TULKAREM, West Bank (AFP) – A dust-covered Ibrahim hops off the Israeli transit truck and runs to the new crossing with the West Bank. He stops in front of the swivel gate and anxiously waits for the green light to enter.
“I swear to God. The soldiers were much better than this,” he grumbles at the wait, slinging a plastic bag over his shoulder.
Ever since Israel transferred control of the Shaar Efraim crossing with the West Bank to a private security company earlier this year, Palestinians say the unpleasant procedure has taken a turn for the worse.
“We are held for much longer at the crossing. We arrive at 4:00 am and reach the Israeli side only at 6:30 or 7:00,” says Mahmud from the town of Tulkarem in the northern West Bank.
Shaar Efraim is one of over 20 crossings that Israel’s defence ministry has or is privatising in order to cut expenses and relieve the workload of the army, stretched to the hilt by conflict and the administration of occupation.
With a hefty 250-million-dollar budget, Israel created the Crossings Authority in July 2005 to oversee the privatisation process, looking to transfer all crossings into the West Bank to civilian firms, a senior defence ministry official told AFP.
While the security standards and personnel training at the crossings are supervised by Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, all the workers are employed by private manpower companies, he said.
“There was a need to raise the standard of service at the crossings because soldiers have a high turnover and are not specialised in this task,” the official said.
Army-run crossings are a potent symbol of Israel’s occupation and human rights groups regularly decry the conditions at over 400 roadblocks and checkpoints across the West Bank.
Unlike most of the 33 crossings that separate Israel from the Palestinian territories, this fenced-in compound resembles a hi-tech security facility with clean pavements, a neatly trimmed lawn and playground.
The modern, efficiently-run crossing is designed to improve and streamline the checking process of over 30,000 Palestinians who regularly pass through.
There are no armed security men outside, but once past the electronic entrance gate, a guard in a blue jacket armed with an M-16 stands on a platform overhead as Ibrahim and Mahmud join dozens to queue at the ID control booth.
But despite all, these terminals continue to stick out as a major friction point between the Palestinians and Israel, where security concerns lead to unannounced shutdowns and changes in regulations and passage criteria.
“They check everything. They frisk us, go over our bags and then make us go through the (metal detector) machines,” says Mahmud, a 34-year-old bricklayer.
None of the queuing middle-aged men are ready to reveal their full names, fearing the Israeli authorities might revoke their vital work permits for better paid jobs inside Israel than they can hope to find at home.
“When there were soldiers, it was less stressful and serious. They are making our lives more difficult,” says Ibrahim, who works at a construction site outside Tel Aviv, a 30-minute drive away.
“With the soldiers, we finished with the checks in half the time we do today.”
But a security officer from the crossings authority says that if the process is less pleasant, it is only because checks are more thorough.
“They complain because the checks today are much more stringent than in the past,” he says outside the crossing, on condition of anonymity because he is unauthorised to talk.
“But the conditions are much better than before. The toilets are clean, we have a playground and benches,” he insists.
Two buses carrying parents, wives and children returning home after visiting their relatives held in Israeli prisons, pull up.
A long, noisy queue is quickly formed at the entrance.
Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel’s activities in the Palestinian territories, admits things have not always gone smoothly.
“The crossings are moving from the defence ministry to civilian companies. The Palestinians complained all the time they did not like soldiers checking them,” Dror told AFP.
“The idea was that if the crossings are run by civilians, it will be easier. But I know that there are still hitches.”
Dror says the number of people going through the crossings has risen sharply since Israel began building its controversial West Bank separation barrier, closing many crossings used by jobseekers, but also suicide bombers.
But the new crossings are much more efficient, he insists.
“There are much more people at the crossings, but the security checks are completely different and much more advanced, using electronic systems and smart ID cards. The number of people we have to strip-check has dropped.”