A few weeks ago I spent six hours at the main checkpoint between Israel and Gaza. Here is what I saw.
From the early hours, they arrive – hundreds of workers waiting to cross from the Gaza Strip into Israel.
Erez, the main checkpoint from the Palestinian enclave, has spent much of the past decade underused, with the Jewish state blockading Gaza.
But in the past year Israel has struck a series of informal agreements with the strip’s Islamist rulers Hamas under which that blockade is eased in exchange for relative calm.
The two, who have fought three wars since 2008, are still officially enemies and neither wants to publicise their detente too loudly for fear of backlash from their own publics. But the workers are major, if largely unrecognised, beneficiaries.
In the six hours I waited, between 2,000 and 3,000 workers traversed the checkpoint, along with hundreds of others.
They are organised by visa type. Workers, medical cases, Christian pilgrims, those getting buses straight to Jordan and employees from the Palestinian Authority government all mill around waiting for their group to be called forward.
In recent years Israeli authorities have made major investments at checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, reducing waiting times from an hour to a few minutes in many cases.
But at Erez, with higher levels of security and the increase in numbers still new, the process is often painfully slow. The workers, most of whom are in construction, often waited two hours to cross, with other categories far longer.
Erez from outside – taking photos inside Erez is not encouraged
The workers, all men, form an unruly queue, waiting for red light to turn green and the turnstile to unlock . Each time it does there is a crush, with dozens trying to squeeze into a few spots.
A man in a blue hoodie physically shoves the guy behind him, forcing the crowd back.
Those waiting bemoan the lack of structure. “They need to have a more clear organisation,” one man says to appreciative murmurs. “There is no system.”
Others call favouritism – each group believes another is getting preferential treatment.
“I have been waiting since 8am, shame on you,” a man shouts mid morning.
The workers in the terminal, themselves Palestinians from Gaza, reject the claim.
“I swear to god these three are my nephews,” a gruff-voiced man screams back, pointing to a group of men waiting on chairs nearby.
“It is not in my hands, it’s them,” he says, pointing to a glass box high above.
For an Israeli checkpoint, there is very little interaction with Israelis. Until the very last clearance, the staff are Hebrew-speaking Palestinians — communicating through crackly walkie talkies with unseen Israelis, deciding the Palestinians’ fate in a language they mostly don’t understand.
From the glass box Israeli guards survey the scene. An overweight man in a blue shirt, ill-fitting glasses, a neck badge and sideburns occasionally beckons a Palestinian through. Another with a patchy beard carries an automatic weapon.
The Palestinians mostly wait in vain for the turnstile. A 4-year-old with burn marks and lesions on her head plays with a spare wheelchair, pushing it into the back of the legs of a waiting trader.
Fatima, a middle aged woman with a dark hijab, tripped while walking down stairs two years ago.
Her ankle, she jokes, is now more platinum than bone. Standing around for any length of time causes pain, so hours of it is causing her agony.
“We have been waiting since the morning, they treat us like dogs,” she said.
Suddently a group of Palestinian Authority employees — all ill-fitting suits, ties and balding heads — come through rapidly. They are being prioritised ahead of the medical cases.
“You are going in front of sick children,” one woman yells at the men, who look on unfazed.
Khaled, a young Israeli Arab from Ramle, wears a beige cap that accentuates his angular cheek bones. He brought half a packet of cigarettes but they are finished within the first hour so he has taken to begging.
As group after group are let through ahead of him, he oscillates between cracking jokes and shouting at the perceived injustice.
At one point a rumour breaks out among the traders that turnstile seven is now going to be for them as well, rather than the sick. Dozens rush across, squeezing towards the turnstile and crushing the ill women and children.
“Who sent you here?” the guard shouts at them, forcing them back.
Back at the barrier, Khalid has reached the front. A couple more clanks of the wheel and he will be through. Then a Hebrew voice again crackles the walkie talkies. Change of plan — those travelling to Jordan now actually have priority. Everyone else away from the turnstile.
Something snaps. Khalid begins hammering on the ‘help’ tannoy meant to connect to the Israelis. Again and again he pushes the button. “Keep going until they answer or it breaks,” another man says. No one replies.
(Names have been changed to protect identities)