No, this isn't a maximum security prison.
I'm actually joining some 3,000 Palestinians on their morning commute. They are lined up outside of checkpoint 300 between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem (both of which are technically part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories according to the UN, yet they are separated by this massive security barrier).
I arrived with a number of my colleagues who are stationed in Bethlehem and monitor this checkpoint daily. They are here each morning at approximately 4:00 am when the checkpoint is supposed to open.
When we arrived about 3:55, there were already around 500 people lined up, some who arrived as early as 2:30 so that they would be able to get through in time so as to not be late for work.
As Ecumenical Accompaniers, we keep careful records of when the gates actually open, how many people pass through every 30 minutes, how many are sent back and lose their permits, and how long it takes for the checkpoint to let everyone in the line through. All of these statistics vary widely from day to day, depending upon the mood of the soldiers in charge.
On this particular morning, just over 150 people were able to pass through the checkpoint before 5:00 am, to then catch their buses or walk the remainder of their journey to their various places of employment. By 6:00 am, there were still well over 700 people in line with more on their way, waiting to walk through these barred corridors, pass through turnstiles and metal detectors, show their identity cards to soldiers with machine guns , and present valid permits proving they have cause to travel into Jerusalem and Israel.
For me, the checkpoint is a very demoralizing place. Hundreds of grown men, packed in to what feel like cages from the inside, anxious as to whether or not they will make it to their jobs on time. Each morning is different and subject to what my teammates refer to as the "planned unpredictability" of life under occupation. Some mornings (very few), things run according to what is possible. All the metal detectors are open and more than two of the ID booths are staffed. Most of the Palestinian workmen are through and catching their buses by 6:30. More frequently though, there is a wide variation as to when folks are able to reach the other side. Sometimes it is as late as 9:30 before the line has finally dissipated.
It was hard and exceedingly frustrating to witness this checkpoint once. I couldn't help but reflect that for these three thousand workers, this is part of their daily commute. Every single morning that they are able to get a permit to go through to their jobs, they must endure this hours-long trial. It is also hard to fathom that these Palestinians in some ways are the lucky ones. Many of their friends and relatives have no work at all, or have been denied permits to Jerusalem for literally years.
Suddenly, traffic on I-40 doesn't seem quite so bad.