Taweel's route

Israeli settlements

Occupied: Year 50

Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began five decades ago, when Israel defeated three Arab armies. Today, millions of Palestinians still face concrete walls, checkpoints and other Israeli controls. What does it feel like to be “occupied” in 2017? The lives of three people – a construction worker, a cancer patient and a tycoon – offer some answers.

Under starry skies, a young Palestinian Everyman wakes before dawn to begin his daily commute to work in Israel.

There are thousands like him. They are building Israel. Five or six mornings a week, long before the Muslim morning prayers, before the cocks crow, when packs of dogs still own the dumpsters, his alarm beeps. Today it is 3:30 a.m.

His name is Tarek Al Taweel. He is a Palestinian construction worker, not without skills. He builds modern high-rise apartments in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, where a five-bedroom penthouse sells for $600,000.

The job is okay, he said. He makes 250 shekels, about $68 a day, twice what he would make in the West Bank. He works beside his father, uncles and brothers. They’re proud of their craftsmanship. They keep photographs on their mobile phones of their aluminum work, fine carpentry, elaborate tiling.

It’s not the work. It’s the Israeli checkpoint. “I hate it,” Taweel told us. The daily crossing drains him. It makes him feel that life is desperate and ugly.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don’t want to go to the checkpoint. Sometimes I put my head back on the pillow,” Taweel said. “My wife will say to me, ‘You have to feed our child. Get up. Get up!’ And I get up and go.”

A writhing mass of early-morning commuters presses into Israel's Checkpoint 300 in April. (Sufian Taha/The Washington Post)

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip began 50 years ago in June.

Taweel turned 30 last year.

Like Taweel, four of every five Palestinians have never known anything but the occupation — an evolving system by which the Israeli military and intelligence services exert control over 2.6 million Arabs in the West Bank, with one system for Palestinians, another for Israelis.

This summer, the Israelis will celebrate their near-miraculous victory in the 1967 war, when in just six days, they took all of Jerusalem and their armed forces crushed the Arab armies thrown against them.

On the other side, the Palestinians will mark a military occupation going on for so long that many Israelis barely seem to notice anymore, except the young soldiers sent to enforce it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refers to it, when he speaks of it at all, as “the so-called occupation.”

Some of his fellow citizens say there is really no occupation, because all the Land of Israel was awarded to the Jews by God. Other Israelis argue that Gaza is no longer occupied, because Israel unilaterally withdrew from the coastal strip a decade ago.

JERUSALEM, WEST BANK - APRIL 3:   Comparison view of the palestinian Shu'afat / Shufat refugee camp (left) and the barrier wall that seperates it from the israeli settlement (right) in East Jerusalem, Israel on April 3, 2017.   The camp which is home to the second and third generations of palestinians displaced after the 1948 Palestinian - Israeli war.   (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A barrier wall separates a Palestinian refu­gee camp, left, from an Israeli settlement, right. Both are located in East Jerusalem. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Whatever it is called, it appears to be never-ending. Shelves of books have been written about who is to blame for not making peace. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to find a “two-state solution.” President Trump says he wants to make “the deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians, and just spent two days here.

But what does it feel like? To be “occupied” in 2017, by a country that boasts to be the only democracy in the Middle East?

The first time we saw Taweel he wore dusty jeans and carried a plastic bag with a can of oily tuna fish and a short stack of pita bread. On the spur of the moment he agreed to be a guide of sorts, not only through the chaotic Israeli checkpoint he dreads, but the emotions felt, but not always expressed, at the crossing between his worlds.

His father cautioned him that speaking to two journalists, even for an American newspaper, could jeopardize his permission to enter Israel.

“The permit is life,” the father told us.

The Israeli domestic security service, Shin Bet, keeps voluminous files on Palestinians, and it denies and revokes work, travel and medical permits every day, and need give no more reason than “security.”

“I don’t care,” Taweel said. “It’s okay.”

Top: Work permits allow some Palestinians to enter Israel in the early morning, but they must leave by day's end. Middle: At Checkpoint 300, West Bank Palestinians stand in line — or scurry above it — to reach their jobs in Israel. Bottom: About 70,000 Palestinians work legally in Israel, most of them doing construction work.