Morning at Qalandia

[Dispatches from Israel/Palestine. September 2015.]

When the alarm buzzed at the unnatural hour of half past four in the morning, I had to do everything in my power to resist turning it off, forgetting the world and going back to sleep. At Qalandia, however, schoolchildren half my age repeat this process day after day, of waking up at a time when most children around the world are safely asleep, and queuing in line to cross a checkpoint simply to go to school.

What effect does this have on a child’s psyche? What does it tell them about the apparent difference between themselves and their peers, those who don’t have to cross a checkpoint to attend school every day?

A Daily Ritual

One Wednesday morning, I accompanied two members of Machsom Watch to the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Machsom Watch is a volunteer organization consisting of Israeli women who monitor and document the conditions at IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) checkpoints across the West Bank, among their other activities. We reached Qalandia at 5.30 am to discover the crowd of workers stretching far beyond the premises of the checkpoint and onto the roads. There are three congested lanes; the revolving metal doors spin approximately every ten minutes to let Palestinians through to the security check, before stopping abruptly within a few seconds. Nearby, Arabs with Israeli IDs pass through the checkpoint in their cars, another tediously slow process that leads to long lines of traffic that barely moves an inch every five minutes. Today was a relatively “normal” day, devoid of too much tension or scuffling. On very busy days, I am told that people push and shove aggressively in an attempt to get through the metal doors, for not going through could mean being late for work.

At around six in the morning, the crowd of people at the ‘humanitarian lane’ slowly starts to build. This lane is designated for older people who can pass through into Israel without permits, as well as for children, women, professionals such as doctors and teachers, and the sick. Among those in the lane this morning is an elderly couple heading to a hospital in Israel for an operation and a doctor from Gaza. Despite being intended to ease their discomfort, they endure a thirty-minute wait until the gate is finally opened at 6.30 am. The rest of the people at the checkpoint are forced to wait longer, and by the time the crowd finally dwindles down, it is 7.20 am. The sun has risen; people have eaten and performed their early morning prayers, all while waiting at the checkpoint.

The Deficiency of Jobs in the West Bank

Every day, tens of thousands of Palestinians cross checkpoints across the West Bank to go to work in Israel. Most of these consist of labourers working in construction and other such hard jobs that Israelis “don’t want to do”, according to one of the Machsom Watch members. A majority of the workers passing through the Qalandia checkpoint to get to Jerusalem are Arab holders of Israeli ID cards (Source: The Association for Civil Rights in Israel) who have been cut off from other neighbourhoods in Jerusalem by the separation barrier.

The primary reason why Palestinians seek work in Israel, despite the arduous journey, is the lack of sufficient jobs in the West Bank, as well as the relatively higher pay in Israel. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), unemployment in the Palestinian Territories hovered at 27.5% in the first quarter of 2013.

Security measures at Qalandia have been incrementally enforced, such as the overhead closure of the lanes, after young men were seen climbing the metal bars to skip ahead during rush hour. The critically ill suffer as they have to be transferred through the checkpoint from one ambulance to another on the other side, since ambulances have been barred from passing through into Israel after some were used to transport explosives in the past.

It is hard to comprehend what it would mean to be forced to go through this exhausting ritual on a daily basis, considering the fact that just one measly day of it was hard enough. In this ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the checkpoint appears to symbolize the paranoia, distrust and alienation that exists between the two groups, which seems incredibly difficult to bridge on an individual level, let alone at a state level.

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