to feel part of a bigger monitoring movement.

World Bank Technical Team (2007) Movement and access restrictions in the West Bank: uncertainty and inefficiency in the Palestine Economy.!OpenDocument.


  1. Thanks Jane. We know the presence of observers can help restrain vicious checkpoint behaviour. This is a helpful and clear account of the ordinary situation - the checkpoint in everyday routine. The media only picks up the major incidents, the babies born - and dying - in checkpoint obduracy. But the hours lost and the overwhelming frustration are another facet of the "situation."

  2. Dear Jane, sorry it's taken me so long to access your excellent blog. Memories came flooding back,and especially poignant was the father & son..all children love the sea too, and see it on TV..only 15 miles away...yet no visas are issued to visit it. something many children talked about when I was in Tulkarem...
    greetings to all contacts ..esp Sadi,Dalbar, Suhair & women in the Refugee camp , Judith