Qalandia checkpoint outside East Jerusalem is a degrading place.
The Israeli government’s view is that it is reasonable to check people coming into Jerusalem and that we all consent to going through security at an airport. True, people queue up at airports, take off their belts, and put their belongings on a conveyor belt to be scanned. But there the resemblance ends.
Qalandia is one of two main checkpoints through from the occupied West Bank to occupied East Jerusalem. Rather than operating at a border, these are internal checkpoints, cutting off one part of occupied Palestine from another. More than 600 people each hour go through Qalandia in the early morning. Many of them have already travelled distances to get as far as the checkpoint.
The large shed leading to Qalandia checkpoint is dismal and dirty. The rubbish is sometimes swept up but the concrete floor looks unwashed. There are three water fountains, each with four jets. Out of a possible 12 jets only four actually work. There are two toilets, one for men and one for women. The men’s one has been locked since I started coming here three weeks ago. The women’s one has two cubicles with filthy toilets. The stench is appalling. The flushes don’t work and there is no water in them. There is no water in the one hand basin, indeed there are no taps or pipes.
There are usually about a hundred people waiting when we arrive to monitor the checkpoint at 4.30 a.m. They look as if they are construction workers. Their boots are coated with dust, sometimes they have paint splashes and their jeans are well worn. A minority are smarter but definitely no suits. Most only carry small black plastic bags with ‘hubus’ – flat bread for their lunch. Often they put their wallets and mobile phones into these bags because here there are only about three trays for their belongings at each scanner.
There are five booths where soldiers check people’s IDs and work permits. Today only four were open. To reach these, people have to go through one of three narrow cages, one person wide, which ends in a turnstile into a holding area. The large digital clock above the cages is permanently broken. There is also a ‘humanitarian lane’. This is for women who do not want to go through the cages with the men and also for people who are disabled in wheelchairs. In my three weeks of monitoring Qalandia it has taken at best an hour to get the soldiers to open it. Sometimes they do not open it at all.
This morning, the crowd waiting to get to these cages extended out into the car park beyond. There were about 25 women standing at the humanitarian lane gate. A couple with a baby in a pushchair and two other small children gave up and went away. When this lane is not open, our task is to ring the humanitarian hotline, a number for the Israeli Civil Administration whose job it is to ensure checkpoints work efficiently. I rang the hotline three times to ask for the lane to be opened and also the fifth booth. On each occasion I was told that they would get someone to do it.
“They lie,” said a man beside me. Another said, “Thank you for coming to see how they treat us. They treat us like animals”. Over the next half hour I rang the Israeli District Commanding Officer (DCO) twice. He is senior to the person on the humanitarian hotline. The second time he said there was nothing he could do and put the phone down. All of this is in contravention of international law which requires Israel to respect the rights of an occupied population to move freely in the occupied territory, as enshrined in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
“Sometimes the soldiers are sleeping on the floor,” said a woman who has been going through every day for three years. “Sometimes they are on their mobile phones,” said another. One woman told me that it could take her two hours to go what should be a 20 minute drive. In ordinary airports, people do not wait this long. Nor when they get to the booths do they find that their ticket has been invalidated without warning or explanation, as happens regularly with the permits Palestinians must present at these checkpoints. Palestinians who are turned away have to make their way back through the crowds from whence they came. People stand back and try to make way for them. They know that it could be any one of them, any day.
Men were jostling at the entrance to the cages, shouting and pointing to the gate to the humanitarian lane. By then people were becoming desperate to get to work. People have been known to lose their jobs for being late. By now it was taking nearly an hour to go through. Every time the turnstile opened people pushed and shoved and shouted. I went through with a group of women. It seemed that if we fell we would be trampled before anyone could get us out. The women standing with me were upset and frightened – one woman was close to tears.
One of them simply said to me, “They don’t care”.
You can find out more information about the 96 fixed checkpoints currently located in the West Bank, including the 57 internal checkpoints located well within the West Bank, on the website of the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem.