checking out checkpoints

“See? It’s supposed to be about security. But really, it’s about bureaucracy.”

This morning I went with Machsom Watch — an all-women, all-volunteer organization — to Qalandia checkpoint. The organization, as its name suggests, monitors the checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel proper, of which there are estimated by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem to be almost 100 as of September 2013. As a volunteer organization, Machsom Watch does a variety of other anti-occupation projects as its members indicate interest and commit to supporting. Some members work to get Palestinians off of Shin Bet’s travel blacklist, while others monitor military courts. There’s even a group that takes Palestinian women and their children to the beach.

A lot of detail follows. The short version: Checkpoints are dehumanizing, and they serve to disrupt the lives of Palestinians more than to provide security for Israelis. Here’s one writer’s account of the Qalandia checkpoint from about a year ago.

I got picked up in French Hill at 5:15 a.m., and the volunteer whose shift I was joining — who I’ll call Lorna — drove me to the checkpoint about 15 minutes away. On the way we passed the Atarot industrial area, where many of the Palestinians crossing the checkpoint work. As soon as we passed the industrial area, she noted, the street lights were no longer working, rendering the two-kilometer walk from the checkpoint quite treacherous. “There are no sidewalks,” she elaborated. “During the summer I can see the people walking on the road at this time of the morning; during the winter, it’s terrifying.” The street lights haven’t worked in 10 years, she added. Machsom Watch has frequently appealed to the city to fix them, but the municipality hasn’t done anything.

We parked outside the wall and walked through the checkpoint to observe the people queuing up to cross. Walking in was effortless; no one stopped or even took notice of us.

The lines were short at 5:30 a.m., but by 6:00, and until 7:00, they reached out to the parking lot. The first step is for people to line up in one of three metal cages, each with a turnstile at the end controlled by a soldier in a booth. Only a few people are allowed to pass through the turnstiles at a time. And it’s never clear exactly how many people will be allowed to pass each time — it’s only when someone slams into the stopped turnstile that it’s evident that the line has come to a halt. (This happened to me when I passed through as we were leaving.)

When we arrived, the soldier in the booth had fallen asleep, and no one could get through. Lorna pulled out a coin and rapped on the fence near the booth to wake her up. She told me that she forgot her spoon: “The best way to wake up the soldiers is to take a spoon and run up and down the fence.” Last week, she said, even that didn’t work: Everyone in line had to start shouting wake her up. (I will note that it is clear that working a checkpoint is a shit job. I feel a lot of compassion for the soldiers, too, who are just kids tasked with a political mission.)

After the first turnstiles, people then line up in one of five lanes (if they’re all open) to pass through another turnstile, again controlled by another soldier in another booth. Once allowed through, bags are checked by an x-ray machine. Then people approach the window of the control booth and show both their ID and their permit — and get a fingerprint scanned to make sure it matches the person on the ID and permit. In some ways, the checkpoint is like airport security. But it’s required every single day.

There is what is called a “humanitarian gate” at the checkpoint — for women, children, anyone over age 60, teachers, and disabled folks. One of the reasons it’s especially important is so that religious women don’t have stand in close, crowded quarters with men. There are also frequent reports of women being groped in the queue. Soon after we arrived, a woman approached one of the soldiers and asked if the gate was open; the soldier replied in the affirmative, but it took another ½ hour before it was actually opened. Apparently, she didn’t have the key.

One of the aspects of this checkpoint that is especially infuriating is that the parts of the post-1967 municipal borders of Jerusalem extend inside the wall. For Qalandia, this means that residents of East Jerusalem who live inside the wall have to have a permit and go through the checkpoint to get to the part of East Jerusalem outside the wall. This includes many children who are separated from their schools by the wall.

