At 5am, Palestinians wait at a checkpoint in Bethlehem to work in Jerusalem... and they are the lucky ones. Donald Macintyre reports
It is 5.45am, just a few minutes before sunrise, when the bottleneck at the entrance to the narrow, fenced-in checkpoint path in Bethlehem is at its worst.
There is scuffling when the tempers of the men, many of whom have been up since 3am, begin to fray as they compete to squeeze into the alley to queue for a lengthy series of Israeli security checks of their IDs, work permits, and biometric palm prints.
A sort of order is restored when Mohammed Abed, 48, standing in the queue that snakes back along the grey eight-metre concrete slabs that make up the separation wall, remonstrates. Pressed by the jostling crowd against an older man who by now is wincing and distinctly pale, Mr Abed warns in a loud authoritative voice: "People are coming in without waiting in line."
This is the first stage of a journey that will – just over an hour later if all goes smoothly, but up to three hours (or not at all) if it doesn't – land the Palestinian men in Jerusalem with the highly-prized prospect of a day's hard labour on an Israeli building site, earning between £32 and £40 a day.
Though he will enter the nativity city through the wall at this same Gilo checkpoint during his five-day trip to the Holy Land next week, this is a scene that Pope Benedict will not see. By the time he arrives around 8am, the thousands of workers will have long gone; the food vendors will have packed up their barrows, along with the coffee urns, sesame loaves and tins of tuna – up to 75p cheaper than in Israel – that the men sometimes stop to buy for lunch.
Yet if he came a few hours earlier and saw these 2,000 plus men passing through this pen between 5am and 6.30am (every weekday that the military does not order a security closure), the Pope might learn a lot about day-to-day life in the West Bank. If nothing else, the dawn rush at Gilo testifies to the continued weakness of the Palestinian economy and the privations the men consequently endure to provide for their families.
"This is a struggle," says Azed Attallah, 45, "I don't see my children. They are asleep when I leave and asleep when I get back." Many of the men come from the Bethlehem district, but many others come from across the southern West Bank, piling into taxis in the small hours. Mr Attallah, for example, hails from Yatta and spends around £30 a week on transport to and from the checkpoint; others come from as far afield as Ramadin, a village 70km away.
They start arriving at 3am – some with sheets of cardboard to sleep fitfully on – to be sure of getting through in time to work. To qualify for a permit they have to be over 30, married and with at least one child. Once across the other side of the checkpoint, they wait for a labour contractor, an Israeli employer or simply take a bus, or several buses, to the job itself.
The need not to miss the job invariably prompts several men to jump the queue each day by running up one of the other two parallel "lanes" – there is one for returning workers and another "humanitarian" one dedicated to women, children, the elderly and the sick – and clambering over the fence, through the narrow gap under the roof and into the dense crowd. As one such "parachutist" drops over the fence, another worker explains his urgency by pointing to his own mobile phone which is showing a call from an Israeli contractor asking where he is.
Mr Attallah would very much like to see the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or other Fatah leaders join the queue and see what conditions are like. "As long as there is a wall there will be no economic solution," he says. But beyond that, he adds, "I have no time for politics. I am just trying to live". Mohammed Abed, also from Yatta, says: "We have no alternative. The solution is to provide work in the West Bank."
Relatively speaking, of course, these men are fortunate. First they are allowed to work in Israel, which no one from Gaza and many others from the West Bank can, unless they do so illegally and that is increasingly difficult with the barrier. Unemployment is running at 19 per cent in the West Bank, and at £12 to £14 a day, wages are lower there too.
At the time of the last Papal visit in 2000, there were around 140,000 West Bankers working in Jerusalem. But since the beginning of the second intifada only 26,000 have permits to do so. Timothy Williams of the UN refugee agency UNRWA – which monitors checkpoints like Gilo because 35 per cent of those allowed through are refugees – says that access, or lack of it, is a fundamental cause of humanitarian suffering. "If you have a checkpoint but no permit, or a permit with no checkpoint near you, then you are constrained in your movement," he explains.
But even among those who can move, there is deep resentment at long, crowded daily waits at the Gilo checkpoint. This morning, one, in a parody of the famous line of a Mahmoud Darwish poem "Record that I am an Arab", shouts through the wire fence: "Record that I am an arse." Rawan Khartoush 20, a primary school teacher from Bethlehem who works in a Christian-Muslim Church school in West Jerusalem, is allowed, as a woman, to use the "humanitarian lane". But she says of the men's conditions: "It's very difficult, humiliating. The Palestinians are ruled by the green light and the red light. You can get 200 to 300 waiting for the light to turn green. You can be here for three hours and then told to go back."
Raed Saharna, 33, has a modest proposal: "There should be more crossings and they should open them earlier." Abdul Khadr Abu Ayesh, also 33, who queues daily to work as labour contractor in Jerusalem says that the Israeli employers are "normally good". But of Gilo he says: "I have travelled to many countries and I have never seen anything like this terminal." Isn't it necessary for Israeli security? "Look, the people who use this terminal have permits. They have been vetted by Shin Bet. They are not any threat to security. It is humiliating."
Even Christian Palestinians in the queue seem sceptical about the impact of the Pope's visit next week. "I don't think the Pope will make any difference," says Nicholas Abu Saqer, 44, from Beit Sahour. "He's a religious authority, not a politician. The Israelis will prepare propaganda for him just like they do for other foreign visitors. It won't have any effect."
But Ali Memouni, 50, from Hebron would still like the Pope to see this little-known aspect of Bethlehem next week. "He should get up at 3am and come here like we do."