One of our roles as Ecumenical Accompaniers is to monitor human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territory. Part of that work involves working at checkpoints. Our Jerusalem team is at Qalandiya checkpoint three mornings a week from 4:30 to 7:30 am. Qalandiya is a large checkpoint located between Ramallah and East Jerusalem. This means that it is situated well into the occupied Palestinian territory, several km away from the Green Line, the Israeli-Palestinian international boundary that the world accepted in 1949 and has supported through various UN resolutions in the years since then. It literally is a checkpoint between a Palestinian location and another Palestinian location.
Buses and Israeli licensed vehicles pass through the vehicle portion of the checkpoint, through an area that looks very much like the major border crossings points between Canada and the United States. Soldiers and armed security staff check vehicles and ID permits of those passing through.
Pedestrian traffic moves through the walking terminal. For people coming through the checkpoint from the Ramallah side, the checkpoint building begins with what amounts to a large drafty shed that serves as a waiting area. From this waiting area, people enter one of three long narrow cages, approximately 25 metres long and slightly more than shoulder width wide. Narrowly spaced metal bars form the walls and roof of these cages. At the far end of each cage is a locked turnstile. This, and all subsequent turnstiles, are opened and closed electronically by security staff located inside booths in an unknown location inside the terminal building. When you enter the cage, you do not know if, or when, the turnstile will open.
Once people pass through the turnstile, they walk to one of five gates, where they wait again for a second turnstile to open. After passing through the second turnstile, they are required to show their ID and pass through a metal detector. All personal belongings are sent through an x-ray machine. Men must remove their belts and people are often required to remove their shoes. The concrete floor is always dirty and in wet weather, muddy.
After collecting belongings, people then must wait again until another turnstile is opened. After that, it’s a walk through a long corridor until exiting the building through a final turnstile.
Residents of the West Bank carry West Bank ID. This means that they can only pass through to the Jerusalem side if they have a proper permit, issued for specific employment or for a specific medical appointment, religious reason, or other humanitarian reason. West Bank residents are allowed to pass through “four of the sixteen checkpoints functioning along the Barrier in the Jerusalem periphery…and are allowed to cross these checkpoints only on foot.” (http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_movement_and_access_report_september_2012_english.pdf) One of these four checkpoints is Qalandiya. If people are onboard a bus, they must get off the bus and physically walk through the checkpoint. West Bank licensed vehicles are also not allowed through the checkpoint.
When EAPPI monitors Qalandiya checkpoint, one EA works on the Ramallah side, monitoring how many gates are open, how quickly the lines are moving, assisting people who are turned back to receive appropriate help, monitoring when the humanitarian gate is open and how many people use it, and warmly greeting those who pass through. The second EA stands just outside the final gate on the Jerusalem side, counting the number of men, women and children who are exiting the checkpoint. Four or five times during the course of the morning, we measure the length of time it takes for workers to pass though the checkpoint. To do this, we write the time on a piece of paper and ask an individual to hand it to the EA on the Jerusalem side who then records the length of time it took for the individual to pass through. The information we gather is reported weekly to our office, who in turn forward it on to the UN and other relevant agencies.
The checkpoint is primarily used early in the morning by workers passing through on their way to work in Jerusalem and by students going to school. The vast majority of them are men. On average, somewhere between 1600 and 2000 people pass through between the hours of 4:30 and 7:30, but on any given day approximately 15,000 people in total pass through Qalandiya. (http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_movement_and_access_report_september_2012_english.pdf) The average time it took to pass through the checkpoint on Sunday ranged from 25 – 35 minutes, about average for most Sundays, although it can take as little as 10 minutes and as long as an hour or more. Some days things seem to run smoothly, and other days there is congestion and frustration. There seems to be no pattern to how it goes.
At 6am, the Humanitarian gate is supposed to open. This is a gate that is intended to make passage through the checkpoint easier for those who are elderly, for the ill, for children, and for those with small children. Using the Humanitarian gate avoids going through the cages, although users are still required to show appropriate ID, personally pass through the metal detector and have personal possessions pass through the x-ray machine.
This past Sunday morning, things were running slowly at the checkpoint. Average times to pass through were higher than usual. The Humanitarian gate had not opened by 6:15, and so I called the Humanitarian Hotline to request it be opened. It opened at 6:16, and then 8 times thereafter until 6:50, allowing approximately 95 people to pass through.
