By Lauren Banko
When Tamar, one of the Israeli women of the human rights observation and documentation group Machsom Watch (machsom translates to ‘checkpoint’ in English) first telephoned me a few days before we were to meet for me to join her shift at Qalandiya checkpoint in the Palestinian West Bank, she asked me where we could meet. We had planned to meet during the afternoon of Easter Sunday so that she could answer some of my questions about access for foreigners and of rights, if any, at the over five hundred illegal Israeli checkpoints between the occupied West Bank and both occupied East Jerusalem and Israel proper.
“Shall we meet in Beit Hanina or at Qalandiya?” Tamar asked me. Any other Sunday, I may not have had a problem with either spot, but Easter Sunday fell during the Jewish holiday of Passover, and for the entire week of Passover, plus two extra days, we in the West Bank were under military closure. Beit Hanina is a small village in East Jerusalem which borders on the illegal Israeli separation wall, and is within the green line established in 1967. Legally under international law, Beit Hanina and all of East Jerusalem should be under Palestinian control, but these areas are instead entering the forty-fourth year of Israeli occupation.
Hence, to reach Beit Hanina from the West Bank, Palestinians must either be residents of Jerusalem, or have received a military permit to cross the checkpoint (or several checkpoints) that separate them from Jerusalem. Military permits, as one might expect, are not easy to get and are usually issued for sick individuals only to visit hospitals in Jerusalem for a short period of time—often valid for only a few hours. Students and workers can apply for temporary academic or work permits to be in Jerusalem but the Israeli military often does not renew them once they expire, or their holders are forced to enter a lengthy process of renewal, during which they are denied access into Jerusalem. To get any type of permit to cross into Jerusalem, even for Palestinians whose families, villages, and even streets are cut off from their neighbors by the separation wall, the applicant must meet age qualifications. Once a Palestinian child from the West Bank turns twelve years of age, he will be given a blue West Bank identity card and is banned from entering Jerusalem, even with his parents. Those West Bank Palestinians who do have permission to enter Jerusalem are not allowed further than Jerusalem into the 1948 borders of Israel.
I am currently living in the town of Birzeit, close to the de facto Palestinian Authority capital of Ramallah and about twenty-two kilometers from Jerusalem, and as an American, I hold an Israeli tourist visa. As a foreigner with an Israeli visa, I usually do not have problems passing through Qalandiya checkpoint—besides the usual being treated as less than a human, or as part of a herd of cattle along with the Palestinians.
“Well, I don’t know if I can get to Beit Hanina on time, you know, I have to pass through the checkpoint and it is…” I began saying to Tamar.
“Oh right, I know, there is a closure. We’ll meet at Qalandiya, on the Palestinian side, next to the wall,” she answered, knowing quite well that because of the Jewish holiday, the entire West Bank was closed in. Even those with normal permits for school and work would face the threat of not being allowed through the checkpoints, and many checkpoints through the West Bank were simply closed for the entire period. Although Qalandiya would remain open, as it is the main checkpoint between the city of Ramallah and Jerusalem, it would take quite some time to pass through it. Two days before speaking to Tamar, I had gone to Jerusalem on the first day of the closure. Only one lane out of several was open to filter Palestinians and visa-holders through the checkpoint and the wait at that particular time of the day was over one hour. On a normal day, nearly forty thousand people pass through Qalandiya checkpoint. Despite the seventy-five degree heat and the screaming of the female soldiers for people to stay in a line and only pass through the turnstiles one-by-one, it could have been worse. It always can be worse.
Tamar informed me that if we did not spot each other on Sunday afternoon, I could ask anyone around if she was there. Anyone will know you? I asked. “Well yes, after being there eight years, you know…” she replied. And so it was set. I would spend my Easter Sunday afternoon at Qalandiya checkpoint.
I arrived in the West Bank early in January to carry out eight to nine months of research for my doctoral thesis. My field is history, and specifically, the history of the Palestine Mandate. My main reason for being in Palestine then, is not the same as that of many other foreigners who are here as solidarity activists or working or volunteering for NGOs in the West Bank and particularly in Ramallah. I had heard about Machsom Watch some years before, and have high respect for their work: they are a group of Israeli women who since 2001 have taken it upon themselves to bear witness to the injustices and abuses, as well as the system of apartheid and control, that take place at both the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and military courts which try Palestinian men, women and children for various offenses. They document what they witness and publish it both on their website in great detail, with photos, and also send it to Israeli government officials and representatives. They consider themselves peace activists and against the occupation of Palestine. They are the only group who focuses on what goes on at the checkpoints, and the respect and trust they are held within by the Palestinians is very high. Understandably they are met with suspicion, hostility, offense, and even arrest by the young soldiers who man the checkpoints—for simply watching, documenting, and photographing the checkpoints.
