Borders Roundtable: Sneaking through holes to forbidden paradise in the age of COVID-19

Jawida Mansour

In the Summer of 2020, Security in Context and the Arab Council for the Social Sciences issued a joint call for submissions on "Borders and the State in Light of Covid-19." In the coming days and weeks, we will publish selected works as part of a series on critical approaches to border studies.

It is said that good fences make good neighbors, however, the novel coronavirus proved that a great wall is best of all. New border restrictions and control were added in more than 135 countries immediately after the outbreak. Europe reestablished its internal Schengen area borders for the first time in 25 years, while other countries like Japan walled themselves off completely. It is unlikely that any state would loosen its border control or to suddenly allow a porous border. In the age of COVID-19 when the majority of countries closed their borders, Israel unofficially did the opposite. Despite exclusionary efforts at the beginning of the pandemic, by mid-April many physically fit Palestinians including those who do not possess an adequate permit sneaked through holes in the porous wall and started working in Israel. This article attempts to read the temporary Israeli practices of loosening control of the wall, and its meaning for Palestinian workers who depend on wall crossings for their survival. It draws attention to the ways in which Palestinians were exploited during the novel coronavirus outbreak when Israel increased the permeability of the wall for its own economic gain.  

The Apartheid Wall and construction of fear

In 2002, Israel began the construction of an apartheid wall, promoting it as a 'thickening' of its defenses against Palestinians, who are, for the most part, framed as terrorists by Israeli politicians, military officials, and the broader culture (Gregory 2004). In addition to the wall, there are different types of checkpoints to restrict mobility and territorial access between Palestinian and Israeli-populated areas. According to B’Tselem, there was a network of ninety-six permanent checkpoints in the West Bank by January 2017 operated by both private security companies and the Israeli Defense Forces. This includes fifty-nine internal checkpoints carefully distributed around the West Bank, and thirty-nine checkpoints allocated along the apartheid wall before entering Israeli areas. When presenting border security to certain audiences, Israeli officials use the terms 'border crossings' and 'international terminals' instead of checkpoints (Braverman, 2011). It is claimed that the continual development of checkpoint controls is to professionalize border operations and to make the border a more humane place, or what the Israeli officials term ‘civilized’ to indicate the shift in human management of the borders. At the end of this process of 'civilizing', these borders became more fixed, territorial, bureaucratic and infrastructural (ibid). Nevertheless, Palestinians continue to endure different forms of abuse while crossing these borders; there are many documented cases of broken bones during turnstile passings and sexual and verbal harassment of Palestinian women.  

Some scholars read the Israeli-Palestinian border as an expression of the Zionist ideology of expansion over historic Palestine rather than an act of self-defense ( Sa’di, 2010). However, rather than a colonizer of Palestinian land, Israel’s self-image is of a state constantly under attack and hence, needs to ‘defend’ itself from the 'terrorist' Palestinians ( Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 2015).  

Permits are given to Palestinians to cross the wall mainly for medical treatment and reaching their workplaces and schools. There are approximately 100,000 Palestinian workers officially employed in Israeli areas, 30,000 of whom work in Israeli settlements in the West Bank holding jobs in construction, agriculture, industry and service jobs. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Israeli authorities prevented the majority of those workers from entering Israeli areas, but allowed 'vital sector workers,' mainly in construction, to spend between one and two months in their workplace.

Selective enforcement

Around mid-April many physically fit Palestinian men (including those who do not possess Israeli work permits) began sneaking through holes in the wall, what are locally called 'fathat,’ to work in Israeli construction sites and factories. Policing, smart surveillance, and other security measures around the wall increased dramatically, causing extreme anxiety for the community members residing close to seam zones. Palestinians were increasingly woken at dawn by helicopters flying at a low altitude and loud police alarms chasing after workers in nearby mountains. Anxiety was exacerbated among family members of those attempting to sneak through the holes, praying they reach their workplace without injury or being caught. However, the number of holes increased rapidly in June and July. There are workers who reported stories about Israeli soldiers looking the other way, signaling to those crossers 'we did not see you.' With limited ability to earn a living, many Palestinians who lost their jobs cross the holes to look for employment.

Despite a higher infection rate for Israelis than Palestinians early in the pandemic, many Palestinians chose to take the risk and work in Israel, choosing between dying of coronavirus or starvation. There were many social media accounts shouting out "we have mouths to feed." Crossing the apartheid wall without proper permit is a violation of Israeli state law, so why now would Israeli soldiers blind themselves to such violations?

While attempting to infiltrate through these holes workers endure different forms of human insecurity: fear of capture; bodily injuries such as  fractures of the hands and feet; attack by police dogs and high risk of catching coronavirus without treatment in Israeli hospitals. There are documented cases where Palestinian workers are turned away at checkpoints due to a suspicion of coronavirus infection.  

Furthermore, workers who commute daily through the holes point out the existence of organized gangs or ‘mafias’ whose duty is to supervise the holes, gathering cash from workers in exchange for silence when they initially succeed in escaping the Israeli soldiers. If the worker fails to pay the requested money, he is handed to the security soldiers. Palestinians in seam zones believe that these gangs unofficially do the bidding of the Israeli government to gain from impoverished Palestinians despite Israel's inability to fully control the territories and all the holes in the apartheid wall.

