Crossing Qalandia: What living between checkpoints looks like for Palestinians

It is five in the morning in the Palestinian town of Taybeh, East of Ramallah, when 50-year-old Yaacoub Khoury (not his real name) and his wife are already awake, and finishing breakfast. After grabbing his back-pack, Yaacoub checks his sleeping children from their bedroom door, and goes out to the street, still in the dark. Yaacoub begins his daily journey to work, at an Israeli factory in the industrial settlement of Atarot, North of Jerusalem, where he is expected to show up at 8 am sharp. “Back in the days when I was a young man, it was a 30 minutes drive from Taybeh to Atarot”, remembers Yaacoub. “That was before the Qalandia checkpoint was installed”, he stresses.

Military checkpoints are the most characteristic part of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. According to a recent report published by the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA, 553 Israeli checkpoints and obstacles cut through the West Bank as of April 2021. Out of these, 71 are permanent checkpoints, while there are some 108 checkpoints that Palestinians call “flying” ones. These are checkpoints that are not permanently placed on the roads, but can be installed surprisingly, usually in the same strategic spots, without notice.

The daily routine of “trying their chance”

“Flying” checkpoints make travel between Palestinian communities and cities an uncertain adventure, further complicated by the hundreds of barriers, closed gates and earth mounts that block towns’ entrances, road junctions and access points to Israeli-only highways. The Qalandia checkpoint, however, the one that Yaacoub Khoury has to cross to go reach his work, is a permanent, fortified military base that cuts East Jerusalem and much of its suburbs from the rest of the West Bank.

“I can cross Qalandia checkpoint because I have a working permit”, explains Yaacoub Khoury, “but I can only go to work. I mean, I could go to Jerusalem once I’m through, but I’m not supposed to. If I’m stopped by the police in Jerusalem with this permit, I could get in trouble”. In the empty main street of Taybeh, Yaacoub is soon joined by other workers, including a woman. They gather at a specific corner, where they wait for the bus which drives workers every day to Qalandia.

More than 200.000 Palestinians use working permits to cross checkpoints like Qalandia. Around 120.000 Palestinians live in suburbs that have historically been part of Jerusalem, like Shuufat and Anata, but have been separated from Jerusalem by the annexation wall. These Palestinians too have to use the Qalandia checkpoint on a daily basis, in order to go back and forth between home, work, school, and family and friends.

On the way to Qalandia, several young workers take the opportunity to gain some sleep, while Yaacoub notes with some sarcasm: “I get in the bus while it is still dark, and when I reach the checkpoint the sun has already risen”. The bus stops along the way to pick up more Palestinians going to the checkpoint.

“They are trying their chance”, points out Yaacoub, “we all are. Although this is our daily routine, we can’t take crossing the checkpoint for granted”, he goes on. “The Israeli army might decide suddenly to close the checkpoint for the day and we have to turn back home. It happened to me many times”. The night before we accompanied Yaacoub on his journey to work, Palestinian protesters had clashed with the occupation forces at the Damascus gate (Bab Al Amoud), in Jerusalem, for several hours. “Yesterday the clashes were especially violent in Jerusalem”, says Yaacoub, “That could be a reason for them to close the checkpoint. I’ll only find out once I get there”.

Automatic control

Yaacoub is a father of four. “My youngest boy is seven. His older brother is studying mechanics at a vocational school”, he details proudly, “the oldest is my daughter. She is in college, she wants to be a medical laboratorian”. As he speaks about his children, Yaacoub remembers to explain an important procedure: “Once we get down of the bus, we must rush to secure a place in the line to get into the checkpoint. The line itself could take up to forty minutes, and only because we are early enough before it gets more crowded”.

In 2018, the Israeli occupation introduced automatic gates at the Qalandia checkpoint, which scan magnetic cards issued by the occupation army. These cards are individual and have all the personal data of Palestinians, including their finger and eye-prints. Contrary to other checkpoints, occupation soldiers at Qalandia no longer need to have personal contact with Palestinians. “But they are all around the place”, clarifies Yaacoub. “Soldiers are on high stairs inside the hall where the automatic gates are located. They watch us all the time”, he underlines.

Although the Qalandia checkpoint is inside the Palestinian territory, it functions as an international border. The occupation treats everything behind Qalandia as part of the state of ‘Israel’. This is despite the fact that Qalandia, the town on which lands the checkpoint is located, is itself a suburb of Eastern Jerusalem. “Back in the sixties there was an airport at Qalandia”, says Yaacoub. “People used to fly from here to Amman, and from there to America”.

Today, some of the procedures of a regular airport are used at Qalandia as well. “Once I go inside the checkpoint, I have to take off anything metallic and put it inside my back-pack”, explains Yaacoub. “I have to push the back-pack through the X-ray machine and then I have to walk through the metal-detector door, and then walk to the automatic gates where I have to scan my magnetic card”, describes Yaacoub, “If I pass, then I have to walk a 1-kilometer-long bridge, crowded with people crossing from the checkpoint to the bus station. It’s a running race from the moment I enter. I don’t even have a second to put my belt back on until I’m on the bus on the other side”.

When the line isn’t moving …

The other side is where Yaacoub takes an Israeli bus to his work-place. It’s another 30 minutes ride. “I’m paid per hour”, says Yaacoub, “If I’m late more than five minutes, that time is deducted from my salary”. That rush is visible once the bus stops and all passengers stand up waiting for the door to open. Yaacoub gets ready and alert. Once out of the bus, he begins to run towards the checkpoint. A large flat building hiding behind the imposing grey cement wall, marked with graffiti and stains of burned gasoline, amidst a set of military watch-towers that rise above the horizon line. Some food-trucks outside the checkpoint sell snacks and hot drinks, although it’s Ramadan, and dozens of Palestinians, young and old, from both sexes, rush towards the entrance of the military fort.

At the entrance, hundreds of Palestinians are already crowded in a line that isn’t moving forward. Some hold plastic bags, others carry back-packs, all alert, expecting the slightest sign of movement. A wooden structure forms a narrow snake-like maze right in front of the entrance to the building, where Palestinians are overcrowded, waiting to enter. Yaacoub takes his place in the line and checks the contents of his back-pack. “This line isn’t moving”, he notes with a clearly worried tone, “I hope it’s not closed”. Other Palestinians standing in the line discuss the chances of going through: “They’ll probably close because of the situation at Damascus gate”, remarks one Palestinian man in his forties. “They might let some of us through, and then close in front of the rest”, says another young Palestinian man.

Yaacoub exchanges some words with other men in the line, but as time passes he becomes visibly nervous. “It’s almost 6:30 already”, he whispers, “Either I’ll be late or not cross at all”. Some thirty minutes after his arrival, the line begins to move. Yaacoub presses on with small steps and melts in the crowd, which is slowly swallowed into the snake-like maze, before suddenly stopping again. Some Palestinians made it through, while the rest will have to wait longer for a chance.

Outside the checkpoint, a stream of Palestinians grows more numerous. Men and women, workers and students, young and old, cross under the military watchtowers towards the checkpoint building. Some do it running, others walking as fast as they can. All while the sun rises behind a pile of broken cars in a lot across the street, and more busses continue to arrive at Qalandia.

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