Abu Ibrahim used to leave his West Bank home at 6:30am to get to his job in Israel a half hour away. Today the same journey can take more than four hours.
The 60-year-old construction worker is among hundreds of Palestinians who sleepily gather in the middle of the night to take their place in line at the Makkabim checkpoint along Israel’s controversial West Bank separation barrier.
“I came at three o’clock in the morning and I hope to be allowed to pass at six o’clock,” says Ibrahim, who lives in the Beit Sira village a few hundred meters away from the checkpoint west of Ramallah.
“Every morning it’s the same ... We get here very early and wait for hours for them to open the checkpoint so we can go to work,” says the father of four who has worked in Israel for more than 40 years.
Five years ago, the International Court of Justice issued a non-binding ruling declaring parts of the barrier illegal because they were built inside the occupied West Bank, but Israel has pressed on with its construction.
Israel says the “security barrier” that it began to construct in the wake of the violent Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 has dramatically reduced attacks on Israelis by preventing militants from infiltrating the country.
Palestinians see the barrier as an “apartheid wall” that hampers freedom of movement and carves off Jewish settlements and other lands from their future state, threatening its economic viability.
The controversial barrier consists of more than 400km of walls, fences and barbed wire, with about 300km more being built or planned, according to UN figures, which show 87 percent is located inside the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
The barrier “has had a devastating humanitarian impact on Palestinians,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.
For those Palestinians still allowed to work in Israel, most of them manual laborers, the barrier has imposed a nightly ritual of gathering in the darkness, waiting for hours in line and often enduring shouts and insults from Israeli soldiers before their work day has even begun.
At Makkabim, workers begin arriving as early as 2am from nearby villages — sometimes in the cold and rain — to get a good spot in the long line that forms hours ahead of the 5am opening.
Most of the men work in construction, the women in agriculture.
A sign in Hebrew and Arabic welcomes them to Israel. Another warns them to re-enter the West Bank at the end of the day through the same checkpoint or risk losing the coveted permits that allow them to work in the Jewish state.
To get the authorization, they all had to undergo security checks by the Shin Beth domestic intelligence agency and most of those granted the permits tend to be more than 30 years of age, married and with children.
Waiting for the gates to open, some of the men perform their morning prayers, others sleep on sheets of cardboard or smoke cigarettes. The women stay in groups to the side.
The barrier that was constructed to keep unauthorized Palestinians from entering Israel has not stopped many from crossing illegally.
Hamud, 46, doesn’t want to give his last name for fear of losing the work permit that he finally got 20 days ago.
“Before, I used to sneak in,” he says. “We would go in during the night and would have to pay 3,000 shekels [US$770]” to a smuggler.