Yes, Qalandia Checkpoint is a scandal

The Washington Post has picked up an article written by Ben Hubbard for the Associated Press about the misery that is Qalandia checkpoint.   Apparently, Ben spent five days there, early in the morning when Palestinians with permits are being treated not unlike animals as they try to get to work.

Thousands — no, millions, upon millions of words have been written about this shame.  We have written about it repetitively — just enter the word Qalandia in the search box on this page, and the stories will pop up.

But, nothing changes.  If anything, it simply gets worse.

[UPDATE: Also see Amira Hass’ article published in Haaretz here: “Israel calls the checkpoint a ‘terminal’ and relates to it as an existing, legal border between the State of Israel and the Palestinian entity. For Palestinians, the Qalandiyah checkpoint is a physical representation of the fact that for most of them, East Jerusalem has become as far away as the moon. Most of the people who pass through Qalandiyah are Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. A minority are West Bank residents who have temporary permits to enter Israel”.]

The AP story published in the WPost is entitled Checkpoint misery epitomizes a Mideast divide, and it is posted here.

This is the AP photo used to illustrate the article in the Washington Post – it was taken 15 Dec 2009:
AP photo taken 15 December 2009 - Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Please note that the AP reporter who did the story wrote only about the pedestrian passage.  Crossing with a car is a different and separate nightmare, for those who are allowed.

Please note that this is only about Qalandia checkpoint, and not about the main checkpoint at Bethlehem, which, if anything, may be worse, or about the Erez crossing into Gaza.

It is not about the checkpoint on Road 443 that I was shocked to see had Palestinian men stuffed into wire-caged walkways at 4 am last Thursday after passing military inspection, but before boarding white Ford Transit vans for transportation to their jobs in central Israel.

Please note that the crossing times listed for each day the reporter was at this checkpoint — which Israeli forces like to call a “border crossing” — are just for the crossing time only, and not for the difficult transportation that comes before and after the crossing.

Please also note that every Israeli in uniform at this place is carrying at least one big gun, and that there are military reinforcements always at the ready in the immediate enclosure, and more are not far away.

The AP article reports that “The journey to Jerusalem, for tens of thousands of Palestinians [daily], begins in a dank, trash-strewn hangar. They move through cage-like passages and 7-foot-high turnstiles to be checked by Israeli soldiers from behind bulletproof glass. The soldiers often yell at them [only in Hebrew, of course, and in a muffled and incomprehensible way] through loudspeakers. They [the Israeli soldiers] are supposed to work in pairs to speed the lines through, but sometimes one of them is asleep, his feet on his desk. The Qalandia crossing, say the Israelis, is where potential attackers are filtered out before they can reach Jerusalem on the other side. Palestinians say it’s a daily humiliation they must endure to reach jobs, family, medical appointments and schools. This main checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem is one of the rawest points of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, a symbol of the day-to-day bitterness that grinds between the two sides as the U.S. struggles to relaunch peace negotiations. Since taking office last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has eased Palestinian movement inside the West Bank, but not into Jerusalem … Qalandia [is] the only way for 60,000 taxpaying [legal and official Jerusalem] residents [whose homes, by Israeli military design, are now behind — or on the West Bank side — of Qalandia checkpoint and The Wall] to reach their city. They too must line up along with tens of thousands of West Bank residents to enter Israel for work – provided they are patient, have permits, and don’t arouse suspicion” … And God help them if they do, because there is nobody who can help them

The article reports that “The AP reporter saw soldiers sleeping in their booths four times during five days at the crossing. When told about it, Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said he was ‘surprised’ …” though nobody would be who has ever been at a checkpoint when there were only Palestinians and internationals present, but no higher Israeli officer.

The article reports that “The line takes Abu Jalil into a 15-foot-long cage of metal bars, barely wide enough for a large man or high enough for a tall man to stand upright. At the far end, a turnstile clicks open, letting about 10 people through at a time before clicking shut again. Once inside: another line to another turnstile, this one leading to a window where Israeli soldiers check IDs. Abu Jalil waits, then a worker at the front of the line gets turned back. He tells the others they can’t carry lunches through, so Abu Jalil and others with lunches change lines, starting again at the back. It’s a common problem. Sometimes, certain lines accept only certain IDs, but the workers don’t know that until they reach the window. A soldier may close a window without announcing it, leaving people waiting in vain. There is no supervisor or hot line they can take complaints to.

The article reports that one 70-year-old Palestinian woman who returned after living in the U.S. for 11 years (there are many Palestinian West Bank residents who have American citizenship) said to the AP reporter that “I made the biggest mistake of my life in coming back here … This the worst place I’ve seen in my life”..

It may not be the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s truly awful, something to be avoided, if possible, at all costs. It’s really, really bad…

Crossing Qalandia – cont'd

There has been more or less non-stop construction at the major Qalandia (Kalandia) checkpoint for several months.

The plans have not been publicly announced or published.  The tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of people who cross Qalandia daily never know in advance what is about to happen, or what is going on.

Information such as this is not a courtesy afforded to people under occupation.

A circle was constructed within the last year just on the Ramallah side of Qalandia checkpoint — which Israeli officials refer to as a “border crossing”, although it is not one of Israel’s officially-listed international crossing points.

This traffic circle was slightly bizarre in that the lane of car traffic coming into Ramallah from the Jerusalem area was funneled into the circle counter-clockwise, while traffic coming from Ramallah into the Qalandia car-parking area was also directed into exactly the same lane.  Drivers just had to work it out for themselves (as we have written before, there is NO civilian or military traffic control on either side of the Qalandia crossing, where there is major traffic passing every single day).

Now, as part of the mysterious new construction that has been going on for over a month, the circle has been cut off just at the left side, although the same cross-direction traffic (incoming from Jerusalem to the south, and drop-off and arrival car-park traffic from Ramallah to the north) has to pass on the right side.

Once you get through that cross-traffic, now, there is suddenly a line of border police vehicles and border police personnel with big black automatic weapons in their arms, and a road block.

There are no signs explaining what is happening, and absolutely no instruction about where to go, except the soldiers with the guns.

Behind them, bulldozers and construction vehicles can be seen at work, day and night — but there is NO explanation.

One night recently, coming from Jerusalem, I was surprised, just after passing through the stress of the checkpoint, by being confronted with a blocked road and armed soldiers.  I had no idea what to do, and tried to continue along the side.  (Once through the checkpoint, there are no street lights, and it was totally dark.) An Israeli border policewoman flagged me down — but, luckily, she was helpful, and polite.  She had no idea, herself, what I should do, because she had never ventured more than 50 meters (if that far) to either side of where she was standing.  But, talking to her, I was able to calm down and stop panicking, and realized I might try to go to a second traffic circle on the other side of the Qalandia car park.  That worked.

Last night, my friend and colleague Yasmine was leaving Ramallah after working with the editor and director of a film she is producing.  She hadn’t passed that way recently, and had absolutely no idea that there was construction underway at Qalandia.  She ran into the blocked road, the military vehicles parked across the road, and the armed soldiers.  But they were not so polite.  They both pointed their guns directly at her, and told her to go, go, go.  “Where?” she asked, “Where?  There are no absolutely no signs indicating where to go”.   They kept pointing their guns, then they motioned with one free arm as their other arm kept a firm hold on their weapon.  “Over there, just go…”

That is one small part of what it means to be under occupation.

And it is not nice.