At around 7:15, a man who was obviously quite ill arrived at the Humanitarian gate, accompanied by a woman and a younger man. The ill man appeared to be weak and required assistance to walk. They stood at the Humanitarian gate, waiting for the soldier and security personnel to come and open it.
Nothing happened. At 7:20, I called the Humanitarian Hotline, requesting that the Humanitarian gate be opened. A fence separates the waiting area from the locked booth where a soldier seems to monitor the checkpoint. I positioned myself behind the fence, looking in the window at the soldier in the booth, trying to attract her attention. Eventually she saw me, and as I motioned to her that there were people who needed to use the Humanitarian gate, she responded with angry gestures. I continued to point towards the people who were waiting. The ill man was in obvious distress. The soldier walked to the door of the booth and began speaking to the young man accompanying him, who was trying unsuccessfully to explain that they needed the gate to be opened. I walked towards the family and said to the soldier “Would you please open the Humanitarian gate? This man is ill and cannot walk.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do!” barked the soldier.
“I am not telling you what to do. I am asking you to please open the Humanitarian gate. This man is ill and cannot walk,” I calmly responded.
“Don’t you tell me what to do!” she again yelled at me.
Calmly and patiently, I once again said “I am simply asking you to please open the Humanitarian gate. This man is ill and cannot walk”
Yelling yet again, she said “What are you doing here? I see you writing something, what are you writing? Why are you here? Go, go to your home. Don’t tell me what to do!” With that, she turned back into the soldier’s booth and closed the door.
The family and I looked at one another. I shrugged my shoulders and said “It doesn’t look like she’s going to open the Humanitarian gate.” They agreed. After generously thanking me, they walked over to the one cage that had no queue and entered.
They stood in the cage for a few minutes, but the turnstile there did not open. With the ill man becoming weaker by the moment, they left the cage and went to sit on a bench in the waiting area. By this time, I was caught in a line in another cage and could not exit. The ill man looked exhausted and his family were obviously despairing of what to do next.
After eventually passing through the turnstile, I entered the area between the first turnstile and the gates and called the Humanitarian Hotline for the third time that morning. It was now 7:40am, and once again I requested that the Humanitarian gate be opened. Shortly thereafter, two security personnel arrived and walked into the booth to speak with the soldier. After a brief discussion, they left the booth and walked out into the fenced area but did not appear to be doing anything. Through the fence, I called out to them, asking that that Humanitarian gate be opened for the ill man and his family. They refused, saying that he would have to pass through the regular cages.
With no other choice, the family once again moved towards the cages. Seeing the difficulties they were experiencing, the crowd parted to let them through and they moved quickly through the cage to the turnstile. One they had passed through the turnstile, the crowd again allowed them to move ahead at the next gate, and they proceeded through the gate, the ID check, the metal detector and the x-ray of their belongings. Eventually my teammate noted them leaving the checkpoint at 7:50am, 40 minutes after they had first arrived at the Humanitarian gate.
Earlier that morning, two members of a self- identified right wing Israeli group arrived at Qalandiya, accompanied by a cameraman. They stayed for about 20 minutes on the Ramallah side, speaking primarily to the soldiers. One of them asked what I was doing there. I briefly explained that the work of EAPPI includes monitoring human rights abuses. He replied by saying that his group is also there to address human rights abuses at the checkpoint. When I suggested that the checkpoint in and of itself is an abuse of the Palestinians’ human rights, he argued that the checkpoints are essential for security.
One has to wonder if security truly is the issue here, or is that simply a guise for control, domination, harassment and outright cruelty? Are these checkpoints really about security? If so, why is it that Gisha, the Israeli legal center for freedom of movement acknowledged last year that “approximately 60,000 Palestinians from the West Bank – half with permits, half without – enter Israel every day for work?” (http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/09/for-palestinian-workers-the-enemy-is-the-hope/) It would seem that if anyone really was intent on terrorist activities, it would be possible to enter Israel illegally.
Around 5am that morning, an older Palestinian man came up to me as I observed the situation in the waiting area. “Thank you for coming and being with our people” he said. “I am 70 years old. I was born in Jerusalem. I live on this side (Ramallah side). I cannot come to Jerusalem without a permit.” Sighing as he looked up to the sky, he concluded with “I pray to the God.”
So too, do I.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,