I can still very clearly remember when, in my early twenties, I had a job in a factory making stainless steel and Aluminium cookware. We started work at 6:30am each day and finished at about 3:30pm. The shed that we worked in was freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. The work was boring, repetitive, dirty and very labor intensive.
At that time I was sharing a two bedroom flat with two other friends and for some reason, that I don’t remember, I had to sleep on the floor every night. I had to get up at 4:00am in the morning to catch two buses across town to get to work on time. It wasn’t fun!
So while I was monitoring the infamous checkpoint at Qalandya, I couldn’t help but think back to those days. That morning we got to the checkpoint at 4:30am and my team mate Peggy, stood on the exit side of the checkpoint to count people as they came out, and I went to the entry side to monitor things as people lined up to enter the checkpoint. Even at 4:30am, the checkpoint was crowded with people trying to get to work in Jerusalem.
The Qalandya checkpoint basically separates the Palestinian town of Ramallah (and hence the whole of the northern West Bank) from Jerusalem. The checkpoint itself consists of a large shed where people line up in what can only be called cattle shutes, which lead to turnstiles at the end of each shute. The opening and closing of these turnstiles are controlled by Israeli soldiers who sit in a main control room. On the other side of these turnstiles are five booths, each with its own turnstile controlled by soldiers in each booth.Once you get past this set of turnstile,s you must show your ID papers to the soldiers on duty, place your belongings on the conveyor belt to be X-rayed and walk through the metal detector. If the soldiers at the window of the booth are satisfied with your ID card and permit and everything else, you may pass through the checkpoint and go into Jerusalem. On a goodish day this can take 20 to 30 minutes.
On the day that I was monitoring the checkpoint, all 5 booths were open but for some reason the lines were moving slowly. By about 5:10am the lines from all three shutes were so long that they extended way outside the shed into the car park behind the checkpoint. As time passed by, the people in line became agitated with the soldiers and some made gestures to me wanting me to do what I could to get things moving faster. I made a few phone calls to the Humanitarian Hotline and Machsom Watch but nothing seemed to be changing so far as the time to process people was taking.
Many of these Palestinians are day workers in Jerusalem and are desperate to get to their places of work since many of the companies they work for simply take the first lot of workers that arrive on time and forget about the rest. So being first off the ranks is very important for many people even at this early hour. The employers in Jerusalem seem to have no interest in improving conditions at the checkpoint in order to speed things up and get people to work on time. Buses on the exit side of the checkpoint taking the workers to their places of work in Jerusalem don’t wait for stragglers.
By about 6:10am some people, in absolute desperation, started trying to push in at the front of the line near the end of the cattle shutes. This created a “panic” of people in the line and suddenly about 100 workers stampeded the opening of the three shutes! It was chaos as all order broke down. Many people gave up and just sat down inside the shed and waited. Some knelt down and started praying, but for at least 50 or 60 people, they continued to try and push and shove their way into the openings of the cattle shutes in order to go through the checkpoint.
Some Palestinian people next to me blamed the soldiers for causing this chaos, saying that the soldiers were, in their opinion, deliberately holding the lines up so as to incite the workers. Whether the soldiers were in fact doing just that, is debatable, but anyone can see that such a system, in the context of the occupation. will be doomed to failure and cause a huge amount of tension and malice between the two groups.
The situation continued like this for over an hour and I have to admit that I felt quite scared at times. I could not imagine having to face the prospect of this every morning in order to get to work. A number of Palestinian men told me that they had to miss work a number of times because this sort of chaos had ensued at the checkpoint. It only increases their sense of desperation to get to work the next day.
One struggles to find a rational reason for why this checkpoint is the way it is. Israelis will often tell you it is necessary because of the suicide bombers of years gone by. I struggle with that explanation as there are a number of worker checkpoints from the West Bank to Israel that can cope with far more than twice the amount of people getting through the gates of Qalandya. I have monitored some of those gates myself. So far as security goes, everyone knows that many hundreds of Palestinians get across into Israel from the West Bank “illegally”, every day.
No, to me it seems that it looks like the Israeli government just doesn’t want Palestinians in Jerusalem. This checkpoint is just part of a system that gives a clear message to Arabs in the West Bank. That message is…”Stay Out of Jerusalem!”
International Law states that Palestinians under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank are protected persons. at Qalandya, it doesn’t look like it!
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