The first Friday in Ramadan – bottlenecks at the checkpoints

INITIAL REPORT:

The eminently respectable but ferociously committed Israeli ladies (and one man) from Machsom Watch (which monitors the conduct of Israeli security forces at Israeli checkpoints) were there. Europeans and a South African working with the World Council of Churches‘ Ecumenical Accommpaniers’ program in Israel and Palestine (EAPPI) were there. And they said there were (mostly Palestinian) employees of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) were there, just outside the IDF-defined military perimeter siphoning human entry into the Qalandia “border crossing” between the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Machsom Watch and EAPPI observers were in agreement — the situation, on the first Friday in Ramadan, when Palestinians yearn to worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem, was better organized than in the two previous years (after the checkpoints tightened controls on West Bank Palestinians).

It was better than last year, and much better than the year before — which, the observers said, was the year of tear gas launched on the frustrated masses who spontaneously decided to pray on the ground where they stood, blocked and barred from entry into Jerusalem. That year, two years ago, there were also Israeli soldiers mounted on horseback plowing through the people.

This year was much better, the monitors agreed, despite their objections to the basic paradigm of the occupation, the checkpoints, and the restrictions on Palestinian access to Jerusalem for Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque.

There had been a coordination meeting this year with the Israeli DCO at Qalandia. In that meeting, the IDF had been informed that EAPPI, Machsom Watch, and OCHA would have observers in and around Qalandia on Fridays.

Many embassy SUV’s — including a team of U.S. embassy cars — were seen patrolling the (Dahiet al-Bariid – Ar-Ram – Qalandia) area on Friday morning.

Still, there were ugly moments.

Here, courtesy of the Jerusalem Post, is a photo of the Border Police Officer — who put on at some moments his black aviator-style sunglasses — that observers noted was the most aggressive to Palestinians — including women — trying to get into Qalandia “border crossing” on Friday to go to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The Border Police Officer voted most aggressive at Qalandia checkpoint on the first Friday in Ramadan

He ran at women crowding the police barriers, and appeared to take pleasure in his shouting, his physically-menacing behavior. At one point, there appeared to be a modest reprimand aimed at restraining his threats, but this could certainly have been done earlier.

UPDATE — ANGRY ARAB had another photo of the same guy.

ap photo on angryarab's blog

But, the EAPPI team reported that some 6.000 souls an hour passed smoothly through Qalandia from 6 am until about noon, when the flow was largely stopped [for a total of at least 36,000 Palestinians entering Jerusalem from Qalandia]. By comparison, only 2,500 per hour could get through the main Bethlehem checkpoint, which they referred to as “Gilo 300”. The Jerusalem Post reported Friday evening that some 90,000 faithful were able to pray at Al-Aqsa at the midday prayers. But here, again, pictures speak louder than words.

Palestinians pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on the first Friday in Ramadan.- photo from Haaretz

The permits granted for Friday prayers are valid from 7am to 7 pm, a member of the EAPPI team reported. She said that Palestinian daily work permits do not allow passage through Qalandia for Friday prayers (though the Machsom Watch observers thought differently). But, the EAPPI team member noted, many of the Palestinians who entered Jerusalem for the mid-day prayers would want to stay at Al-Aqsa to perform the evening prayer, which would start just after 7 pm. The EAPPI observer said that if they did so, these Palestinians would face problems at flying checkpoints set up by the Israeli police inside Jerusalem, and on the road back to Qalandia. Those who overstay their permit would be detained, she thought, and this might affect their getting another Friday permit (though applications for Friday prayer permits normally take two weeks to process, and must therefore be made well in advance )– but she thought any of those detained for overstaying the Friday prayer permit would probably not face any very severe consequences unless they already had a record of being previously suspected or accused of a security violation.

The EAPPI observer also noted that the worshippers were supposed to return to Qalandia by 7 pm, but she pointed out that Qalandia would not be open to private vehicles until 9 pm — and therefore, she said, there could be some problems of congestion at return.

