I went to Bethlehem Thursday afternoon, and was held at the checkpoint for TWO HOURS waiting to get INTO the West Bank.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) liaison office in Tel Aviv, which is supposed to coordinate and facilitate access for foreign press, spent all that time negotiating with the Israeli Border police in order to enable my entry.
They did so the previous time I went to Bethlehem, when I was held one-and-a-half hours while trying to get INTO Bethlehem. Then, the IDF liaison office suggested that the next time I go to Bethlehem, I coordinate with them, so this would not happen again.
So, I decided it might be wise to take this advice, and I called and coordinated with the IDF in Tel Aviv, giving them my Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) card number, and my U.S. passport number as well.
The same Border Police figures were on duty this Thursday as the last time. I remembered them, and they remembered me.
You cannot pass.
“Did you get in the last time?”, the man at the gate asked. “Really? You did? I can’t believe it”:
Yes, I replied, I got in the last time, and I am going to get in this time as well.
What was the issue?
It was never explained to me the last time, though an Italian priest with the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church said it was because I was driving a rental car, which the Border Police asserted — completely wrongly, in smug ignorance — did not have insurance to travel to Bethlehem.
As a matter of fact, I have gone with this same rental car at least thirty times into Bethlehem, not to mention the hundreds or perhaps now thousands of times I have been to Ramallah and areas of the West Bank nearer my home. It is leased from one of the East Jerusalem car rental companies who provide, for people like me, cars with two separate insurance policies — one effective in Israel, and one that is in effect for the West Bank.
By contrast, the Israeli car rental companies — including Eldan, Avis, Hertz, and Shlomo Sixt, among others — make their customers sign waivers saying they are aware they are forbidden to drive their cars in the West Bank.
I explained this to olive-green-uniformed types — one, a young woman with a very big black automatic weapon — who were my first interlocutors, and then to several other Police officials in light blue shirts and dark blue trousers.
You don’t understand, the young woman in an olive green uniform with a big black automatic weapon told me, (patronizingly, it must be said): this car can get stolen in Bethlehem.
(Many of these border police officers and even the IDF who operate at other checkpoints have never been on the other side of their checkpoints, and they imagine them as a place of total terror and chaos, not as places where ordinary human beings not too unlike themselves are trying, just trying, to live.)
The Border Police spokesman, Moshe Pinchee — who I had tried to call earlier, at the suggestion of the IDF liaison officer in Tel Aviv, but who told me he was in a meeting and would call me back, but whe didn’t — spoke over my phone to the blue-shirted types at the checkpoint, and then said to me that I got in the last time despite the regulation concerning rental cars, which he said he was previously unaware of. He, the Border Police official in charge of facilitating crossing at Border Police-controlled checkpoints, was unaware of a regulation? What kind of regulation is that?
Are you acting as an agent for the Israeli car rental companies, I asked?
If this is really a regulation, as you are saying, it should be publicly known clearly in advance, accessible for everyone to know well in advance.
It should be painted on a billboard at the checkpoint (say, in English, Arabic and Hebrew – which were all official languages during the British Mandate in Palestine, and English is still the common language here, and is used during all the peace negotiations.)
It could also be put on the internet (in the same languages). It could be printed in brochures and given to car rental companies, and to the Foreign Press Association.
A regulation is not something just pulled out of a hat when somebody pulls up at the head of a long line of hot and nervous people at a checkpoint.
The owner of the car rental company said he would immediately fax the West Bank car insurance certificate to them, if they provided me a fax number. I asked the Border Police at the Bethlehem Checkpoint for a fax number — one, I said, for a fax machine which they would be watching, not an unattended fax machine where the fax would just come in and lie there for hours while I baked outside in the afternoon heat and the burning sun.
Finally, they gave me a fax number. The fax came in. The blue-shirted types came out and discussed the paper.
So, I said, you have the fax. Yes, they replied, but it’s in Arabic, and we can’t understand it.
Arabic is an official language of the State of Israel, I replied. And, I added, you didn’t expect a car insurance certificate for the West Bank to be in Chinese, or even in Hebrew, did you? (I later asked them to give me the fax, and then I saw that while the form itself was in Arabic, all the information — the type of car, year, plate number, date of validity of the insurance, etc. — was entirely in ENGLISH!)
Arabic may be an official language, the IDF liaison officer told me, but people are only required to speak their own language.
What is the West Bank?, said the girl in the olive green uniform with the big black automatic weapon.
What do you mean by the West Bank?, she insisted, in that flat tone of people who don’t speak English very well.
That’s when I lost it. Was her English so deficient? Or, was she making an ideological argument, because she preferred to hear the politically-laden terms used by the religous nationalist settler movement, who call it Judea and Samaria?
What is the West Bank?!?!?!!!!! I began to speak loudly What is this checkpoint??? What is this Wall??? At least we can agree that that, over there, on the other side, is the West Bank!!!!
Then, one of the blue-shirted types with epaulettes with three stars said: She is shouting, she cannot enter.
Pull your car over there (in the full exposure of the sun), he said. This is an order.
I am not going to wait in the hot sun, I said. If you want me to wait, you should bring me some water. I would also like some tea, with sugar.
The three-starred officer laughed, then stopped abruptly. I think you are serious, he said.
I am serious, I said, and you have no respect for people. You have absolutely no respect.
As I drove off looking for a shady spot, I passed an unmarked Border Police post about 150 meters ahead of the checkpoint, where two olive green jeeps were parked. I got a quick glimpse, while driving past, through the door of a corrugated tin walled and roofed room, of three young Palestinian men standing inside, detained, in the full blistering heat.
An hour later, the IDF liaison officer in Tel Aviv said, this is ridiculous. This is more than that, it is stupid.
Another half hour later, he said the order had been given to let me pass. Go to the gate.
I went to the gate, and the guy inside waved his hand at me to go back. “Who said you could go in?”, he asked. The IDF, I replied. Who? he asked, apparently puzzled. THe Israeli Defense Forces. He still looked puzzled. The Army. No flicker of comprehensive. Tsahal, I said, finally. Oh, he said, lifting his eyebrows in surprise.
One of the blue-shirted types, a junior one, who had earlier convinced the Border Police Spokesman that there was actually some kind of regulation prohibiting the entry of rental cars into Bethlehem, came and took my phone. He snapped to attention, and called the Border Police commander at the checkpoint — the one with the three stars on his epaulettes, the one who said I could not enter Bethlehem because I was shouting, the one who told me if I had a complaint I could write about him, and pointed to his nameplate (written only in Hebrew), and the one who told me his name was Hagai Cohen.
It was immediately decided that I could enter, after they noted the license plate number of my car (as they had done the last time, about a month ago…)
The next time, as friends subsequently suggested, I will simply avoid this checkpoint, and go in another way — longer, but much easier.
And this is supposed to be security! It is sometimes also described, to the press, as customer service offered by the checkpoints to the Palestinian population.