Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Qalandiya Checkpoint

As is the case with most lives, the daily routine is such that to write about it would bore you to tears. And so I am posting an experience that I had early in my stay here - one that brings me to tears for reasons other than boredom.  For me, the day to day work and living do not change too much, however, for other people; their every day experiences need to change radically. And if they do not, I believe that one day, we will all be held accountable.

Qalandiya Checkpoint

I have a friend who is volunteering in the organization EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Program for Palestine and Israel). She goes regularly to the Qalandiya checkpoint to monitor the length of time it takes for people to pass from one side to the other. This Sunday morning she has offered to let me come and observe the process.

Qalandiya is one of the largest checkpoints in the Separation/Discrimination Wall.  It runs through a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.  So although it is still considered a part of East Jerusalem, it is behind the Wall. 

It is 4:10am and we have taken a taxi to Qalandiya. We have gone to the West Bank side of the checkpoint to observe this morning’s lineups as people cross to Jerusalem. The people waiting here are going to school and/or work. School starts at 8am, as do most jobs. Although there are not many here at this time more people are arriving little by little. The turnstiles are open and there is steady movement through them into the next part of the checkpoint where IDs are checked and two more turnstiles wait. The humanitarian line (for women, children, the elderly and the ill) will open at 6:00am, so for now everyone is moving through the general line. 

My friend asks a young man if he will take a card, with the present time on it, through the checkpoint, to give to her cohort on the other side, who will make note of his arrival time. Later we hear it took him an hour to walk the 150meters (500 ft) through the checkpoint.

It is freezing cold. I am wearing three layers and my coat and scarf and two pairs of mittens.  Some men have lit a fire in the back of the corrugated sheet metal shed, to keep themselves warm. More and more people are arriving. Some men have taken themselves off to the side for morning prayers while others are lining up in haphazard lines at the entrances of three lanes. These barred  lanes are  hard to imagine, like cattle runs about 25 meters in length,  with the opening above one’s head also having bars and added barbed wire. The people walk down these lanes to a turnstile that is activated, to rotate, by the guard in a bulletproof booth on the other side. I understand that crowd control varies.  This morning, it is moving along at a good pace, letting people through a few at a time. At other times it can differ in that large numbers are let through after a longer waiting period. There is no consistency. 

Today seems like a quiet morning yet there is an uneasy feeling as men are gathering behind us in the waiting area.  Unfortunately someone has fueled the fire in the back with garbage and the smoke has begun to fill the shed. Our eyes are burning and the smell is awful.

 At about 5:30am, whether by silent signal or on the spur of the moment, all the men arise and rush the lanes. There is yelling and shouting and I see men climbing up and over the top of the cages, and squishing down through the bars into the turnstiles (imagine three or four men in a quarter turn of a turnstile). Some men are slipping through the bars at the head of the line. It is a mad push and people are in an uproar and I can see older people caught up in this crush in the lanes. It makes no sense. There seems no reason for the why of it and definitely no way of making the line move along any quicker.

In the meantime the humanitarian line has not opened and there are obviously school children waiting, and women, and some who are not feeling well. There is a middle-aged man, and his wife, with their elderly father who can barely stand up. He looks so very frail and old. They were waiting in the back area and I saw them leave when the younger men rushed the checkpoint lines. But now they are back and making their way to the humanitarian line which has still not opened. 

My friend calls the number on the guard’s booth, to tell them that one line is getting dangerous (a buzz word) and the other has not opened although it is now 6:30am. She is told that it will open soon, in five or ten minutes. People have now started coming up to us and asking us to help them. They need to get to work, get to school, and go to the hospital. We tell them we have called twice and there is nothing we can do. But we are the international presence and why can’t we do something!? That is a good question – why can’t we? Where is the International presence actually?  The little power we have is in the watching. EAPPI observe and report. Their presence is important and they do make calls to the soldiers in the booth and that will often help in getting the stalled lines moving, but watching is not easy. There is a sad irony that a snap shot of these faces, pressed against the bars and barbed wire, is too reminiscent of other barred cages with other distraught faces. 

The crush is still on and it is now nearing 7:00am.The humanitarian gate has been opened for a short time and people have moved quickly forward in a hurry. Although they are not allowed, some of the younger men have tried to push their way forward in this line too. A number have gotten through, so more give it a try. The other turnstiles have not moved in ages and those in the midst of the crush are frustrated. Many just hang about at the back of the shed waiting for it to ease up. I still see some trying to bypass the whole apparatus by climbing on and over the bars at the front. One fellow has caught his jacket and gets hung up. Another rips his pocket shimming over the pointed bars. People have put their bags and lunches through the bars and onto the floor at the front and then once through the line and turnstile, pick them up on the other side before going on through the second stage of entrance into Jerusalem. I couldn’t figure out why they did this until I realized that the lunches wouldn’t survive the crush in any sort of edible state.

In many ways the young men are their own worst enemy.  The jumping lines, rushing, crushing, pushing, shoving, yelling behavior just feeds into the worst of the imagined stereotypes that the Israelis are lead to believe of their neighbours.   I can see why the young soldiers (many of them female), even in their private booths, would begin to feel anxiety, as the hordes of angry men continue their machinations.  On the other hand, I cannot possibly understand the frustration that these Palestinian men, and women, must feel every morning, afternoon, evening and night, being forced through this daily routine just  to get to work, or to school, or to the other side of their neighbourhood. 

There is no sense in any of this. If this is the way of it, at least make this checkpoint a workable functioning operation.  As one man, in line, said to us, ‘We are the same people every day. They know us now, our faces. This is not fair. There are easier ways to do this, if it must be done.’

 At 7:30am our shift is over, it is our turn to get in line. Because we are women, we get in the humanitarian line; we stand with other women and some young boys going to school. Beside us, the man and his elderly father have returned. This man can barely stand up and his son is close to tears. We are trying to help, holding an arm, catching the eye of a soldier. Please help! I am led to understand that this soldier is a ‘good guy’. When he sees this man and his father, come through the turnstile, he goes over and takes an arm, speaking orders into his walkie-talkie, for what we hope is preparation for a wheel chair or ambulance or something on the other side. He helps to carry this man onward through two more turnstiles and a passport check. We see that the woman who has been carrying, what I assume is the elderly man’s luggage, is being let through ahead of the line to catch-up with her family. The Israeli soldier has come back to carry her bag.

[Later that Sunday morning, I am reminded to always look for God in our midst. I weep silently in church as I realize that this moment was a God inspired moment. ]

Once we have reached the other side (only a brief half hour for us) we wait for a bus home. A young boy, on his way to school, comes up to me and says, ‘You are good luck for us, not too bad this morning, we are through quickly’. With a huge smile he walks off, and with a wave says - ‘Have a nice day’.