Dispatches: A Morning at Qalandia

September 2015
Qalandia Checkpoint, Israel/Palestine

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—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 full-height turnstiles spin approximately every ten minutes to let Palestinians through to security check, before stopping abruptly within a few seconds. Nearby, Arabs with Israeli IDs pass through in their cars, another tediously slow process leading 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 and avoid 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 the nature of the humanitarian lane, they nevertheless 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, and people have eaten and performed their 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 them are 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 who have been cut off from other neighbourhoods in Jerusalem by the separation barrier (Source: The Association for Civil Rights in Israel).

The primary reason for Palestinians seeking work in Israel—despite the arduous journey—is the lack of sufficient jobs in the West Bank, as well as the potential of earning relatively higher wages 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 lanes after young men were seen climbing the metal bars to skip ahead during rush hour. The critically ill suffer as they need to be transferred through the checkpoint in one ambulance to another waiting on the other side. Ambulances are barred from passing through into Israel after being used by some to transport explosives in the past.

From an outsider’s perspective, it is difficult to comprehend what it means for a regular person from the West Bank to be forced to go through this exhausting ritual on a daily basis. In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the checkpoint appears to symbolize the paranoia, distrust and alienation that exists between the two groups, one that seems enormously difficult to bridge on an individual level, let alone at a state level.

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