Israel is a small country, about the size of New Jersey. On one hand everything is very close here, including the people. At the same time, however, as in all socities, there are great gaps among the population and some places seem like they are a world away.
I live in Talpiot, a pre-State Jerusalem neighborhood within the pre-1967 borders. Down the main road, past a military checkpoint, Bethlehem is located about six miles away from my house.
Recently, I had a meeting at an ecumenical center located on the road to Bethlehem just at Jerusalem ‘s city limits. The center sits atop a strategic hill covering quite a bit of land next to a military checkpoint that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel proper.
When I arrived, I pulled up to an iron gate which was remotely activated. Sliding open, the gate enabled me to drive between the heavy stone wall surrounding the compound. As I drove in I noticed a patrol of Israeli soldiers standing outside the wall trying to get a glimpse of the property. While it is not unusual to see Israeli soldiers on the streets of Jerusalem, it was unusual enough to see them this far out in full combat gear, for me to notice them. It is not totally unexpected, but it is not something one sees every day.
As I continued up the hill, winding amid a grove of olive trees, I passed some men resting on the side of the road. They appeared to be Arab laborers and had they been a smaller group, I would have thought that they were taking a break from working in the orchard. However, there were several dozen men, many more than was needed to maintain this property.
At the top of the hill, I arrived at the ecumenical center and again, in the parking lot I found more men who appeared to be waiting for something.
One of the men approached me and in Arab-accented Hebrew asked if there were still soldiers below.
Had I entered a sanctuary for fugitives, I wondered. Was I in danger?
I was reminded of the terrorists who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity during Operation Defensive Shield two and a half years ago only a few miles from where I now stood. Over twenty-five militants held about 80 people for five weeks.
When I answered him, the man’s frustration was apparent. I suggested that maybe the soldiers were patrolling due to the heightened security level surrounding the Palestinian Authority elections.
“I don’t care about elections,” he retorted, ” I need to make a living.”
Relieved that I was talking to a man struggling to put food on his table and not a terrorist who was my potential captor, I shrugged, not knowing what to say, feeling somewhat guilty that my country’s government sanctioned such collective punishment which only seemed to me to increase tension and hostility.
Before my meeting began, I asked my hosts about the men. They explained that the army does not enter church property and that there are entrances to the property both from the territories and from Jerusalem, on either side of the checkpoint. As with many other locations along this permeable unofficial border, scores of men cross here each day, avoiding the checkpoints because they are not authorized to work in Israel. The number of men increases whenever Israel closes passage as it had done the week of the Palestinian elections when I was visiting. Usually the men pass freely. On the day I visited, however, the soldiers decided to play a game of cat and mouse, keeping the men penned up on this neutral property.
While the checkpoints do serve a purpose and certainly prevent automobiles loaded with explosives to penetrate Israel’s border, a terrorist with a backpack can easily travel over the hilly countryside as do hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal workers every day. These men, like many Arabs in Israel, are often randomly stopped by soldiers on the street. They are asked for their papers. Other spot inspections happen at work, focussed in areas which have a high percentage of Arab labor, such as garages. These men feel they have little choice. There is no work on the other side of the fence and they are desperate to earn a living.
I sympathize with them. However, I do worry that among the hundreds of honest hard-working men, frustrated victims of collective punishment who at personal risk are earning less than minimum wage just to support their families, there may be a terrorist among them who slips by. One terrorist with a backpack of explosives. One terrorist a few minutes from my house, from my children’s schools. I do worry. The border is not secure.
Two hours after my meeting began I left the ecumenical center. I drove down the hill and out the gate. The soldiers were gone. And so were all of the men.