Shaina Low LF16 | On Crossing Qalandia Checkpoint

Despite 8 years of volunteering, working, and visiting Palestine and crossing this checkpoint countless times, I am nevertheless shocked each time I cross Qalandia. Palestinians are corralled like animals in cages as they wait for an Israeli soldier to decide whether or not they can enter Jerusalem.

Eyal Weizman provides a description of Qalandia Hollow Land, his book on Israel’s architecture of occupation:

“The upgrade of the Qalandia terminal crossing, which connects (or rather disconnects) Jerusalem from Ramallah, was completed…at the end of 2005. The new system includes a labyrinth of iron fences that channels passengers en route to Jerusalem via a series of turnstiles. All commuters must go through five stages: the first set of turnstiles. The x-ray gates, the second set of turnstiles, the inspection booth and an x-ray machine for the bags. This entire process is captured by a dense network of cameras, and the passengers are given instructions via loudspeakers. From their protected booths, Israeli security personnel operate the revolving gates remotely, regulating the rate of passenger flow. The inspection booths are encased in bulletproof glass. The glass is so thick that it tends to reflect the outside light rather than letting it through, thereby obscuring the security personnel inside, and effectively functioning as a one-way mirror. Palestinians must insert their identity cards and travel permits into a small slot under the windows. Communication takes place through push-button speakers…After crossing this checkpoint, the passenger is allowed through another turnstile and then through the Wall.”

Despite the end of the Intifada and the fact that it has been 9 years since Weizmann penned those words, his description is largely accurate of the Qalandia experience.

As a non-Palestinian International expat, I’m allowed to cross the checkpoint by bus. All Palestinians whether they have a West Bank (green) ID, or a Jerusalem (blue) are required to disembark and pass through different crossings according to the color of their ID, the only exception being the elderly who hold blue IDs. They are also permitted to stay on the bus. If I’m in a rush or running late, I’ll stay on the bus and soldiers or private contractors will board the bus and check my passport and visa to ensure that I’m permitted to enter Jerusalem.

But, on this particular late Sunday morning, I had been dropped off at the checkpoint by a service (pronounced “serveece”), a minibus that shuttles between Ramallah and the checkpoint. There were no buses in sight, and I had nothing planned for the afternoon, so I decided to walk through, assuming that I had missed the morning rush of people going to work and that it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

When I entered the checkpoint there were long lines at the first set of turnstiles. We waited in line for 15-20 minutes before the soldiers who were staffing the checkpoint began letting us approach the second set of turnstiles in small groups.

The narrow spaces and seemingly endless metal gates are cages containing Palestinians as they wait to cross through to Jerusalem. For close to an hour, no one was allowed to pass through the second set of turnstiles. It was over 90°, and we were all hot, exhausted, and at times the green light indicating that the turnstile was open would flicker on and off. Each time it did, the Palestinian at the front of the line would eagerly try to pass only to hear the sound of clanking metal. The turnstile was still locked. The soldiers were playing games with us, taunting us, further adding to the humiliation we all felt waiting to pass.

This family of five (3rd daughter is out of the frame) was in front of me waiting to pass. In them, I saw my own parents and their three daughters, except that growing up in suburban Massachusetts, we never had to face checkpoints and soldiers. I wondered how these parents explain the delay to their daughters. What can a small child understand about occupation, checkpoints, and soldiers?

The soldiers only allow 3 people through the turnstile at a time. There was a man in front of them, so the mother and her three daughters squeezed into one turnstile so that they would not be separated. The father followed behind with the stroller.

As I was preparing cross through the second turnstile, I pulled out my American passport. The men standing near me in line noticed the passport and started asking me about what I was doing in Palestine. Recognizing an opportunity to practice my improving Arabic, I explained to them that I was here to intern with a human rights organization. They congratulated me, and an older man who reminded me of my grandfather exclaimed, “shatra” – good girl.

As I was talking to the men in line, I was shocked to hear the familiar accent of American English. Two Palestinian Americans had been attempting to cross. It became clear that they also hold green hawiyas, the West Bank ID, and had no permit to enter Jerusalem. Their American passports are stamped with this information forbidding them to cross. Perhaps they wanted to visit the holy sites or do some shopping in Jerusalem in advance of the next day’s start of Ramadan. Maybe they wanted to visit the beach in Jaffa – it had been in the 90s for days. Or maybe they just wanted to visit the villages in '48 that their grandparents fled. 

I was so ashamed as I watched them get denied and forced to turn back to Ramallah. My American citizenship allows me to go freely between the cities. Their American passport is worthless because of their dual citizenship. It's simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating.

After a few minutes, it was finally my turn to cross. The soldier looked up my visa ensuring that I was allowed to cross, and after giving me a disapproving look, nodded, allowing me to enter Jerusalem. As I crossed the checkpoint, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Just another day of occupation.