When we were ready to leave, we got in the queue ourselves. It took a little over 30 minutes to pass. The family in front of us had permits to enter Jerusalem and appointments at the American consulate to apply for visas to enter the United States. The soldier detained the family for a long time, insisting that as residents of the West Bank they couldn’t apply for visas at the American consulate In East Jerusalem (even though the American consulate had approved them to do just that); they should go to a consular office in the West Bank, he insisted. There are no U.S. consular offices in the West Bank.

part of machsom watch map of the center of the west bank (showing qalqiliya, habla, nebi elyas, alfe menashe, elkana, and masha)

I first learned about Machsom Watch when I went on a tour with the group a few weeks ago. We first stopped at the (plant) nursery of a Palestinian man who is a resident of a village called Qalqiliya, in the center-west part of the West Bank. The wall almost completely surrounds the village, and while his house is inside the wall (i.e., in what Israel considers the West Bank), his business is outside the wall (i.e., in what Israel considers part of Israel proper). It should be noted that both his house and his business are inside the Green Line (i.e., what the international community considers the West Bank). Indeed, 85% of the wall is inside the West Bank.

To go to work everyday, he and the 500+ people he employs have to pass through a checkpoint, for which they all have to have a permit. That is, to reach his own business on his own land, this man has to apply for and be approved for a permit. Without a permit, he is considered illegally on his own land. Moreover, anyone in his village or in another part of the West Bank who wishes to shop at his nursery also has to get a permit, meaning that effectively he has no Palestinian customers.

sign on agricultural checkpoint gate near masha

Next we went to the agricultural checkpoint at the nearby village of Habla, a town also separated from its residents’ lands by the wall. Again, both the village and the lands are inside the Green Line. The checkpoint that separates the two is only opened three times a day (morning, afternoon, and evening) for an hour each time. Of course, this is only theoretical: Both the times and the length of the opening are changed without notice. We observed the mid-day opening, which was supposed to start at 1:15, but the soldiers didn’t even get to the checkpoint until 1:30, and it was at least another 10 minutes before they started letting people through. Our guide noted that a late start doesn’t affect the closing time: At 2:15, the soldiers would leave, not to return until evening. Those crossing on foot had their permits checked in a booth, while those in cars had them searched. And all of this was to move a mere 50 meters across a gate marked with a big red sign: “MORTAL DANGER — MILITARY ZONE. Anyone person who crosses or damages the fence ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.”

We next visited Nabi Elyas, a small village just to the east of Qalqiliya, the growth of which is being cut off by Israel’s construction. On one side is the wall and the settlement of Alfe Menashe; on the other is a settlers-only road, built on land confiscated from the village, and the settlement of Zufin. Nabi Elyas is in Area C, which means it doesn’t get permits for new construction, and even if it did, there’s nowhere to expand. The village is slowly being choked off.

detritus from regular protests in main road of the village of kfar qadum

After lunch we headed to Kufr Qadum. The settlement of Kedumim (also built on confiscated private Palestinian land) is just to the east of it, and at the settlers’ request, the village’s main access to the main road has been blocked for the last six years. The trip to the main road now takes an extra 20 minutes in order to ensure that Palestinians do not drive near the settlement. The villagers have protested every Friday since the closing; they are always met by the military with tear gas, skunk water, and or rubber-coated bullets. The village’s main road now looks like a disaster zone because of the clashes.

We finished the day at “the lone house,” the residence of the Amal family, which is inside an agricultural checkpoint between the Palestinian village of Masha (inside the wall) and the settlement of Elkana (outside the wall). There’s the settlement, then the wall, then the house, and then a fence, and then the Palestinian village. Once again, the village of Masha is separated from its residents’ lands by the wall. The Amal family has a key to a private gate in the fence so that they can get to the village from which it is now separated. The gate is monitored by a camera, and only the six members of the Amal family are allowed to move freely through the gate; residents of the village must apply for a permit to visit the family’s house. Machsom Watch calls this house, “the occupation in a nutshell.”

There is so much more about these two trips that I could share, but I’m guessing that getting through even this much information was a challenge. And these two trips are just a couple of the many trips and tours I took in the West Bank this summer, each horrific in its own way. As a bumper sticker I saw the other day notes:

The occupation is killing us all.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Salem. I appreciate being able to learn about what’s happening through your experiences. As awful as it the occupation is, knowing that these organizations are out there gives me hope that things will change in the future. Thank you for all that you’re doing! ❤

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