It’s 4:30 am with the moon still high in the sky, but Palestinians from across the West Bank are already disembarking from buses outside the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem. They’re about to begin a day’s work on the other side of the separation wall, in Israel.
Qalandia is one of the busiest checkpoints through which Palestinians with the required work documents can travel from the occupied Palestinian territories to Israel. With unemployment around 26 percent in the West Bank (in Gaza, it’s far worse—among the highest in the world, according to the United Nations), it’s always extremely busy at this early hour, because Palestinians need work, which is more readily available in Israel, especially in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture.
Roughly 63,000 Palestinians have Israeli work permits, though it’s estimated that 120,000 Palestinians work for Israelis; 27,000 of them are employed in illegal industrial zones in the West Bank that are operated and owned by Israeli companies, and 30,000 of them work illegally in Israel because they’re unable to obtain the necessary work permits. Permits to work in Israel are routinely revoked for spurious “security” reasons, and Palestinians are rarely given a reason for rejection. Since the so-called “knife intifada” last October, Israel revoked thousands of permits, citing fears of Palestinian terrorism, and the Israeli government is currently discussing a sizable reduction in the tax breaks granted to Palestinian laborers in Israel, which would make a significant dent in their already-meager wages.
In the early hours of the morning, Palestinian men (and only a handful of women) rush to beat the long lines and frequent Israeli closures at the checkpoint entrance. Such activity seems incongruous in the predawn hours, when the stark neon lights of the checkpoint are the only illumination for these harried workers. Many smoke cigarettes as they wait in line; one man wears a T-shirt with the words “Chicken Revolution” on the back.
The warehouse-like checkpoint looks like a cattle pen on the inside: Metal bars on either side and above form a narrow chute, enclosing and herding the workers—many of whom have traveled from villages more than an hour away—toward the point where their documents will be checked by Israeli officials. They then wait on the Israeli side for transport from their employers.