BETHLEHEM CHECKPOINT (IPS) – It's 5 a.m. The late autumn dawn is about to break. But for 3,500 Palestinian workers, a hard day's work began hours ago.
Young and old men push and shove their way out through the narrow lane, barely a meter wide, bars of iron rising above them on either side. Over their heads sits a corrugated steel roof.
Palestinian schoolchildren stop at a West Bank checkpoint.
"Being in jail is easier!" cries out one man angrily. He's a builder from Hebron. "Donkeys are made to stand like this! Even cattle are not hemmed in like this."
"They have no respect for us. We're human beings, not animals!" adds another, an electrician whose home is in Bethlehem. "No human being should be put behind bars like this. It's not right!" They choose not to give their names.
The Palestinians grasp the bars, not just for fear of being trampled, but to keep their place in line. "I've got to be at work at seven, not at eight or ten! When I'm late, my Israeli boss tells me, 'You can go home, I don't need you'."
This is the Israeli occupation writ small, the nitty-gritty battles to survive the Occupation in a single lane.
All for the prospect of earning from 200 plus shekels (roughly 50 dollars) a day. Some have been stuck here from as early as 3 a.m. And, they must pay for their own food and transportation to and from their jobs inside Israel (60-80 shekels.)
One after the other, minibuses arrive at the checkpoint adjacent to Israel's eight-meter high concrete security wall. The workers scramble out, and scramble for position in the lane; the minibuses head off to pick up more workers in towns and villages across the southern West Bank.
The checkpoint – "crossing-point" as the Israeli euphemism has it – is on the seam that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
The two holy cities are within walking distance from one another. It's been five years that Palestinians in the two cities have been cut off from each other, divided by a maze of security walls and watch towers … and by the unholy lane.
The checkpoint at the end of the lane is like a border terminal. But there is no agreed border between Israel and the Palestinian state-to-be.
To enter Jerusalem, every Palestinian from the West Bank, not just laborers, must pass through the lane, then present a permit they have been issued by the Israeli military authorities.
It's called "commuting" for these workers. But it's far worse than a nerve-wracking traffic jam. "We're moving along at just ten meters an hour," says one man gloomily.
Humanitarian workers, three Australian women from the World Council of Churches, are helpless. From the other side of the bars shadowing the lane, Aimee Kent says, "On a good day, the rush will finish by 6:30; on a slow day or a difficult day, the crush will go on until eight."
Alongside the "security" lane, there's a "humanitarian lane," reserved for Palestinian women, children, the ill and the handicapped. It's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week – at least in principle. Now it's empty.
"The humanitarian lane has been closed since four this morning and it's now past six. It's not normal, not safe for the women to be in the security lane, but what option do they have," says Kent.
The Israel police who run the checkpoint insist that the humanitarian lane is in fact open, but they say they're compelled to keep it closed once the security lane is full to the brim. They can't handle the extra congestion, they say.
Often, the workers have to wait two to three hours just to get through the electronic gate that leads into the checkpoint terminal. There they have to undergo a thorough security check. That entails another 30 to 40 minutes while their ID cards are checked and they go through scanning procedures.
"If they give us permits, why do they need to create all these extra complications," complains a young Palestinian woman, anxious to get through in time to prepare breakfast at the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem where she's employed as a cook.
The head of the Israeli checkpoint, chief superintendent Shmuel Barak, states the Israeli position blandly: "The work permit allows the holder to enter Jerusalem from 5 a.m. If they decide to come earlier, it's their decision. We're not responsible for that. Our job is to maintain security for Jerusalem and for the State of Israel."
Moshe Pinchi, spokesman for the border police, is keen to put a human face on the whole procedure: "We're trying our best to maintain the delicate balance between our security needs and enabling Palestinians with permits to work inside Israel and to live a normal life. The wave of terror which swept Israel from the West Bank during the Intifada uprising imposed this situation upon us. Now, we stop terror at these gates."
The police insist that knives, explosives, and weapons are often uncovered during the draconian security checks.
Yet, what Israeli officials acknowledge is that the relative calm of recent years is also due to the success of the Palestinian Authority in bringing a measure of security and good governance to the West Bank.
In the absence, however, of tangible moves towards peace between Israel and the PA, nowhere does the economic development that has improved conditions in the West Bank seem further away than here, in face of the thousands of Palestinians desperate to work in Israel, willing to endure the daily hardship of getting through to their job inside Israel or inside Israeli- occupied East Jerusalem.
A middle-aged man from Bethlehem who teaches in a Palestinian school in East Jerusalem describes the harrowing scene: "Welcome world to see our situation! This is not a checkpoint; it's a humiliation of the Palestinian people! I am a human being. All the people here are human beings. But the Israelis trap us like animals! For them Palestinians are simply animals or terrorists! But no," he adds sarcastically, "No, the Israelis, they want peace! What a joke!"
The moment anyone gets through the elaborate checking procedure, another rush is on — for another minibus that will dispatch them to their workplace.
Running for freedom remains a forlorn dream for Palestinians. For now, they're just running for their livelihood.