Ninna from Sweden and I set off at 7am to do our Friday morning shift at Qalandia checkpoint. This is the main checkpoint between the northern West Bank and East Jerusalem.
I have put a link at the bottom of this blog giving more detail about this important checkpoint, which is a key access point for work, education and worship, as well as for allowing people to visit hospitals, friends and family in East Jerusalem.
We had envisaged a fairly quiet morning, but instead we found the checkpoint extremely busy and the queues from the Ramallah side in the West Bank to East Jerusalem very long indeed. When Palestinian people are making this journey to East Jerusalem, they all have to get off their buses and go through the checkpoint on foot.
I was approached by a young woman who asked what I was doing. She said she was on her way to worship and visit her family. She had taken an hour to get through and was now waiting for her aunt. She said, “The soldiers are making many mistakes – they do not seem to know that now women over 50 are able to come through to worship. This is new – maybe no one has told them.” She waited another 40 minutes and then her aunt did come through. Her aunt fell into this ‘new’ category.
It should be noted that there are more than 100 different kinds of permit governing the movement of Palestinians. The number fluctuates and the Israeli authorities provide no reliable public source of information on the changes to the permit system. The distinctions between the different kinds of permits are often unclear and the process by which Palestinians can apply for and obtain them is widely regarded as opaque, arbitrary, and sometimes, as on this day, seemingly fraught.
I shall not comment on the validity of Israel’s need for this security because I’m not qualified to make a judgment on that. I can, however, describe the situation as we found it and share with you the way the Palestinian people were treated on this particular day at this particular time.
At the Qalandia checkpoint, Palestinians see one EA standing on the Jerusalem side counting the numbers of men, women and children coming through. We do this with small clickers and record the numbers each half hour. This is quite a tricky operation, as one does not have enough hands to do these tasks simultaneously, but it is important for the UN agencies, diplomats and others to have these statistics. Even in April it is very cold indeed and people have to stand for maybe hours in very cold weather, and even in snow. EAs also ask people to tell us how long their passage took.
It was mainly women coming through and they said they were on their way to pray at the Al Asqa mosque. Many of them were also carrying food which they said they were taking for a family lunch in Jerusalem. Men and women told us how long it was taking to come through the checkpoint. Most said it was taking an hour. Many people who had made it through stood waiting for their friends or family.
To cover the distance from one side to the other would take you about three minutes to walk directly. EA Ninna went to the other side of the checkpoint and called me to see: it was very, very busy. There was quite a lot of pushing in the queues, each of the queues consisting of perhaps 80–100 people. She also reported that there were many elderly people and families with babies and children.
There is a humanitarian gate which should be open to allow those in need to pass through more speedily. It was, however, not open. Ninna approached a soldier who informed her that he did not have the key. Ninna suggested politely that he might try to find it. The gate remained shut.
One and a half hours later, when Ninna and I swapped places, the humanitarian gate was still shut. I estimated that there were approximately 500 people trying to enter three very narrow passages made of railings. The passages reminded me of the narrow passages cattle go through to reach the ring at market.
The Israeli government operate a humanitarian hot line which one can ring if, for example, the humanitarian gate is not open. Over the course of half an hour I rang that number three times. The lady I spoke to was extremely pleasant but advised me that there was not enough staff on duty (the checkpoint is operated by the Israeli army). She had to keep repeating this to me during my three calls, and said that she was very sorry but she could do nothing. By this time – around 10.45am – there were many, many children, toddlers and babies with their parents trying to hold a safe position in the mass of people.
On some days when we are there, there are also two Israeli women from Machsom Watch. This grassroots organisation of Israeli women has been monitoring human rights for 25 years and oppose the occupation. They are doughty fighters, and might have had better luck with opening the humanitarian gate!
An Israeli woman in the line said to me, “I do not have to get off the bus. I could stay on and go straight through, but I cannot do that any more. This is too much – I must stand with these people.”
I decided to join the line to try to make my way back to the Jerusalem side.
First one stands in the large crowd of people trying to edge towards the three narrow passages. The passages themselves are about five metres long. This time it took me about 20 minutes to reach the passage, and I stood in it for a further 20 minutes.
To exit the passage there is another very tall turnstile. You never know how many people are going to be allowed through at one time. The Palestinian people are better than me at judging when the turnstile is going to stop or go. I have bruises!
I made it to the next turnstile and waited for about 30 minutes. A Palestinian man was trying to help the women and children to squeeze into the turnstile so that the children could go with their mothers or fathers. He gently pushed me in behind a woman of about 30 who was wearing western dress, and we moved forward a little. Sadly this resulted in a burst of shouts from a female Israeli army person in her booth. We did not understand the shouts, but it was explained to us that it had been very bad to try to have two people in the turnstile and we were both sent to the back of a different line. I apologised profusely to the lady, but she said, “It is not your fault, it is their fault. She had no manners shouting at us like that, but if they had manners we would not have the checkpoints.”
We joined the end of another line. Thirty minutes later we reached another turnstile and witnessed the struggle of a woman with two toddlers and her husband with the carrycot and a large bag. As well as showing their permits, people are often asked to give their fingerprints using an electronic machine. Possessions go on an airport security-like machine, you go through a scanner, show your passport and visa and then there is another turnstile which may not be open. Today I stood for about eight minutes there. Then you are on your way out with the notice, “Have a safe journey and enjoy your day,” although some of the letters are missing.
The sign at the entrance to the Ramallah side of the checkpoint has perhaps a touch of irony?
If you would like to learn more about conditions at the Qalandia checkpoint, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights NGO, has a very interesting photoblog detailing the reality of it on their website.
After our morning at Qalandia, we were glad to set off in the evening to see a Palestinian theatre company perform their play based on a real event. This was the first performance of “The Siege” outside the West Bank. Sadly however, the company was not granted any permits to cross the checkpoint.
In the UK however, you might have better luck than us as this company is soon to tour the UK. Please have a look at their website and go and see them if you can.