“Once I fell and broke my legs,” says one of the hundreds of workers who cross Israel’s wall in the West Bank each week. “Their dogs nailed me to the ground and I had to wait for the army to come.”
According to artist and director Khaled Jarrar, between 200 and 400 workers climb over, jump off, tunnel under or find ways around the wall each weeknight, with the number rising to perhaps 1,000 per night on weekends. With real work hard to come by in the occupied West Bank, these men and women risk imprisonment, injury and death to reach “illegal” jobs in Israel.
Jarrar’s new film, Infiltrators, is a glimpse into this world. Using footage accumulated over four years — time which, among other things, he spent gaining the trust of professional people-smugglers — Jarrar shows the myriad ways that Palestinians evade Israeli security.
The majority are the groups of dozens or even hundreds of men who follow well-established routes to find work. The professionals who organize these groups have Israeli collaborators who watch for soldiers and police on their side of the wall, and pick up the men, usually taking them to construction sites as cheap labor. One worker says that he has been following this way of life for five years, coming back and forth to visit his family.
The opening sequence of the film follows a group of these men. With the microphone in Jarrar’s pocket as they run through scrubby brush-land in the dark, it’s an intense beginning, everyone on the lookout for soldiers and the tension palpable. Beyond the wall, the lights of a nearby town shine like some kind of promised land.
In other sequences, we see men who have spent days dodging from one village to another along stretches of the wall, trying to find a location without military jeeps or border guards. “We spend all our money while we’re waiting,” says one. “We’re only workers.”
Another man, his voice breaking in the darkness, talks about a laborer killed the previous week when he was hit by a car while dashing across one of the major roads which often run alongside the wall. “They wouldn’t let him into Israel for treatment,” his companion recalls, “so he died there on the spot.”
Some — including cancer patients — are trying to cross so that they can reach specialist medical care and have been denied permits by the Israeli authorities. Some are trying to visit family. Many want to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, something that is now denied to most West Bank Muslims.
“The Aqsa is lost and the Arab countries do nothing,” shouts one woman. She and a group of friends — two of them women in long dresses and headscarves — have spent a whole day, from dawn, waiting by the wall. Eventually they give up and go back to their village.
The non-workers tend to be less organized, trying to find taxi drivers at Qalandiya or other checkpoints who, they hope, can find them a way through. Sometimes they get ripped off, charged high prices and then left at remote points with vague directions on what to do.
A certain comic levity comes from a group of four friends who also want to pray in Jerusalem. Scenes of them trudging along the wall carrying iron bedframes to use as ladders intersperse the film. Despite their frustrated ineptness and the likelihood that they will never make their goal, their senses of humor seem to remain intact. “We’ll be live on Al Jazeera,” one says, when spotting Jarrar’s camera.
In another scene — one which Jarrar says he stumbled over by accident — a boy squeezes length after length of ka’ek (long loops of sesame-coated bread) through a small hole in the wall. “What are you doing?” says Jarrar from behind his camera. “We’re smuggling ka’ek,” says the boy, as if this is the most obvious thing in the world.
Speaking after a recent screening of the film, Jarrar said that the boy’s family has a bakery on one side of the street and a shop on the other; the wall was built in between. Now they smuggle their products through the hole to sell on the “Israeli” side.
Such tales highlight the ghastly surreality of Israeli claims that the wall is there to guarantee its safety. If this is so, why do thousands of Palestinians cross weekly, via routes which the Israeli army could easily close with automated defenses if it chose?
The obvious answer is that it wishes to impose the humiliation and danger which crossing the wall puts people through, and the uncertainty and rage which attends those — mainly women, the elderly and children — who try to use the official permit system.
In its darker moments, Infiltrators is a graphic illustration of this reality. On the one hand, we see crowds of women in colorful headscarves, holding onto bags of gifts or to small children, queueing at checkpoints and being gassed when an argument erupts.
On the other, we see an illegal crossing point where a drainage tunnel, apparently under a road reserved for Israeli settlers, has been unblocked by enterprising Palestinian youths. Men, women and children haul themselves through filthy water and trash. Some wear plastic bags tied up to their knees, others go barefoot to save their shoes. You can almost smell the stagnant sludge as they pass a toddler and a swaddled baby up a narrow gap in the rocks that block the tunnel.
This isn’t an easy film to watch. It has no laid-out plot, the only narrative thread being the endless attempts to cross the wall.
There are no interviews or commentaries, just Jarrar’s camera following people’s lives and the choices they try to make in a situation where they have almost no choice. As such, it is raw and truthful, both a damning indictment of the system that forces this on people, and a tribute to their ingenuity and strength of purpose.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.