Women went though a separate inspection, but were almost completely unchecked, once they had passed through the first military perimeter. “The question is, if it can be as ‘good’ as this (considering the circumstances – the occupation and checkpoint), why is it so bad on an every day basis? On normal mornings, it’s horrible, because nobody can decide how to operate the checkpoints”.

A Machsom Watch veteran said that what went wrong last year was that some minister changed his mind in the middle of the night before the Friday prayer — when some Palestinians were already travelling to Qalandia under the assumption that they qualified for entry to Jerusalem under the earlier rules. the instructions were re-done, without any (or without at least adequate) information efforts. The people coming from Nablus and Jenin and the northern West Bank, and the villages around Ramallah, had no idea that the rules had been changed. They made great efforts, thinking they could get through Qalandia to pray at Al-Aqsa, but were barred. And then the fighting started. — between the Palestinians and the soldiers. And among the people themselves. Those who could not get through the checkpoint then prayed on the ground at Qalandia, but tear gas was used, and affected those praying.

This Friday, relatively few Palestinians were left without entry (those who could not qualify under the Israeli rules apparently did not even make an attempt), and there was no praying at the checkpoint.

There are still problems, one experienced EAPPI observer said. Some of the local papers publish wrong information, and the people are mislead. This year, for example, one Palestinian paper said that women of all ages could get through — whereas the IDF instructions said that it would be only women over 45, and men over 50.

Still, she said, the attention of the media (precious little though it is) and the photographers and the embassies and consulates appeared to have made a difference.

At 11:30, Machsom Watch observers said, the soldiers began tensing up — preparing for confrontation with Palestinians who could not get through the checkpoint.

And, it happened.

Around noon, a few stones (I saw about three) were hurled at the military lines. Tear gas was immediately fired back, and then stun grenades were lobbed. This happened sporadically for the next 45 minutes.

But, this was still much better than last year, the observers said — given the fact of the occupation, and the checkpoints, and the ban on many categories of people (including almost all young people) that prevents them from going to pray where they want to pray, in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.

LATER UPDATE:

Two Israeli media — the Jerusalem Post and YNET — reported that Palestinians “rioted” at Qalandia. These lurid reports are over-exaggerations of what actually happened: the confrontations began with two or three small stones being lobbed at the Israeli forces WHO DID NOT HAVE RIOT SHIELDS.

(NOTE TO THE ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES and the MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR et al: here are Police riot shields stored at the ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate entrance to the Haram as-Sharif plateau where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located in Jerusalem’s Old City. These same shields — stored for use when Palestinians sometimes throw stones at, or that fall on the Western Wall Plaza, could have been used, at least in the first instance, at Qalandia on the first Friday in Ramadan … instead of tear gas and stun grenades. The EAPPI observer noticed that there were also soldiers armed with weapons that fire rubber bullets, but these did not appear to have been used.

Israeli Police riot shields stored on the Mughrabi Gate ramp leading to the Haram as-Sharif mosque esplanade

The Israeli forces immediately responded by shooting tear gas and lobbing volleys of stun grenades. (Haaretz reported on Saturday that one Palestinian was injured by a tear gas cannister.)

This happened after every single small stone that intermittently came their way. This fizzeled out when the Israeli soldiers ignored the last few stones which were thrown.

A Machsom Watch veteran commented drily that “it only goes to show that both sides are operating on a mental age of about 13”.

This fizzeled out when the Israeli soldiers ignored the last few stones which were thrown.

It was not, of course, the Palestinians trying to get into the Qalandia terminal who were throwing stones. It did not even appear to have been those who were disappointed. The Palestinians who actually had a chance, or a permit, and who were trying to get to Jerusalem, dispersed at every exchange.Observers pointed out that it was only small and roving groups of youths who were making sporadic forays out of the Qalandia refugee camp that is right up next to the checkpoint who were responsible for the few stones that were thrown. Under the current rules estabished unilaterally by the IDF, these boys and young men won’t be eligible to even apply for a permit to perform Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa for another twenty or thirty years.

