What is the Occupation? Report of uninformed testing, involving pumping of unidentified gas into car, without consent, at Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem

This report is presented as part of our series on: What is the Occupation?

At the beginning of January, according to an eyewitness — who was an involuntary participant — Israeli soldiers pulled over selected cars exiting the main Israeli military checkpoint at the northern entrance of Bethlehem, known as Bethlehem 300 [or, sometimes, as the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint, and occasionally as the Gilo Checkpoint though this could be confused with the Tunnel Checkpoint on the eastern side of Bethlehem].

This main Bethlehem Checkpoint is the one used by all the tourist buses passing into Bethlehem for a quick visit to Christian holy sites, including the important Church of the Nativity, where it is believed that Jesus was born.

This main Bethlehem Checkpoint is run by the Israeli Border Police, and not directly by the Israel Army [IDF]. Even though the Border Police are hierarchically part of the Israeli Army, they act with great and sometime stubborn independence.

Though the other cars selected for this special procedure are described by the eyewitness as being “all Palestinian”, the rest of the description [according to the written account, see below, and to the photos accompanying it] tells us that, almost by definition — because the cars selected were either entering or exiting Bethlehem into “Israel” [in quotation marks, as this checkpoint is still at a point identifiably within the West Bank, as defined by the 1949 UN-negotiated Armistice Lines], these cars thus had to all have yellow Israeli license plates …

And the drivers + any passengers had to have permission, in one form or another, to enter Israel and the Israeli-controlled West Bank [this would mainly mean, either by being Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, or Palestinian/Arab citizens of Israel, or by being foreign passport holders with valid entry visas for Israel + implicitly including the West Bank].

Jewish residents of Israel are not allowed to enter Area A — major Palestinian cities including Bethlehem — without prior “coordination” with the Israeli military and without signing a release saying that the military will not be responsible for any violence that may befall them, on pain of a 5000 NIS shekel fine, approximately $1350.00 dollars. This is one of the many stated purposes for the Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank.

Nevertheless, cars were selected on an apparently random basis, without any information being given as to how or why, and then subjected to an un-informed procedure — possibly a test or experiment — which apparently involved the pumping of some sort of [still-unidentified] chemical in gas form into the passenger cabin of their cars while they waited outside. An Israeli officer timed the procedure with a stopwatch, and after ten minutes told those waiting to get into their cars and drive off — again without giving any information.

It is a disturbing and alarming story, and it is impossible to imagine that Jewish Israeli drivers would have allowed any such thing to happen to them.

It is so creepy, in fact, that it is impossible to imagine drivers in any other place in the world allowing uniformed and armed authorities to pump an unidentified gas into their car for some 10 minutes, without any explanation other than it was “for security”.

Elsewhere in the world, this would have been met with protest, if not outright refusal. And there would be calls for an investigation. In most places, people would probably simply refuse to be treated like this..

But, these participants did not refuse — it is not clear what might have happened if they had asked questions, or if they had objected, or if they had insisted on leaving without participating.

But, they did not refuse this unexplained injection of an unidentified gas into their car as a new, additional and quite unusual condition for entry either into Bethlehem or into “Israel” and/or “Jerusalem” [“Jerusalem” is also in quotation marks here because of the Israeli lack of clarity about what, exactly, they consider to be their current delineation of “Jerusalem”].

It is almost certain they people whose cars were selected did not refuse because they were told it was “for security”.

Israeli security demands cannot be refused without consequences that can be quite severe. And, Palestinians are now quite used to being required to obey, well aware of the possible consequences of their refusal.

At the very least, a refusal would have meant a big inconvenience, possibly a very long delay lasting many hours…

It is probably worth noting that this chemical gas spraying inside cars reportedly entering/leaving Bethlehem did occur during the middle of the Palestinian Christmas celebrations — which stretch from 25 December, which is an official national holiday in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority control, to the Greek Orthodox Christmas on 6 January.

This story, which has been brought to the attention of the Right to Enter Campaign [formed to defend the interests of foreign passport holders wishing to enter and live in Palestine] is published on a blog whose author now wishes to be anonymous. The blog post is dated 2 January.

Here is an excerpt from the blog post, as published:

    “As I approach the checkpoint, I roll down my window and flash my passport.

    In Hebrew, I am told to go straight and up the hill – not the usual left to exit the checkpoint. It is amazing what can all be communicated with a single point of a finger and a grunt. It seems that the mere presence of an M16 can help in understanding foreign languages.

    As I drive to the designated area, there are soldiers pointing myself and 5 other cars (all Palestinian) towards selected parking spots. Every spot has an apparatus next to it, which looks like a giant IV that you would find in a hospital. I am told to get out of my vehicle with all my windows shut, except the driver window, which should be 5 cm. open.

    I get out of my vehicle and stand next to the Palestinians who have also had to abandon their cars. Soldiers wander around the cars, one with a stopwatch. It is obviously a drill of some kind. With complete disregard for our schedules or impending meetings, the soldiers are taking the opportunity to practice and test Practice on a population without any kind of consent, but that does not seem to matter. Consent is never asked or required from a people under occupation. They are the occupied and at the whims of their occupiers.

    From the IV apparatus next to our parked cars, soldiers put a hose into our driver side window. It reminds of movies where the someone tries to commit suicide by filling their car with exhaust. Some of the people ask the soldiers what they are doing. Their response is, that it is for security and that it is fine. There is no comment as to what or why they are spraying some sort of chemical into our vehicles.

