Qalandiya Crossing by Alison Prager
I recently went with a friend to observe a session of Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch) which is an organisation of female peace activists, who want to see an end to the occupation.
Volunteers make observations at a checkpoint to report on what is happening and to try to ease up any congestion if Israeli soldiers, border police, or increasingly private security firm personnel, hold up Palestinians more than usual.
Qalandiya crossing which is a checkpoint in the wall in East Jerusalem. The wall has left 60,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side which negates any notion that it could have been constructed for security reasons.
The waiting area of Qalandiya checkpoint is semi-open with a dirt floor; there are some metal seats and drinking fountains. The main fence of the checkpoint is made up of high vertical thick metal bars with spirals of barbed wire at the top. To cross to the other side people have to go through turnstiles but to get to the turnstiles they have to queue in thin lanes, eight metres long by two feet wide, which are made up of the same high thick metal bars,. These lanes or metal cages are narrow and a large person or someone with a suitcase would have difficulty walking through to get to the turnstiles.
People were queuing for about thirty minutes in the cages to reach the turnstiles. There were four lanes leading to four turnstiles. Only two were open. Once they were through, they had to queue again to have their bags put through a scanning machine, walk though a metal detector and have their IDs checked by soldiers.
Palestinians had to show their IDs to a soldier through a thick reinforced glass window by holding them flat against. If the soldier lets them through, they can go. Once you reach the other side, there is a sign in Arabic and English that says: HAVE A SAFE AND PLEASANT STAY.
There is no personal contact between Israelis and Palestinians. If a soldier wants a Palestinian to do something, they shout orders in broken Arabic through loudspeakers that can be heard throughout the whole building. They shout things like: ‘go to gate three’
A control room was in view behind the metal bars of the fence. The room had very thick tinted glass that must have been bullet and bomb proof. The structure was a square box of thick reinforced concrete and metal blocks.
The young female soldier was alone in this room with screens showing the CCTV images of queuing Palestinians throughout the checkpoint. She was multi-tasking: drinking cola; eating crisps; continually having a conversation on her mobile phone which was squeezed between her tilted head and shoulder; looking at the screens, and occasionally pressing the control button to open one turnstile to let Palestinians through to the next part of the checkpoint.
She wasn’t letting people through quickly and there were long queues in these uncomfortable restrictive cage-like lanes. If they couldn’t stand but had to sit on the metal benches behind, they missed their place in the queue.
At one point the soldier wanted to check up on what we were doing. Rather than look out of her window she put us both on CCTV and watched our movements on the screens, even though we were right in front of her and all she had to do was turn her head to see us.
When another member of Machsom Watch arrived she immediately phoned the commander in charge to tell him that the soldiers on the ground were slowing things up. After she made the calls the queues went down.
Who were the Palestinians crossing to the other side of the wall?
Teenagers going to and from school with their school books; businessmen in suits with briefcases; (which I found particularly disturbing for some reason) women with shopping bags going shopping and visiting relatives and friends. There were people with appointments for doctors and ordinary-looking people commuting to and from work. All trying to carry on their normal lives but having to cross the wall first and pass a checkpoint.
Palestinians going south, towards Jerusalem, must carry Jerusalem IDs; holders of Palestinian Authority IDs cannot pass without special permits. If you happen to be on one side of the wall but haven’t got the right ID you can’t visit your relatives, friends, go shopping, or go to school or the doctor on the other side. If you have the ‘right’ ID you must pass through the checkpoint, which could be held up, or closed at any time.
When I walked up to the queues I felt embarrassed to look at the people. As I passed along the line, a man who was about sixty, just about to enter the long cage to the turnstile, said to me very softly in English: “Why? Why? Why?”
What could I say? “Because you are not Jewish.”
An old looking man who looked tall and quite distinguished came up to me, he was limping slightly and his hands were shaking as if he had Parkinson’s disease. He had been sitting which meant he couldn’t queue. He started talking to me in broken English, He told me he had been to another checkpoint: Ar-Ram, two kilometers away, but the queues were so long that he had come to Qalandiya hoping he could get through quicker. He said “I am old, I am sick, this is not fair.” I said: “No, I know, this isn’t fair.”
He asked: “Are you, Israeli?” As soon as he spoke, I quickly said “British, I’m British” I didn’t want him to suspect I was Jewish and associate me with being in any way responsible.
I saw the film about Qalandiya showing the degrading scenes of people crossing as the checkpoint was being built. But it is already out of date because the people who can cross and have the IDs are the ‘lucky’ ones.
The trend is to deny more people IDs so there is no point in them going to the checkpoints in the first place. They have no chance of passing through to carry on their normal lives. The checkpoints may even improve with time, but that is not the story, it’s the people who can’t get through at all who suffer more.