My experiences in passing through the checkpoints are not positive, although as a white female with an American passport I do have some degree of preferential treatment. I would assume that most foreigners, even those who support Israel, have a very eye-opening experience when they pass through a checkpoint and are themselves humiliated or watch other human beings—including the elderly, pregnant women, children, and the sick—humiliated for simply committing the unforgivable sin of being a Palestinian who is attempting to use his denied-right to move about freely. I have certainly seen suffering at the Qalandiya checkpoint and heard innumerable horrible stories of it, since I pass through it every weekday to get to Jerusalem. To pass into Israeli controlled territory, one must use the terminal of Qalandiya, or other checkpoint inspections on foot or by vehicle. At Qalandiya, we can only get into the terminal through a narrow passageway, one-by-one, surrounded very closely on both sides by high metal bars. Then we must wait at first one, then another, then often another, turnstile. Movement through this is controlled by Israeli soldiers some distance ahead, in their offices behind bullet and soundproof glass. For fun or as collective punishment, the turnstiles are often locked for long periods of time as the queue to pass through them grows. If two people try to squeeze through one turn, the turnstile is often locked by the soldier, who screams over the loudspeaker at the offenders and everyone else. Without reason, some lanes of the checkpoint can be announced as closed and everyone standing in front of them must move to the next lane, extending the waiting time. Children are separated from parents in turnstiles and then the queues. When taking the Arab bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem, passengers who disembark at the checkpoint while the bus goes through its own lane, usually are not finished in time to get on the same bus and must wait for another.
The usual scene after I get through the waiting and reach final turnstile, pass through and place my belongings on the metal detector, is the following: I walk to the soundproof window to show my visa to the soldiers behind the glass. They are young, often in their late teens, and despite the fact that they have made us wait for long periods of time in queue, they are texting or on Facebook on their mobile phones, are listening to music in headphones, are napping with their feet on their desks, are eating or drinking, or are joking around. As an American, I am usually waved on through, but sometimes my passport number and details are recorded. The Palestinian ID cards all have electronic chips that correspond with their finger prints, ensuring that they cannot use another person’s ID to pass through checkpoints. I am supposed to be allowed through at all times with a visa, but I was once turned back, even after insisting having a visa means I am allowed in Israel without such checkpoint restrictions, and told that only West Bank ID holders were allowed into Jerusalem that day.
Foreigners and passport holders who entered Jerusalem from Ramallah on the Ramallah-Jerusalem bus were previously allowed to remain on the bus as it went through the bus lane. Those over age sixty-five or who are going to the hospital are also able to stay on the bus. Two soldiers board, often after long waits, and check each person’s ID, fingers on their rifle’s triggers. The soldiers, for any reason, can deny entry to any Palestinian or force them off the bus to walk through the checkpoint. Recently however, all foreigners are treated as Palestinians and are no longer allowed to remain on the bus. It is an interesting situation the Israelis are creating with this new ‘order’: the middle-aged or retired tourists from Midwest America or a small town in Britain who decided to visit Ramallah, or perhaps Bethlehem, for the day but who have no idea of the system of control of the occupation, are made to disembark from the bus on their return to Jerusalem and wait in queue at the checkpoint with the Palestinians. They will see, firsthand, what Israel does not want internationals to see: the humiliation and degradation that takes place at checkpoints. They will be treated as animals as well, pushed through the pen of the checkpoint and screamed at by soldiers over loudspeakers for touching the bars that surround the lanes, getting out of line, not moving fast enough, jamming the turnstiles, or not understanding what they are in fact saying in Hebrew.
The most demeaning thing I witnessed out of many occurred at Qalandiya. I travel in the mornings to Jerusalem, and this happens to also be the time many Palestinians are going to Jerusalem to reach the hospital. One morning while waiting in the bus to have my passport inspected, the soldiers approached a very elderly woman sitting at the front on the bus. I had seen her get onto the bus with great difficulty unaccompanied. She had a large patch over one eye. One soldier inspected her documents, as she had a permit to go to the hospital. He was not satisfied with the permit, and as she was a West Bank ID holder, he told her briskly to get off the bus and walk through the terminal for West Bank ID holders. As it happens, this terminal is a walk away from the bus lane, through several lanes of traffic and through a small opening in a metal fence. For an elderly woman, blind in one eye and by herself on the way to the hospital, making her walk all the way to the other terminal is a cruel injustice. She protested; the soldiers both insisted. She appealed to the bus driver. “Yalla hajji, yalla,” was his response, as there was nothing he could do to oppose the soldiers. She was forced off the bus with several shouts from the soldiers. In another example while waiting in the checkpoint line, a young man and his sister were in front of me and the young man was clearly disabled. His sister passed through the metal detector fine, but when he tried, the detector beeped. He tried again, same thing. The sister began to tell the soldiers behind glass that her brother has braces in his mouth, and this always happened, it was fine. The soldiers would hear nothing of it, and telling her to be quiet, began making the young man, disabled, remove first his coat, then shoes, then watch, then sweater…I was able to pass through as he was taking off articles of clothing and walking back and forth through the metal detector.