Despite the numerous unilateral measures that are taken by Israel to determine the fate and life of Palestinians, the recent Israel wall-eroding in seam zones and other geographies represent the ways in which Israeli territoriality can vary dramatically across place and time. A reconfiguration of territorial controls in emergency conditions affects not merely a health crisis, but multiple and intertwined challenges of resource depletion, loss of welfare and wellbeing, economic crises and a human security crisis. Salter (2012) asserts that borders have never been simple nor fixed lines, rather they are best understood as disputed and constantly reconfigured areas that become meaningful through practice. In the Palestinian context, Gregory (2004) describes the borders as the “twilight zones” of “mobile frontiers," a cartography of temporariness where “nothing is fixed, nothing is clear." The border became more ambiguous terrain during the age of COVID-19.

Generally, Palestinians cross the checkpoints on foot, which humiliates and strips them of the privileges of modern mobility, indirectly supporting the construction of every Palestinian as "illegal" - as Braverman writes: "who else would cross international borders by foot?" (Braverman ,2011; 9). To avoid further outbreak of the coronavirus, most countries applied restrictive measures on movement, mass gatherings, working hours, for which Israel is no exception; but the easing of wall control reveals something about the temporary shift in the meaning of the border and those who cross it. It is uncertain whether the Palestinian worker who crosses the wall is carrying the virus or not. Unlike other natural and human-made disasters, based on the fact this pandemic unfolds a transnational collective fear. Since the infection is non-selective and may infect anyone, infection is a concern to the general public. Israelis, then, may perceive the "illegal" Palestinians as a threat to their health system: Palestinians might be a potential carrier of a deadly virus, which may escalate Israeli's fears. Although most countries were not ready for this emergency and closed their borders, the Israeli government suddenly became unafraid of Palestinians and loosened its borders for them to enter without any protest from the Israeli themselves.

Andreas (2003) argues that borders are neither eroding nor unchanging but recrafted through ambitious and innovative state efforts to territorially exclude certain groups such as illegal migrants while assuring territorial access for 'desirable' entries. Growing anxiety over undesirable groups has  transformed state border regulatory practices and cross-border relations while blurring the traditional distinctions between external and internal security. Supposedly, Palestinians who sneak through the holes will be considered illegal workers and a threat to Israel's health system, in other words undesirable. According to Horelick (1974), perceptions of security and threats are derived from historical experience, geopolitical, strategic and contextual factors, and are influenced by assumptions about the need for security, defense planning, and state interests. To restart the Israeli economy, the undesirable becomes temporarily desirable and is granted legitimate territorial access; to exploit them economically, Palestinians are not perceived as threats during the coronavirus pandemic.

Go-No-Go and liminality of Palestinian existence

Normally, at a border crossing, there are two alternative states of movement: 'go' or 'no go.' However, for Palestinians at Israeli border crossings, a third state emerges: the liminal movement between the 'go-no-go' stages as a temporary stage, a place in passing (Braverman, 2011). In the current ‘hole’ crossing, we can talk about fourth state: 'go ghost,' when Israeli soldiers pretend not to see workers sneaking through the holes, a state of making the Palestinian body invisible. 'Go ghost' gives a green light to pass while ignoring the presence of the body. Since the Palestinians are not present, they are no longer a threat.

The peak of crossing such holes came at a critical period of Palestine’s contemporary history, in the days when Israeli leadership wavered on implementing the deal which would annex more land from the West Bank and Jordan River Valley. In the past decade, many Palestinians have lost hope in their existing leadership. They are no longer confident in the activities and policies of the Palestinian Authority (PA), even those related to the coronavirus outbreak. With the latest Israeli plan of land annexation, people are questioning the PA’s sovereignty and their role as leaders of the country. State skeptics claim that the PA is a collaborator for announcing closure on the days that Israel planned to annex the rest of the West Bank so that people could not demonstrate and the annexation would go smoothly.  

Although there is a variety of scholarship on the forms of state-nations especially those that conceptualize the PA as indicative of a state in limbo, or a non-state, I believe that the recent relativity of borders in emergency conditions like this pandemic reveals the role of the PA as far more complex than is imagined. More layers of complexity will be added in the coming days when the Palestinian state is redrawn by the deal of the century: a state of bits and pieces linked by bridges and tunnels under Israeli security supervision, lacking sovereignty, and demilitarized.

It is unpredictable when the COVID-19 crisis will stop. Unemployment and  other related socio-economic woes will worsen if the pandemic continues to halt or decelerate economic activities, forcing many more Palestinian workers to risk their lives and sneak though the holes to secure their children's livelihoods. As a consequence, the surveillance, policing and dynamic seam zones will continue their reconfiguration. Redrawing the wall lines affects Palestinian bodies and landscapes and makes out of Palestinian ecologies a testing laboratory of all notions of human and state security both conceptually and on the ground ( Weizman, 2007). With increased vulnerability during COVID-19, it is time to reevaluate the integral concept of human security in the Palestinian context as Palestinian insecurity in all dimensions has tragically increased. The conventional understandings of human security is the ‘freedom from fear and want.' COVID-19 is an ideal opportunity for vulnerability to be exploited, and the Israelis have exploited it economically by turning Palestinians into commodities. The pandemic has shed light on the importance of territoriality as a border-regulating apparatus to govern and influence the lives of Palestinians inside the Palestinian territories transforming all Palestinian ecologies into border zones.



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