Despite the impression given by the headlines in the Israeli media (see just below), there might have been hundreds of youths involved in this game, or ritual, but there were NOT hundreds of stones thrown. There were only a very few stones, launched very sporadically, which did not reach the newly-created perimeter of concrete slabs that formed a mini-Wall (a “sleeve”, in security parlance, apparently) that prevented masses of people rushing to the entrance to the checkpoint.

The tear gas cannisters and stun grenades were flung quickly, and easily, at the slightest of provocations. All those in the vicinity — including some of the forward-deployed Israeli forces, and observers and journalists as well — were affected by the tear gas blowing back in the small breeze under the hot midday sun.

Women who had been pressing at the police barriers to the checkpoint rushed back as far as they could get from both the military and the tear gas — but that brought them right up against The Wall. They stood huddled together against a high — and manned — concrete watchtower, pulling the ends of their scarves over their noses and mouths. Israeli forces inside their perimeter also were lightly affected by the return of the tear gas on the slight wind at the time. Some soldiers laughed and gestured, and shook their heads.

Despite the relatively desultory nature of these exchanges, YNet said in a headline that “Some 100 Palestinians riot [emphasis added] at Qalandiya checkpoint, dispersed by Israeli security forces”. The text of the story stated that “Shortly after the prayer session marking the first Friday of Ramadan concluded at the Temple Mount in east Jerusalem, some 100 Palestinians rioted [emphasis added] at the Qalandiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem. The Palestinians hurled stones at IDF soldiers and Border Guard officers manning the checkpoint. Israeli security personnel were forced to use crowd-dispersal apparatus, but no injuries have been reported as of yet … The IDF has eased restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank as a gesture for the month of Ramadan”. The full YNet story can be seen in full on the YNet website here.

The JPost reported in almost identical term that “Ramadan prayers end in Qalandia riots [emphasis added]”. The text of the JPost story reads:: “Some 100 young Palestinians rioted [emphasis added] at the Kalandiya checkpoint, north of Jerusalem, on Friday, shortly after the first communal prayers of Ramadan. The Palestinians hurled stones at IDF troops and border policemen deployed in area, prompting the security forces to take crowd control measures. No casualties were reported”. This can be seen on the JPost website here.

Once things had calmed down, military men took megaphones and shouted in rude Arabic to those Palestinians who had returned to the police barriers to try to get into the checkpoint: “Imshi ala Ramallah!” “Go back to Ramallah” — which was insulting not only in tone, but in its easy presumption that the Palestinians trying to get into Jerusalem on Friday had only come a short distance. There is little to no Israeli awareness (and even less concern) about the difficulties most Palestinians face. Many who had hoped to pass had certainly made great efforts, coming from the far north and east of the West Bank. They had already crossed several internal West Bank checkpoints before being held up at the last possible moment at the police barriers blocking the entrance to Qalandia.

Machsom Watch observers reported that there had been some trouble when Palestinians started lining up at 4:30 on Friday morning.

One man reported to two sympathetic Machsom Watch women that he had almost been killed on his way to Qalandia. He said that he had been in a car, driving from Jericho via the narrow and winding road via the village of Taibeh, when he was stopped by three soldiers. After checking his permit, they then asked him who he planned to vote for in the American elections in November.  [U.S. Democratic Party candidate for President Barack] Obama, he said. [Obama had been an early favorite among Palestinians, until his ill-chosen and soon-rescinded remarks stating that a united Jerusalem would or should be Israel’s undivided capitol.) When the man replied that there would soon be a Palestinian State, he said, and added that the Israeli soldiers would then no longer have the right to stand there and stop him from going to pray, the soldiers suddenly became angry, he reported, and at least one of them began firing in the air. “Now I am going to insult every Israeli soldier I see”, the man said. But he probably won’t …

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