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Bethlehem Nightshift: A Microcosm of the Occupied Workforce

February 10, 2014 at 10:06 am


The story of long queues of Palestinian workers trying to pass through Israeli checkpoints to reach work on the other side of the Apartheid Wall has been well documented, but within this wider story there are also other important elements which are often overlooked. Palestinian workers have become a captive workforce. Irrespective of whether they are amongst the few who are able to pass the Wall or not, their livelihoods are shaped in various ways by the occupation. With more than 60% of the West Bank classified as ‘Area C’ in the Oslo Accords (under full Israeli control) and therefore unable to be developed for Palestinian labour or industry, Palestinians living with the 1967-occupied lands are left to search for work within their many disjointed bantustans.

One microcosm of this environment is a few hundred square metres of northern Bethlehem where various workers play out the ‘Bethlehem Nightshift’. Some of those involved such as Palestinian labourers hold Israeli-issued permits to pass the Apartheid Wall, whilst many others including taxi drivers, coffee sellers and stall holders, do not.

From as early as 2am vendors begin to arrive at Bethlehem checkpoint to set up makeshift stalls offering snacks and cigarettes to the workers who will attempt to pass through the checkpoint over the course of the night. Others heat gas to prepare and sell hot coffee. Standing for hours in freezing winter conditions, this micro-economy is also a result of the occupation – these vendors are unable to support their families through alternate means given the dire economic situation. Every checkpoint in the country through which Palestinians must walk has vendors offering something for sale.

Youth from as far away as Hebron are amongst those who stand with flasks of hot coffee around the checkpoint every morning, with each cup sold for just one shekel. These youth have moved away from their family homes to stay with friends in Bethlehem refugee camps in their search for work.

Most Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are unable to obtain the required permits from the Israeli authorities to pass the Wall. Only those few who have obtained permits in advance attempt to pass the checkpoint and the length of the queues in which they stand vary from day to day. Fluctuating permits as well as weather play their role in this fact, but some workers simply stay away from their families for longer periods of time rather than risk losing their jobs because of being held up at the checkpoint everyday. These people pass the Wall at the start of the week and stay near their workplace until the end of the week. Subsequently, weekdays can sometimes see slightly smaller queues of workers than Sunday mornings.

This photo-essay looks at some of the people involved in the ‘Bethlehem Nightshift’ – one story among many about the occupied Palestinian workforce, and a side of Bethlehem that few of the thousands of tourists who will visit the city this Christmas will ever see.

MEMO photographer: Rich Wiles

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