For the very ill who are transported to the checkpoint by a Palestinian ambulance, they face life-threatening waits. Palestinian vehicles, even ambulances from the Red Crescent, are not allowed into Israel although there are several Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem. Instead, a victim of a sudden heart attack or stroke or an infant with sudden respiratory arrest who cannot be treated at a hospital in the West Bank, must somehow have had the foresight to predict their situation, and arrange for theirs and the ambulance’s papers to be sent to the checkpoint or at least presented in order when they arrive at Qalandiya. Obviously, this is impossible. The wait is often very long for ambulances to pass. It is the soldiers—the IDF who are clearly not trained doctors—to decide how dire a patient’s condition is. They need not let them pass even if the patient is near death if their papers are not in order. The job of the soldier is to only let ambulances pass once the vehicle’s and the patient’s papers are in order and the soldiers are assured the patient is not a security threat to the state of Israel. Family members of the patient who are West Bank ID holders—even mothers of infants—are not allowed to cross the check point with the ambulance and so the patient often goes alone. Once the ambulance is let through, it must park just outside the vehicle lane and back up to the awaiting Israeli-licensed ambulance. The patient is transferred from the Palestinian to the Israeli ambulance in order to be taken the rest of the way to the hospital in Jerusalem.
I arrived to Qalandiya on Easter with a good idea of what takes place at checkpoints—not only the insults but also violence and arrests at the hands of the soldiers. Meeting Tamar made this all the more clear, as she recounted stories from various checkpoint-watching in the past eight years of her service to Machsom Watch. Many of the vendors (often children) who make their living at Qalandiya selling water, soda, coffee and tea, sweets, produce, prayer cards and taxi rides to other checkpoints for those denied entry at this one, knew Tamar and spoke Hebrew with her. Others who had recognized her from other times at the checkpoint came to speak with her eagerly. As it was Easter, the terminal was quite full but two lanes were operating. The queue was nevertheless long. The bus lane had been closed all week and so everyone had to pass through these two lanes that day. Those who were allowed into Jerusalem for Easter—very few Palestinian Christians were issued permits to visit the holy city for their holiest of days—had passed through hours earlier. This afternoon, the soldiers allowed two or three people at a time through the first and second sets of turnstiles, with long periods of waiting in between. Some of Tamar’s friends shared their stories, and some were eager to know what her organization did, seeing her nametag.
After a couple of hours at Qalandiya, I went with Tamar through two other checkpoints in close proximity: Al-Ram and Hizme, also entrances to Jerusalem. At al-Ram, soldiers stop only cars with yellow Israeli plates. This is an internal checkpoint, not on any border, and is set up so that Jews from the nearby settlement do not ‘accidentally’ take the wrong road and end up in Qalandiya refugee camp or checkpoint. If the cars’ occupants are Palestinians, they are allowed to continue on through, but settlers must turn around and take the Israeli-only road to their destination. Upon getting out of the car at the checkpoint with Tamar to observe, one of the soldiers approached us, his gun pointed right at me. Tamar asks him in Hebrew to please not point his gun in such a way. Another soldier, who knows her, comes over to speak with her for a bit and the first soldier turns and walks back to his post.
My Easter Sunday was well-spent—observing the modes of control at the checkpoints. Luckily, there were no incidents in our time at Qalandiya and the other two checkpoints outside of the normal denials of entry. We finished our day with kunefe, an Arabic pastry, at a sweets shop in East Jerusalem. Here, Tamar greeted the staff, all quite familiar with her, and told them she had heard from the soldiers at Qalandiya that the military closure for the Jewish holiday would be extended two extra days. Instead of closure being lifted by Monday morning, it would last until Tuesday night. The cashier shook his head and smiled. “We are waiting for you. Go on, we just keep waiting for you,” he said in reply.
– Lauren Banko is doing research in the West Bank. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.