Stood squinting into the early morning sun a young Israeli soldier leans against the heavy metal gate that is separating the two of us and sighs. The gate is padlocked closed for what he had described to me earlier as ‘security concerns’. The soldier looks tired, worn down and wanting nothing more than a sit down. Instead he is stood talking to me. I ask him (again) why it is taking so long for the workers to pass through the agricultural gate this morning. He answers me in elaborate, almost performed Arabic, “yaum ‘asal, yaum basal” – “One day honey, one day onions”. He stares at me and meets my eye for as long as the strengthening sun will allow before retreating back to the solitude of the shade.
For the two hours preceding this conversation I had been stood watching frustrated agricultural workers waiting to cross the separation barrier to access their own farmland. The separation barrier is built predominantly through the middle of Palestinian farm land and as such was ruled to be illegal by The International Court of Justice at The Hague (in 2004).
The men are grouped in small circles, one circle lit a small fire out of rubbish and wood they have collected. Others are pacing the width of the road promenading up and down discussing the matters of the world. Others however wait with less patience.
All of the men hand in their permits to one Palestinian who has the unofficial job of keeping the peace and trying to organise what order people will pass in. The men pass in groups of 5 past the first turnstile before entering into a cabin where there papers are checked for what seems like an impossibly long time. One man who was waiting (patiently) nodded to the Palestinian holding the pile of permits and said, ‘He plays cards with those permits. You never know if you will wait 10 minutes or 2 hours”. I asked if there was any favouritism and the man responds, “it is good if we are friends”.
The first few groups of Palestinians emerge from the far side of the checkpoint and go their separate ways to their small plots of land. I look up sporadically to see what the soldiers are doing. There are normally four on duty that I can see (one to check vehicles, 2 to ‘control the crowd’ and one to stand their pointing his gun at people – or this is what I have deduced from previous times). Soldier one (who in previous groups has made an effort to look menacing) is stood in a concrete pillar box resting his chin on his semi-automatic weapon making little effort to keep his eyes open. The second (there to check vehicles) is sitting with feet up on what I have seen in the past used as a second inspection point (which doubles the speed of transit for the workers trying to cross). The final two spend most of their time talking but occasionally tell the men waiting to take a step or two back.
The four soldiers barely look up as a small fist fight breaks out over what I presumed to be a disagreement about who got to pass through the checkpoint next. The soldiers take a couple of steps closer but allow the men waiting to sort themselves out. One of the Palestinians around the fire looks up and sucks air in through his teeth. For the majority of men waiting, they stand patiently looking out at their land to the west. Staring back at them are the soldiers who wait patiently as the minuets left on their shift slip away.
What was notable about this gate monitoring was the lack of anything specific happening. The Palestinians were not tear gassed nor were the soldiers pelted with stones. There was however a low level lack of respect that materialised itself in different forms depending on what side of the locked gate you were stood. There was a understood sub-text that they were not going to make life easy for each other. This is where the power dynamics shine through.
I noticed the Palestinian men would often pretend not to hear the soldiers when they were giving orders or would take a long time to move when they were asked. The response from the soldiers is no less petty but has far more serious repercussions. As I mentioned the power dynamics between the occupied and the occupiers is not equal.
To illustrate, as the workers leave the cabin where there permits are checked the soldiers normally wave on the next group of five men through the turnstile. Today, for no explicable reasons, they waited until the workers were well clear of the gate before allowing others to come forward. This wasted crucial minuets and added to the feeling of frustration.
These small actions (or sometimes lack of actions) meant that at the end of the two hours (the gates opening times) there were over 50 men (and 40 sheep) still waiting to pass when I left the gate at 9:00am. This has serious repercussions on those who do not make it through (loss of income in a desperately poor society). I have monitored this gate many times before and have seen that proactive friendly soldiers can ensure that all men (and animals) pass through without problem and with minimal delay. Today the soldiers did their jobs, but with the minimal possible effort you can imagine.
The tired soldier at the end said that one day is like honey, while another is like onions. He made this comment with a certain fatalistic edge to his voice. What today has taught me is that if some days are like honey while others are like onions as the soldier suggests, then it is because of his choosing. Soldiers (often young conscripts) have an extraordinary amount of power and control over ordinary people’s lives. For the men who have to wake in the early hours of the morning clutching their permits to pass to their own land, days are rarely like honey.