Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Trip Through the Qalandia Checkpoint

The military checkpoint is one of the most salient features of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. High on the list of the average Palestinian's grievances, the Israeli checkpoint is like a nightmarish version of airport security—even longer lines, pickier metal detectors, and a heavier blanket of humiliation. And like airport security staff, the soldiers manning these checkpoints are bored and pissed from the monotony of it all; recently I saw a soldier behind the glass-paneled booth listening to an IPod.

According to the Israeli government, these checkpoints exist for security reasons. But not all of the checkpoints lie on the Israeli border: in fact, many are smack-dab in the middle of the West Bank. The only logical rationale for these checkpoints in the thick of the Palestinian territory is to protect the Israeli settlements there, which are illegal by international law. Yet regardless of where the checkpoints are, all of them make life more difficult for Palestinians.

To get from Ramallah to Jerusalem (where the ICAHD office is), I – along with Palestinians who have Israel’s permission—have to go through the Qalandia checkpoint. Since I’m an American, my stamped passport suffices as permission. Depending on when I go, it could take from ten minutes to an hour to pass through. Before I walk you through this process, let me give you a few lowlights I've encountered so far in the barred, metallic halls of Qalandia.

- A middle-aged Palestinian man has to pass through the metal detector one, two, three times. Beep. Beep. BEEP. After the first couple beeps he takes off another accessory or article of clothing. After the third he complains to the Israeli soldier behind the glass—but he is ordered to do it again. He flashes a pained smile at his friend standing in front of me, and his friend laughs and says something in Arabic. Meanwhile the line swells behind us. BEEP. The man then lifts his leg up in the air to the glass, then pulls his pant leg up to show that he has no firearm or knife strapped to his ankle. Finally he is let through.

- A Palestinian woman passes through the metal detector. BEEP. She tries again. BEEP. "Take off your shoes!" barks an Israeli voice over the intercom—in English. I wonder if this poor woman even understands English...

- I wait almost a half an hour in one of the lines. When I finally make it through the turnstile, to the metal detector, I place my backpack on the conveyor belt for the X-ray machine. It doesn’t move. I soon learn that the machine is not working at this station—there was no warning before I got into line. A woman with her purse finds this out as well. So we have to trudge back out and get a different line, and wait another half hour. I wonder if it would have been that hard to put up a sign that said "X-Ray Machine at this station not operational—if you have a bag, please move to station 3 or 4."

I'm sure as the weeks go on I'll have more touching vignettes to share. Now begins my photo presentation on Qalandia:

The Qalandia checkpoint is a brief break in the giant wall that snakes in and around the West Bank, built by Israel ostensibly for security reasons. Here is where automobiles have to pass through.

To pass through in an automobile, you're going to need an Israeli license plate. But it still doesn't guarantee a smooth go-ahead, especially for Palestinians coming into Israel to work or see family members. That’s right, there are plenty of Palestinian Arabs that live in Israel – which casts some serious doubt on the official rationale for the Wall’s existence.

A Palestinian plate. You're not going to get through with one of these. You're just going to have to...

...park in this here lot and walk over to that white building. You're going through the checkpoint on foot, I'm sorry to say.

If you're lucky and arrive during a slow period, the first line may look like this.

But its more likely that it will look something like this.

Looking back at the barred tunnel-cages which mark the first control stage of the checkpoint. The only way to know if you are getting through the turnstile is whether it jarringly locks in front of you or lets you pass and saves the aforementioned fate for the poor shmuck behind you. Proceed carefully.

Now waiting in the second line, looking towards the watchtower in which an Israeli guard supervises the crowd. To my right are several different ports which split the line once more, leading to the final stage of the checkpoint.

The "line" in one of the ports. As time drags on, Palestinians not only get agitated with the Israelis, but with each other. Ahead is the second turnstile you must pass through, with the same silent, brute language of admission as the last one.

If I had some serious cajones I would have here a picture of the Israeli soldiers behind the glass, checking my passport. Taking pictures is not a good idea here, and when I do pass through this checkpoint it’s for a good reason: I have somewhere to be and would rather not be held and interrogated. Basically, once I pass through the turnstile I place my bag on the X-ray machine and go through the metal detector. Then I turn left and present my passport and visa stamp to the soldier sitting in an office on the other side of the glass. Thankfully I’ve had no problems so far.

Looking back at the checkpoint after my exit. Whew! It's over.

Ramallah seen from the other side of the wall.

The #18 bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem waits to pick up its passengers that it unloaded on the other side of the Wall, probably about 45 minutes ago. Also, if you have a car with a Palestinian plate and parked on the other side, you'll complete the rest of the journey by bus.

Of course, this whole tedious, harrowing process is unnecessary when you want to come back the other way.

For a well-written and comprehensive story on Israeli checkpoints, check out a piece called “Checkpoints Take Toll on Palestinians, Israeli Army” published in the Washington Post. Here's an excerpt:

As the Palestinians inch forward, armed soldiers standing behind sandbagged concrete walls shout orders to have bags opened and their contents dumped on the ground. On one recent morning, soldiers demanded that a man squirt shaving cream from an aerosol can to verify its contents. They ordered another man to rip the red-and-silver wrapping paper off a box to reveal what was inside: a doll for his granddaughter.

Finally, in a personal update, I sprained my ankle yesterday playing some two-on-two basketball with Palestinians over at the Christian church in Ramallah. It may have had to do with the terribly tattered skateboarding shoes I came here with. This is sprain #3 for the right ankle, and as of right now she is being iced and elevated. The prospects for entering next month's Streetball tournament are not looking so great, but we'll see. You should stay tuned here—despite my immobility at the moment, there's plenty more to talk about.


  1. A well-written piece except for one thing. You have over-simplified Kalandia and make it sound like any Palestinian can cross through it, this simply is not true. Those Palestinians with West Bank I.D's must have a permission issued by the Israeli military at Bet El for them to cross. I'm talking here about teachers, doctors anyone who wants to work in Jerusalem. And what about the poor school children? They have to show their original birth certificate (not a copy) every day they go to school. I've seen little girls and boys too tiny to reach the windows where the soldiers sit, stretching up trying to show their birth certificates. Sometimes, they get questions yelled at them in Hebrew asking them to name their mother and father, just in case, God forbid, these kids have borrowed a birth certificate so they can get to school. Kalandia is a disgusting place, a heartbreaking ugly monstrosity, and I'm glad you are able to cross it freely....I just hope you're not there when something happens and you have to make a run for it! Been there, done that. Stay safe and keep blogging.

  2. Forgot to say - great pictures!!! I am too chicken to take them whilst I am well-done!

  3. Thank you so much for this report. I am just back from the WB and like the previous commenter I should have been braver documenting what I saw.

  4. I enjoyed the post and am sharing the URL on my own blog. I would like to share a picture as well, if I may.