‘Have a safe and pleasant stay’

By EA Belinda

Jerusalem side of Qalandia checkpoint Photo: EAPPI/EA Belinda

‘Have a safe and pleasant stay’ is the message which greets you when you make it through ‘Qalandia checkpoint’ – though not everyone gets through.

The Qalandia checkpoint in northeast Jerusalem is the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah and therefore between Jerusalem and the northern West Bank. Thousands of Palestinians pass through it every day. Most are commuting to work though there are many reasons for needing access to Jerusalem, such as access to medical care and weekly worship in the churches and mosques. The numbers passing through increase greatly during Muslim holidays when tens of thousands of worshippers seek to cross the checkpoint to visit the holy places of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Before Palestinians reach the checkpoint, they must apply for a permit from the Israeli authorities, through a system which is often bureaucratic and unpredictable (Machsom Watch, Israeli human rights organisation). There are over 100 types of permit and success in obtaining them is not guaranteed. ‘Only Palestinians are restricted in this manner, while settlers and other civilians – Israeli and foreign – are free to travel’ (B’Tselem, Israeli human rights organisation).

The separation barrier / Qalandia checkpoint. Photo credit: EAPPI

The Qalandia checkpoint was first established in late 2001. A comprehensive border control infrastructure was developed over the following years, especially after the construction of the separation barrier which Israel built to separate the West Bank from Jerusalem and Israel. The route of the separation barrier, built mostly on Palestinian land was ruled to be illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.

Qalandia checkpoint became notorious for the inhumane way it ‘processed’ human beings and for the metal cages and turnstiles that contained them. You can read more about it in this 2017 blog from an Ecumenical Accompanier.

Israel has recently spent tens of millions of shekels on modernising the checkpoint facilities. Have things changed?

The new checkpoint facilities, opened this spring, have resulted in faster crossings and virtually no queues. Six metal detector stations and 27 automatic ‘speedgates’ have replaced the five checking stations where permits were checked manually. The gates are operated with a biometric or ‘magnetic’ card, which Palestinians have to obtain from one of the Israeli District Civil Liaison Offices in the West Bank and Jerusalem. They need to apply in person, pay a fee and have prints taken of their hand and fingers as well as a photograph. The checkpoint gates are operated by means of a card reader and a facial recognition screen.

When the upgraded facilities at Qalandia were shown to the press earlier this summer, the Israeli authorities emphasised the benefits to Palestinians. The goal is to ‘improve the fabric of life’, according to the deputy head of COGAT, the Defence Ministry’s department responsible for coordinating government activities in the occupied territories. A video on COGAT’s website highlights the benefits to Israeli employers of Palestinian workers getting to work on time without waiting at the checkpoint, sometimes for hours.

The modern machines and piped music are presumably meant to improve the experience of passing the checkpoint. A wheelchair ramp is provided which leads from the pavement in front of the checkpoint building up to the level of the entry gates. Reaching the pavement however involves first crossing the four lanes of traffic for the vehicle checkpoints and then navigating rough terrain and a number of curbs.

Ramallah side of Qalandia checkpoint Photo: EAPPI/EA Belinda

We’re told by locals and former EAs that the old checkpoint facilities were well-known for the poor toilet facilities. The same ones are still in use. Machsom Watch, an organisation of Israeli women which has monitored the checkpoints since 2001, publishes reports on what it witnesses. A recent report is headed: ‘Permit holders move quickly, however the checkpoint plaza is neglected, the toilets are filthy and dirt and trash is everywhere.’

Hanna Barag of Machsom Watch told the Washington Post in June that ‘the physical developments of the checkpoints is not the interesting part…What no one is talking about is who is allowed to pass and who is not.’

EAs recently met a Palestinian couple with US citizenship who had come back from the States to visit relatives in Ramallah. They planned to worship at Al Aqsa as they had done in previous years but this time the husband was refused entry. While they both had US passports, he still also had a Palestinian passport (his wife’s had lapsed) and he was told he needed a separate permit to enter Jerusalem. He was baffled. He hadn’t had a problem last year.

