Wait… You’re at the Occupied Ramallah District Coordination Office!

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – It was almost 9:00 am on a Sunday morning. Outside, three cars with Palestinian license plates lined up in front of a prison-like-compound: iron gates, soldiers armed to the teeth and barbed wire over pale concrete walls… This is the Ramallah District Coordination Office, located in the Israeli settlement of Beit El, occupying Palestinians’ lands northeast of Ramallah.

Israeli military orders confiscating Palestinian lands for “security” reasons (Photo by: Rania Zabaneh)

In the waiting room, a round faced Israeli soldier sat behind thick glass. Maayan, was her name. A bulletin board detailing the ever-changing required documents for various applications hung on the wall, next to military orders with plot numbers of confiscated Palestinian lands. And on wooden benches scattered around the room, three Palestinians sat waiting  for instructions to approach a small window where they would receive numbers to get into the next room. There, they need to wait once again before applying for Israeli permits to enter their lands, pray or receive medical treatment.

Like some 40 percent of Palestinian workers inside Israel, he used to sneak into the Green Line for work without a permit – until he got arrested and deported by the Israeli police almost two years ago. He is being trialed inside Israel for illegal entry and is in the District Coordination Office to apply for a permit in order to attend another session of his trial. Sufian fears missing the session would cost him a bail of $1,300 and time in prison.

“Come to the window,” finally Maayan called with the familiar Hebrew accent. Another Palestinian approached. He passed his ID through a little opening beneath the double glass window and explained that he’s here on the request of the Shabak – the Israeli counterintelligence and internal security service. Maayan took his ID and disappeared.

Sufian went on with his story… This is not the first time he’s been charged by an Israeli court of illegal entry. In 2005, he was detained and had to sign a pledge that he won’t enter Israel without a permit. He said he was sentenced to three years in prison with suspension, and spent three months behind Israeli bars.

“It’s hard to make a living,” Sufian said. Although he works for nearly two thirds of an Israeli worker’s salary, he’s not granted half his rights. His chances of getting a job in the construction sector in the West Bank are limited, he added.

On the opposite side, a Palestinian in his forties kept on peaking to see if someone approaches the window. An hour passed, and Maayan didn’t show up.

Palestinians waiting their turn at the window (Photo by: Rania Zabaneh)

More Palestinians came in. The room got crowded by young men smoking cigarettes, older men kicking the floor with boredom, younger women checking their watches and older ones in traditional gowns. Some of the older women soon left the place, they came to send money to their beloved ones in Israeli prisons, but soon found out they are at the wrong place… Since most of the Israeli soldiers in the District Coordination Office don’t speak Arabic and often not even English, Sufian volunteered to translate to and from Hebrew. “It’s not here,” he told some of the women asking about the postal services. “You need to go to the DCO opposite to the City Inn, where confrontations took place,” being an “expert” because of his frequent presence in the Coordination Office, he added.

At last, Maayan came back. The man in his forties jumped to the window in an attempt to make use of her minimal presence behind her desk, but she quickly asked about “Achmed, for the Shabak”! She sat in front of the computer screen typing numbers on the keyboard without paying attention to the line outside her window. Again, Sufian volunteered to translate, hoping to get some attention. He explained to her that the Palestinian is a businessman who got tens of permits before. A year ago, he said, all his requests for one were revoked. “He’s here just to know why,” Sufian said. Maayan rejected to answer his inquiry and screamed “sit on the chair,” before disappearing again!

It’s past 11:00 am. A shadow passed close to the window, everyone jumped to take a turn. Another soldier came in, with a pile of papers and IDs. Hands flew showing filled permit requests to the young soldier behind the window. “I came in before, this is ridiculous, I’ve been waiting here forever…” a cacophony of voices filled the space and behind the window the Israeli soldier stared in the IDs pile. “Who’s in for the Shabak?,” he said before the voices got louder, until he screamed: “one by one on the window!”

The soldier read four names of men with rather worried faces. Soon, he opened the door for them to get into the other room… They have been summoned for an appointment with the Israeli counterintelligence and internal security service.

How many dreams evaporate in this small place! Someone came in to utilize a one day permit to walk the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, only to be failed by long waiting hours. Another came in asking the Shabak for an interview that is stressing others… A woman got sore feet of running from one place to another, she explained. For weeks now, she’s been trying to change her home address from east of the Separation Wall to its west.  For that, she needs a permit and in a distance another Palestinian took it out on a soldier: “We have a life too,” he yelled, “…when we’re not waiting!”

NOTE: An Arabic version of this story was published in Shabab Assafir on 6 Oct. 2010.

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