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Crossing at Qalandiya


Tahseen Yaqeen

Jerusalem Times and Al-ayam (Arabic), 1.3.2003

Israeli soldiers manning checkpoints come in various forms. There are short, blond soldiers that humiliate and harass people and soldiers that treat travelers with respect and dignity. The younger soldiers are different from the veterans; the males are unlike the females, the Arabs are different from the Jews. There are various accents, easterners and westerners, Russians and Africans. Despite the inhumanity of occupation, it has to be said, this is the soldiers’ work.

The entire Palestinian people pass through checkpoints, having no wings with which to fly over them. Although they hate the checkpoints, they have no choice but to pass through them in order to tend to their daily affairs.

The Palestinians who pass through the checkpoints and the Israeli soldiers who man them are in daily contact and each group perceives the other in a very special way. The Palestinians, especially those that have had no previous contact with Israelis, see Israeli occupation as soldiers and hence the enemy that stole the land.

The soldiers, meanwhile, see Palestinian fighters, commandos and demonstrators along with the people they represent. One has to remember that soldiers who have not been in contact with Palestinians before will have a different image from that of Israeli business owners that once hired Palestinians or dealt with Palestinian clients.

The fact is, however, that the Palestinians are an ordinary people, while the soldiers represent occupation and the Palestinians cannot be blamed for having a negative image of them.

It is natural for Palestinians to dislike Israelis and it is natural that they feel angry, sad and fed up. Israeli officials that instruct the soldiers not to allow people to pass without special permits should ask themselves why animosity toward the Israelis is mounting.

After monitoring the checkpoint at the northern entrance to Ramallah, Israeli journalist Amira Hass wrote an article for Haaretz, which was published on 27 February 2003. Commenting about the presence of Israeli women from the organization “No to Checkpoints,” Hass said “The activists let the Palestinians know that there are other Israelis besides soldiers and settlers. They are able to reach the Palestinian public more than they are able to reach the Israeli public, meaning they contribute more to the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations than they do to the Israeli debate about occupation and its threat.”

Two days before Hass’ article was published, Anar Atar, a journalist and volunteer in the Israeli Reserve Units, wrote an article describing his experience at the checkpoint. He wrote, “The Qalandia checkpoint is pointless and must be removed as soon as possible.” He added that “the army sent older reservists to man the checkpoints believing that their life experience would make them exercise better judgment and patience.” Atar added that the checkpoint “provides meaningless harassment to the locals, humiliating the people, one after the other, and denying some of them passage without reason, forcing them to join the ranks of fighting factions.” He also wrote that the checkpoints “harm the image of Israel.”

We stood in a long queue, under the thick clouds of the winter sky in  the third year of the intifada. I waited about 30 minutes.

What should I do for entertainment? It is too crowded, so I cannot read. I look for someone with whom to converse. Cellular telephones jingle from time to time and I listen as families inquire about their loved ones.

Apart from the ringing of the phones, it is eerily quiet. The Palestinians are afraid that one of the soldiers will open fire to avenge the death of a relative or friend killed in a martyrdom mission.

Those inching close to the inspection point are preparing their documents, ID’s and arguments to convince the soldiers to allow them to pass. Big, bright red letters indicate that those leaving Ramallah need a special permit.

People talk about solutions and workshops, others about work and pay. Students look at girls, older people stand somberly. A female soldier wraps a scarf around her head to keep out the cold and fixes her helmet on top to keep out the bullets. But what bullets?

A woman is on the verge of giving birth. She places her hand over her huge belly. Somebody close by quotes the Quran and then says, “their hearts are hard as rock or harder.” He has every right to think such a thing.

Another person ridicules the owners of carts that push the groceries of people from one side of the checkpoint to the other while another dreams of engaging in thiskind of “business”, because they charge 20 shekels to push the goods a distance no greater than 15-20 meters.

Peddlers contend with dust in the summer, mud and water in the winter. A mute wants to cross the checkpoint; a retarded man does not understand what is happening. He screams at the soldiers, but fortunately, they quickly realize that he is retarded. If feel incredibly sad and I wonder who is responsible for this tragedy?

We still have some time, which I invest in examining a cluster of buildings that make up the Qalandia refugee camp, the backdrop of the checkpoint. There is a heap of dry grass atop a hill close tot the airport, a heap of soldiers on the mound, a heap of cars below, heaps of garbage and dust and heap upon heap of torment.