We go to Qalandiya three mornings a week, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. We are there from 5 a.m. until 8 a.m. If the lines are moving smoothly, we may decide to leave early. If there are problems, we stay until the lines clear. Recently we were asked to monitor Qalandiya on a Friday morning and on a Saturday morning, so next week we will be at Qalandiya five times instead of three.
Unlike the last checkpoint I talked about, Qalyndiya is a checkpoint for both vehicles and pedestrians. We monitor only the pedestrian portion of the checkpoint. Also unlike the last checkpoint I talked about, Qalandiya is dirty and dark. The sun barely shines into Qalandiya, except along a narrow strip of floor by the concrete bunker in which the soldiers sit. The light comes from overhead fluorescent lights, many of which are burned out, leaving almost half of the place in darkness. Above and to the left is a picture I took at Qalandiya on November 14, at 4:30 a.m.
As you can see from these pictures, there are three metal chutes, enclosed on three sides by metal bars and wire. These chutes are roughly 30 feet long, and two feet wide. At the end of each chute is a turnstile. Border patrol soldiers operate the turnstiles, pushing buttons to open and close them. Beyond the turnstiles, there are five ID booths; each has a conveyor belt and a metal detector, similar to airport security. Once a person passes through the metal detector, they are required to show their permit allowing them to enter Jerusalem. If the permit is satisfactory they are allowed to go. If it is unsatisfactory they are turned back.
At no time do the people waiting in line have any personal contact with any of the border patrol. The soldiers who push the buttons for the turnstiles sit in the concrete bunker, pictured below, which is located behind both a metal fence and a separate wire fence. The soldiers at the ID booths are also behind concrete and metal walls, the glass is shatterproof and bulletproof.
How often the turnstiles open is random. Sometimes they open every couple of minutes, sometimes every ten minutes, sometimes even more time passes. How many people are allowed to pass at any one time, from 8 to 100, also seems to be completely random. This is one of the reasons there are so many people waiting to get through – there is simply no way to predict how long it may take to pass through the checkpoint on any given day. Workers will arrive at 5 in the morning to go through the checkpoint simply to insure that they are able to make it to work by 7 a.m. Students start to arrive at 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. so they can make it through the checkpoint to get to school by 8:00 a.m. Waiting times of over an hour or longer to pass through both the turnstiles and the ID booths are not uncommon.
Off to the left side of the concrete bunker, just out of sight is a gate called the Humanitarian Gate. This line is supposed to be open for older people; people with physical limitations that make it difficult to pass through the turnstiles, those with medical permission to use the Humanitarian Gate and for schoolchildren who need to get to school. The gate is supposed to be open from 6:30 – 7:30 a.m. Often it does not open at all. I have been told that the Humanitarian Gate will only open when the lines at the turnstiles are backed up. The definition of “backed up” is difficult to ascertain, however, given the number of people waiting to go through the checkpoint. We have the phone number for the humanitarian hot line programmed into our phones so that we can call for assistance to have the gate opened if the need arises.
The Humanitarian Gate opens into an area that leads to a turnstile. Although there is no metal chute encasing the walkway to the turnstile, the people are still fenced in by metal bars and wire fences. After the turnstile, the people walk to the same ID booths as the people who passed through the other turnstiles.
To open the Humanitarian Gate, a specific procedure must be followed. Despite the fences, the ID booths, and the armed soldiers in the concrete bunker and behind the bulletproof glass, 3 additional people are needed to open the Humanitarian Gate. A border patrol soldier with an automatic weapon, because this soldier is responsible for the border; a police officer with an automatic weapon, because the police officer has the key to the gate; a private security guard with an automatic weapon, because he guards the armed soldier and the armed police officer. It is necessary to have all of these armed people to allow the elderly, the sick and the students to go to the ID booths along the route I just described.
When we arrive in the morning, we walk from the Jerusalem side of the Wall to the Ramallah side, basically going through the checkpoint the wrong way. As we go through, we note the number of ID booths that are open, the number of turnstiles that are open and how many people are waiting. After that we stand near the entrance to the turnstiles to count the number of people who pass in each 30 minute period. We separately count the men, women and children. It is not an exact science, since we cannot physically see every person who goes through the turnstiles. Sometimes one or more turnstile stops working and we don't always notice the exact time it happened. This is one of several factors which can affect the accuracy of the count.
We share the numbers we gather with the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Machsom Watch. On average, over 2000 people pass through the checkpoint in a three-hour period. We document when we call the humanitarian hot line, we document whether the problem is resolved, we document the actions of the people waiting and we document the general attitude of the soldiers. This is what we do at Qalandiya.
Qalandiya is dehumanizing. It is disrespectful. It is degrading. I hate going there.