For the first time in years, or perhaps ever, Palestinian traffic policemen were allowed to deploy up to the concrete barriers at the entry to the main Qalandia checkpoint today,
which Israeli officials refer to as a “border crossing”, on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
It was a real departure on the first Friday in Ramadan 2009, as thousands of Palestinian men and women and children endured heat and serial military checks in order to be able to go to pray during this special month at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem.
(The lunar calendar used by Muslims means that the month of Ramadan starts about 11 days earlier every year. Roughly every 36 years, Ramadan rotates through the hottest and longest days of summer.)
One sunny Palestinian traffic policeman helping pedestrians cross through the constant flow of cars and vans said that the deployment had been done in coordination with the Israeli military, and that for now the Palestinian deployment would be just for Fridays during Ramadan, at least for now. “We hope we can come every Friday, and then every day, and that we can also go into Jerusalem to pray”. He said that he is now 34 years old, and according to current Israeli policy, he will not be free to pray in Jerusalem for another 16 years. He said he came from the Old City of Nablus, and that he was one of between 20-24 Palestinian traffic policemen selected for the special task. “Ukhti” (My sister), he called to beckon one woman to cross the street.
“We are here”, he explained, “but without guns”. However, he said, they did not really need guns, because “many people tell us it’s a great day, and it’s good, that they finally see us on the street here. Some drivers even stopped in surprise”, he reported.
Another Palestinian traffic policeman said that there were about 15 Palestinian policemen on duty at Qalandia. Palestinian security cars were lined up and parked just at the entrance into the Qalandia perimeter — an extremely rare sight.
Precisely because there has been no civilian traffic control allowed anywhere near the Israeli military, Qalandia checkpoint has, until now, been the the site of frequent traffic snarls and intimidating traffic congestion where cars have to fight to advance every single centimeter.
The aggressive young beggars that operate in the areas where cars waiting to pass through Qalandia add another layer of misery and stress for the trapped motorists.
For the four Fridays in Ramadan, vehicular traffic has been banned from just after midnight until 3 pm in the afternoon.
Palestinian mini-vans and buses were surprisingly organized, and dispatchers with neon-green vests and megaphones urged the stream of Palestinians onto transport into Jerusalem. The prayer-goers would face at least one other military check at Damascus Gate in the Old City Wall. It was later reported that five Palestinians were arrested, a few for “carrying knives” and one for being from Gaza but not having a permit.
This year, like last year, only men over 50 years old, and only women over 45 years old, are eligible for entry into Jerusalem for the Friday prayers during Ramadan, a holy month which commemorates the revelation of the Qur’an. For the entire month of Ramadan, adults fast completely (and do not even drink water) from two hours before sunrise until sundown. The idea is to give the body a rest, and to develop solidarity with the poor who are often not able to eat and drink as they need.
Men between 45 and 50 may apply for special permits issued for the four Fridays in Ramadan, and women between 30 and 45 were also eligible to apply — but UN officials said that all the Palestinians all had to be married to qualify for the special permits. Apparently, children under 12 could accompany their parents.
Despite the noticeably better Israeli organization implemented by the Israeli military authorities at Qalandia, there were far fewer Palestinians trying to pass through Qalandia today than during the first Friday of Ramadan last year. “Where are the thousands of Palestinians who cannot get into Jerusalem and who ususally come to protest?”, asked one woman from the Israeli organization Machsom Watch. One Palestinian policeman said that it was only the first Friday of Ramadan, and predicted that the numbers would increase in the coming weeks. However, a UN official noted that the fourth Friday of Ramadan this year coincides with a major Jewish holiday, and predicted that Palestinian traffic into Jerusalem from the occupied West Bank would be reduced to a trickle.
According to a tally from the observers with the Ecumenical Accompaniers program (EAPPI) of the World Council of Churches, just over 16,000 Palestinians passed through Qalandia going into Jerusalem between 0600 and 1130 in the morning. Last year, EAPPI said that 36,000 Palestinians passed through Qalandia in more-or-less the same time period, between 0600 and 1200.
Israeli officials later reported that 90,000 Muslims were at the Friday prayers (the exact same figure as last year) up on the Haram as-Sharif plateau on which Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are both built. Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who are legal residents of Israel, and Israel’s own Arab/Palestinian citizens had free access to Al-Aqsa. (The Haram as-Sharif plateau has a reported capacity of 300,000).