Couple unable to pass Qalandia checkpoint (preferred to remain anonymous) Photo: EAPPI/EA Belinda

The justification Israel gives for maintaining this complicated system of permits and checkpoints is security against Palestinian terrorism. For example, a booklet by Stand with Us, says: ‘checkpoints save lives’. On the other hand, research by Machsom Watch has found that the system is often arbitrary with many Palestinians being ‘blacklisted’ at random and refused passage on ‘no justifiable basis.’ Controlling the movement of a whole population based on the actions of a small few is also form of collective punishment, illegal under international law.

When seeing the airport style gates and security screening many of us are familiar with, it is easy to forget that many of the checkpoints are not at external borders. In many cases throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem, Palestinians are being restricted from travel within their own cities. Some 140 000 Jerusalemites have to cross busy, crowded checkpoints to move within Jerusalem. According to Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem their Palestinian neighborhoods are cut off from the rest of the city by the separation barrier.

B’Tselem estimated in 2017 that there are 98 military checkpoints in the West Bank. Only a minority of these are at the entry points into sovereign Israeli territory; the majority are intended to control the movement of Palestinians within occupied Palestine. This 2018 map from the UN shows these checkpoints and other access restrictions.

Technological control

The use of technology at checkpoints like Qalandia speeds up the time needed to check documents but it also facilitates control. Palestinians (with few exceptions) are now required to use biometric magnetic cards whenever they go through a checkpoint, which means their movements can be tracked. Building on a basis of checkpoints and permits, the application of new technologies strengthens and completes a chain of control over the movements of all Palestinians.

The facial recognition software used to identify Palestinians at checkpoints such as Qalandia was developed by a recently formed Israeli company called AnyVision which has offices in London and Belfast. (The cofounder and Chief Technology Officer is a professor at Queen’s University.) It has been reported in Israeli media that Anyvision’s facial recognition technology is to be used by the military within the West Bank to track potential assailants.

Following criticisms of the firm’s activities, Anyvision put out a statement in August 2019 stating that ‘powerful technology like facial recognition has the ability to be misused when guidelines are not put in place. We have invested millions of dollars to ensure our technology not only complies with, but exceeds, local laws and regulations concerning privacy [such as GPDR] and are in favor of regulation where none currently exists.’

There do not appear to be any such guidelines governing Anyvision’s activities in occupied Palestine on behalf of the Israeli Defense Ministry and this has raised concerns among human rights activists. Nadim Nashif, the Executive Director of 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, told NPR that “The West Bank and Gaza Strip in the past were a laboratory to use the Israeli newly developed weapons. In the past few years, it’s more about the technologies of surveillance that [are] being tested and later on sold to other countries.”

The active role of the private sector in supporting Israel’s use of surveillance as a mechanism to implement Israeli control is not limited to the West Bank. A report by the NGO ‘Who profits?’ looked at the role of corporations in the development of a comprehensive surveillance system in East Jerusalem. It concludes that ‘ for Israeli corporations, these programs and the Palestinian residents they target serve as a laboratory for the development of tools and technologies of repression that can be profitably exported worldwide as battle proven.’

So, while crossing Qalandia might now be quicker and easier for most Palestinians, locals tell EAs that many of the benefits accrue to Israelis, both to employers and to the State whose control over the daily lives of Palestinians becomes ever more complete.

Take action

Find out more about the way in which Israel restricts the movement of Palestinians via the regular UN reports.

Sign this petition by Jewish Voices for Peace demanding Microsoft withdraw investment from AnyVision for their role in the unregulated surveillance of Palestinians, which is a violation of human rights.

Contact your elected representatives asking them to call on the government to put pressure on the Israeli government to stop its covert surveillance of Palestinians and to put an end the restrictions it places on the movement and access of Palestinians. Ask them to demand the same rights and freedoms for both Israeli’s and Palestinians.