Qalandia on the first Friday of Ramadan (2010)

Since The Wall became a massive presence in the Palestinian West Bank a few years ago, and since Qalandia Checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah (and the rest of the central and northern West Bank) grew to large proportions, it has become a major center of human activity on Fridays during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast for more than half of each day (from two hours before dawn until after sunset, when it is no longer possible to distinguish between a white and a black thread).

Each year, the arrangements have been different. There has been some effort at “improvement” from the Israeli side — and the results illustrate how difficult it is to improve anything through military regulation of human behavior.

For, how can you “improve” measures designed to restrict Palestinians from going to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the esplanade known as Haram ash-Sharif in the Old City of East Jerusalem?

During Ramadan, Palestinian Muslims long to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. They just long to be there, for reasons linked to their belief about the significance and sacredness of the site and the increased value of any prayer they may perform there.

And, one 40-year-old Palestinian woman trying — unsuccessfully — to get through the checkpoint told me, it is now the only time of the year when the Israelis do give permits to get to Jerusalem for the prayers. Because, it is not enough just to fulfill the age requirements set, for “security reasons”: 50 years old, and married, for the men, and 35 years old, and married, for the women –they also have to have permits issued by the Israeli military, which has come to pieces of paper. It can take two days or more to get a permit to go to pray in Jerusalem on the Fridays in Ramadan. She had been in Jordan, and had not had time to go apply for a permit.

Qalandia Checkpoint during the Fridays in Ramadan is the epitome of the occupation.

Four years ago, when The Wall and the Checkpoint were new, and shocking, there were scenes of mass confusion and brutality: Israeli Border Police were on horseback facing a crush of tens of thousands of confused and angry Palestinians trying to get through the new obstacles. There had been no prior information on restrictions, nor any clear and consistent instructions on “permissions”.

Israeli soldiers lobbed tear gas on thousands of Palestinians who decided, spontaneously, to perform their prayers in front of the barriers at the Checkpoint, when the appointed time for the Friday noon prayer arrived, and they were still blocked on the Ramallah side by massed Israeli forces — who also apparently didn’t quite know what to expect, or what was going on.

Each year since then, there have been new rules.

Three years ago, the rules were changed overnight, even though previously-decided rules had been well-publicized. Palestinians who travelled from before dawn from all across the West Bank — many of whom had to cross multiple other Israeli military checkpoints before reaching Qalandia, were bitterly disappointed to discover that the Israeli military leadership had suddenly changed their mind, because a main Jewish religious holiday fell on the same date, and stricter admission to Jerusalem for Palestinians would mean privileged access for Jewish visitors coming from other places in Israel.

Two years ago, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs sat at length with the Israeli Army’s District Coordination and Liaison officers to try to work out improvements. It was the first year that separate entrances — to the Checkpoint — were made for men and for women, a practice that continued again this year, which sometimes means that husbands and wives are separated, and sometimes one is admitted to the Checkpoint, and has a chance of going into Jerusalem, while the other does not. They keep in touch on their mobile phones.

It took until this year to make a third passage-way, for those who are sick and infirm. This year, the women were directed as pedestrians through one of the car lanes, which Israeli ladies from the Machsom Watch [Checkpoint Watch] organization said did improve the speed of the passage of the Palestinian women, who were lightly checked. The men were thoroughly checked.

Crowds at Qalandia were very light, which has been the case on the first Friday in Ramadan for each of the three previous years — but this year was even lighter than before.

Knowing how hard, and frustrating, and humiliating, it is, why do you still come, I asked the Palestinian woman who was still trying, without luck, to get through without a permit. “It is very important”, she said, dabbing the perspiration off her face with a handkerchief as we stood in the full heat of the noon-time sun. She did note that the prayer she would miss this week in Al-Aqsa could be made up next week — that is, if she can get a permit. “But as hard as it is, that is how much we love to be there for the prayer”, during Ramadan, she explained.

Israeli Border Police and soldiers were reinforced with black-uniformed members of the Israeli National Police’s Special Forces this year — and there seemed to be even more Arabic-speaking Israeli troops present this year. There was no tear gas used, no rubber bullets were shot, and no stun grenades were fired.

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