Irish Actor David Heap’s Glimpse into the West Bank

Irish Actor David Heap was in Palestine earlier this year with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme Palestine/Israel  –  EAPPI is run by the World Council of Churches in response to a call from the heads of …

Irish Actor David Heap was in Palestine earlier this year with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme Palestine/Israel  –  EAPPI is run by the World Council of Churches in response to a call from the heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem for International Human Rights Observers during the second Intifada in 2002.In the past decade over 1,000 people from 20 countries have spent 3 months in one of 7 West Bank locations. They observe and report on Checkpoints, movement restrictions, settler violence and all the other factors that make lives difficult there. The Quakers run EAPPI in the UK and Ireland and administer an exhaustive recruiting, interview and 2 week residential training programme. EAs are not paid a salary, live in shared accommodation and use public transport and local taxis.  Here David Heap gives a welcome glimpse into his experiences as an EAPPI volunteer in the Middle East.

“I had had an interest in the conflict in the Middle East for some time, was studying a module on it in an Open University course and had been thinking of doing some kind of volunteering when I found out about the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme Palestine/Israel (EAPPI)  –

The experience was exhausting, depressing, frustrating and occasionally slightly threatening. But this programme is about maintaining a presence and a continuity in a world which needs it. I am very glad that I did it.

Newsletter 4: A day in the life

“Got up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…”

Only John Lennon didnʼt do it at 3am.

Itʼs Thursday so itʼs Tayʼbe Checkpoint monitoring. Two of us stumble from our apartment to a waiting taxi and after ten minutes drive bump across an unpaved expanse of open ground to the workersʼ checkpoint called Ephraim by the Israeli authorities. From the outside it looks like a large bus terminal, glowing fluorescently in the pre-dawn darkness. But our approach from the Palestinian side is through a gauntlet of food stalls with a rough corrugated roof and muddy earth passageway. Except during Ramadan arabic coffee, fresh pitta and flat bread, falafel, hummus, kebabs and burgers are available alongside phone cards, cigarettes in clear cellophane, tinned food and cold drinks. The atmosphere is noisy and good humoured. My cultural references are the ʻMad Maxʼ movies, the prole market in ʻ1984ʼ and the rough places in ʻBlade Runnerʼ (without the rain). Itʼs already around 25 degrees Celsius and the stream of arriving men and a few women is constant.

After the food stalls they enter a wire fenced-in corridor 3 meters wide that narrows to one a meter wide. Imagine the annoying four way “snake” leading to airport security but instead of the flimsy waist high tapes an enclosed metal cage with a razor wire roof. At the end are three full length metal turnstiles controlled from within the Checkpoint. By 4am there are two hundred people crammed in there waiting for them to open.

These people have ʻworkersʼ permits. Some are day labourers who need to be at the front of the queue so that they can be recruited at the exit by agents with buses ready to take them to construction sites. Some are engineers, accountants, office workers with jobs to go to. The women, we believe, are mainly domestic workers. What they all share is a permit that only allows them to enter Israel for a specified time: a few overnight or for the working week, but most only for the working day. But for them the “working day” starts in the middle of the night and is made up of a shared taxi minibus from home (often up to half an hour away), a wait for the Checkpoint to open, a series of inspections – hand luggage, body scan, handprint scan, permit check, several turnstiles and then a bus journey before they get to their jobs.

Some donʼt make it: a permit has expired, a handprint is rejected, a recent conviction sees entry denied. They struggle back through the crowd and head home.

At the end of the day the process is repeated: although itʼs a lot easier to get into the West Bank than to get out. We count up to 4,000 men and a hundred or so women in the 3 hours we are there. Before the Barrier was built up to 16,000 made the daily journey to work in Israel. The effect on the local economy and individual lives must be huge.

But what worries us from our station outside the ʻcageʼ is that people who have 7am ʻtradersʼ permits start arriving as early as 4.30. It is hard to see the difference between them and those with ʻworkersʼ permits and we suspect that many get them

if they are unable to get the earlier ones. They take up position near the front, some sitting on the ground on flattened cardboard boxes, a few improvising seats with lengths of wood jammed across the corners of the fencing. Soon the space becomes congested and those people with the earlier permits who donʼt need to arrive at opening time have to squeeze through.

By 6am the passageway is virtually jammed solid as the picture above shows. An argument, a misplaced foot or a carelessly handled cigarette could cause a serious incident. Itʼs Ramadan now (from mid-July to mid-August) so although there are no cigarettes nearly everyone has been fasting since daybreak. The lack of food or drink may not affect them yet but most Palestinian men seem to smoke, so moods canʼt be too relaxed. We are trying to get a local Trade Union to send volunteers to regulate the queue.

While we wait for the 7am opening we are constantly harangued by Ahmed, a nine or ten year old who sells coffee in tiny paper cups from a flask that appears (from the taste of the coffee) never to have been washed. His voice is loud, insistent and, with us, very demanding. He persists well past the point of irritation: he manoeuvres to stand a foot away, pretends (badly) to cry and eventually starts tugging at us. i have to tell him firmly to stop. He becomes contrite, apologises and we shake hands with smiles.

At 6.52 the turnstile opens and within minutes the crush has gone. We ease our thumbs from the mechanical counters we use and make our way back. Ahmed tries to get me to buy something from a particular stall. I say ʻnoʼ politely and turn to go. He kicks me in the back of the leg. Friendship may take a bit longer.

I was serving as a Ecumenical Accompanier on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this newsletter are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my sending organisation (QPSW) or the World Council of Churches.

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