    After 10 minutes the soldier with the stopwatch stops his clock. The hoses are removed from our cars and we are allowed to continue onwards to Jerusalem. We are permitted to go on with our day. We are permitted to go on living.

    Yet the smell from the gas still lingering in my car is assaulting. Even though it is cold outside, I drive with my windows down. Unfortunately nothing will stop my impending headache. For the next four days, whenever I drive my car I have a headache”. This report is posted here.

Though the person who wrote this blog post was asked for more clarification, she has not replied.

So, it is not known if this chemical spraying continued at any other time, either before or after this reported incident. Apparently there were not follow-up contacts by the person who described this incident, with any of the other participants present. This person did not, apparently, undergo any subsequent medical checks, nor did she have any chemical testing done on the interior of her car. Nor did she report it, or make a formal complaint, to any Palestinian or Israeli authorities — despite the Israeli Border Police responsibility at this checkpoint.

An Israeli journalist who tried to follow up by contact was informed by the IDF that the questions should be put to the Israeli Border Police. The journalist said she interpreted this to mean that the IDF considers this Bethlehem 300 Checkpoint to be in “Jerusalem” [in quotation marks here because exactly how the borders of “Jerusalem” are delineated by Israeli authorities varies from time to time, and also from official to official…]

Yet, showing the inconsistency and even illogic of the varying Israeli definitions, the Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was convicted of publishing state secrets and released — with restrictive conditions on his contacts and movement — after serving 18 years in jail [12 years in solitary], was then rearrested on Christmas Eve in 2004 before trying to enter Bethlehem for Christian services. He recently served a number of months in jail after being accused of attempting to “enter another country” in violation of the restrictions on his movement — even though Vanunu he was stopped by the Israeli Border Police and arrested, which prevented him from committing this alleged violation…

It is also true that, if the UN’s 1947 partition plan, contained in UN General Assembly resolution 181, had been accepted and implemented — but it has not been implemented, and has in fact now been abandoned to the archives — the Bethlehem 300 Checkpoint, and Bethlehem itself, would have become part of an internationally-administered “Jerusalem”…

This reported procedure, as described, is reminiscent of a number of horrible things. The person who experienced this suggests one or two in the original blog post. There are also others.

It could possibly be a new way to measure from the air composition inside the car whether or not explosives were recently [or, ever] transported in that vehicle.

Apparently, according to an update received by Right To Enter on Thursday, a sample of the air inside the car is part of the “IV-like” device described, and the driver + passengers are required to wait a few minutes beyond the 10-minute gas pumping timte as that sample is taken off to a nearby building [for testing]…

UPDATE: The Right to Enter Campaign published an alert Wednesday on this report it received on Monday, and noted that “Upon some preliminary research, which is still ongoing, it seems the hose may have been a vacuum to suck the air out of the car’s interior”.

It could conceivably be benign — but there is absolutely no way of knowing, without an official and responsible explanation, which should responsibly be given ASAP.

In the absence of any information or explanation, it is normal to have concerns, suspicions, and fears. These need to be addressed — by all parties concerned — in very short order.

UPDATE: Haaretz’s Ramallah-based correspondent Amira Hass reported today that:

    “Israel Police have begun implementing a new method of searching Palestinian vehicles through use of nausea-inducing chemicals at a Bethlehem checkpoint, international aid workers have reported. Since December, Israeli police officers have introduced what they call a sophisticated method of tracking explosive materials … Cars traveling to Jerusalem are often asked by Border Police soldiers to park their car in a side lot with eight parking spaces near the checkpoint. Once parked, the passengers are asked to roll up all windows, apart from that of the driver – and exit the vehicle. Two tubes are then connected to the vehicle – one is connected to an air pump, the other, which passes through a tiny filter, is attached to the vehicle. A policeman with a stopwatch flicks the air pump switch. According to Palestinians, police officers who carried out the search refused to describe the procedure. An official in the Israel Police told Haaretz that it is an approved procedure, and another police source said there is no use of any chemicals, but would not expand on the new search method. A foreign resident who works at an international organization and must pass through the checkpoint several times a week told Haaretz that the tube is left connected for approximately 10 minutes. Afterward, the filter is removed and taken to a nearby building. The worker says she was under the impression that some kind of chemical was disseminated into the vehicle, as she and another passenger began feeling nauseous and suffered from headaches several days afterwards. The worker has informed her country’s embassy. However, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, whose car also underwent the same procedure, told Haaretz that he did not feel a thing, and that the police officers added that it was ‘only oxygen’ being pumped into the vehicle. Israel Police officially responded to the inquiry by saying that ‘as the force entrusted to protect the country’s citizens and their quality of life, it must conduct arbitrary, rudimentary checks through use of sophisticated technological means, all the while alleviating the experience of those being checked’.”

There is a short [12 second] video of this new procedure on the web page. Amira Hass’ article is posted on the Haaretz website here.

What this story does illustrate, rather well, is the indisputable and casual ease with which Palestinians and others are subjected to measures under Israeli’s military occupation which disrupt or change or otherwise affect their lives, almost always adversely, without the minimum courtesy or respect. The subjects were not allowed to give informed consent, and no information has been delivered to the public with transparent fairness. And, justified fears are not addressed — instead, they are utterly disregarded, or dismissed.

This is one of the main characteristics of the Israeli military occupation, which has now lasted nearly 45 years…