Irtah (Sha'ar Efrayim)
New turnstiles, business as usual. People say we should come on different days of the week.
3:51 The loudspeaker announces that the checkpoint is opening, and the crowd rushes in as usual. The turnstiles only stay open for a few minutes at a time. We get a chance to walk a few meters down the military access road, so that we can see the entrance to the new structure on the Palestinian side: lines, so far quiet, stretch beyond the building. Alongside, improvised stalls sell food and hot drinks.
We pick a man to watch for and go around to the Israeli side.
4:00 Surprising new development: The turnstile, the last obstacle before Palestinians enter Israel, has been moved down the path away from the exit from the building. Still just one working turnstile and a side gate. A second turnstile between them is not usable. A security camera high on the wall presumably allows the staff to decide when to open the side gate. However, we see significant pressure on the turnstile, a crowd collecting behind it, and the gate stays closed.
When we were here last, on Wednesday, there were some preparations for this turnstile. People passing through tell us that the new setup went into effect Thursday. From the new position of the gate we can't look into the building, to see, for example, how many lines are active, or how smoothly people move through. It's like a butterfly's cocoon - a caterpillar enters, a butterfly leaves, but we have no way to observe the process.
The man we were watching for gets through in seven minutes.
4:10 At the entrance to the facility the turnstiles are closed. They open after two minutes. When the gates open, for three minutes or so, 120 to 140 people hurry into the checkpoint. The pattern of opening and closing is quite regular.
Again we see people climbing over the barrier between the lines.
Two men walk slowly back into Palestinian territory. We ask them what happened, and they say their magnetic cards didn't work. They have had this problem before, and the guards made a note of their ID numbers and let them through, but today they were told they need to renew the cards.
4:25 On the Israeli side. A lot of pressure has build up at the turnstile, but the side gate is still shut. Two people we were watching for make it through in seven - eight minutes.
4:40 The turnstiles from Palestinian territory open and close in short bursts - about three minutes opened, the same closed.
4:50 On our way around to the Israeli side a guard stops us and says we're not allowed near the turnstile. We point out that we were just there a few minutes ago, he insists it's not allowed. We ask what the problem is, we couldn't get past the turnstile anyway, and it turns out that they have opened the side gate. This permits smooth exit, but also unauthorized entrance to the building. We promise not to go in, and move on to the side near the exit. Near the gate two staff members await us, and offer to take us through to see where the gate used to be. The old turnstile and gate are gone, the exit from the building is unobstructed; the new turnstile is instead and not in addition.
We had several conversations:
1. With laborers who passed through.
a. Two weeks ago people told us that the real problem isn't on Sundays, but on other days of the week. Today we heard the same thing. Today everything flowed smoothly, other days are worse. This confirms what we saw last Wednesday. One man suggested an explanation: the staff expects us to observe on Sundays, and makes an effort to be efficient. This is flattering to us, but there are other possibilities: there might be a larger staff on Sundays, or the fact that the checkpoint opens at 3:45 instead of at 4:00. We'll have to check on a more varied schedule.
b. A few weeks ago we began to hear complaints about crowding on the way home in the afternoon, and we didn't understand how it could be. Today we learned that there's a new, single turnstile at the end of the return path, which used to have only gates that stood permanently open when the crowds needed to pass through. The new arrangement causes a bottleneck that slows down people trying to get home.
2. With the checkpoint staff (assistant manager and accompanier)
a. Moving the exit turnstile was intended to ease pressure, since there should be two turnstiles, which wouldn't fit in the old location. One wasn't installed correctly and needs to be fixed. The side gate opens as needed, but they don't want us to get into the building.
b. The turnstile at the end of the return route was installed for security reasons (unspecified). The problem arises when workers return home with large purchases or other bundles, which don't fit through the turnstile and hold up the line. That means, in effect, that people's complaints were accurate.