Our plan for yesterday was to rent a car and drive to Galilee. For various reasos, this didn't happen. Let's just gloss over this fact.
But we didn't want to stay inside all day, and Ramallah is shut down on Fridays, that being the Sunday of the Muslims. So we decided to go to Jerusalem to shop, sight-see, and pass an agreeable day.
We usually hire a cab to go over the southern checkpoint, thus avoiding the infamous Qalandia checkpoint. But those cabs are expensive since they have to come from East Jerusalem - Palestinian cars cannot enter Israel. It's complicated. In any case, a big cab for all of us to Jerusalem costs somewhat in the neighborhood of 50 Euros. We don't want to pay that kind of money all the time, so we decided to take the 18 Bus to Jerusalem. We've taken it quite a few times from Jerusalem (no controls at the checkpoint when leaving Israel) and it's fast, clean, and cheap. With two parents, we thought we could brave Qalandia. Now, if you ever have this idea, let me tell you that on Friday, there are no busses from Ramallah to Jerusalem in the mornings. Weekend schedule, right? Our solution was to have the cab drop us off at Qalandia, walk across the checkpoint, and hire a cab on the Israeli side.
That turned out to be a very feasible but quite stressful idea.
I've read about Qalandia, and I wasn't surprised, but even so I was in a near panic all the time. See, Qalandia has the feel of a prison camp. It's squalid and bare, and consists of iron bars, razor wire, and turnstiles. And cameras. And lots of sign in Arabic and Hebrew. Invisible guards. Mysteriously opening and closing gates. Loudspeakers yelling at you. Buzzers going off in the distance. The clanking of the gates. Helplessness.
There is a sort of holding pen at the entrance, a big hall with a few benches and quite a bit of trash. This being a Sunday morning, effectively, the hall was empty. I cannot image this on a hot afternoon when it is full of people. Needless to say, there is no air conditioning, and the giant wall fans are apparently never switched on.
The first step is to go through a kind of lock - a long narrow walkway with bars on either side, and razor wire over your head. This walkway is just wide enough for a single person and you better not be too tall, either. Even though it's open enough with the bars, it feels claustrophobic and intimidating. Which, I suppose, is the whole point. At the end of this narrow chute is a turnstile that turns and locks for no apparent reason. Sometimes, three people can go through before the fourth person slams into the gate that is suddenly not turning anymore. Sometimes ten people can go through. There is no rhyme or reason to it, and the feeling I got was of panic and urgency - press through fast, before someone unseen presses a button and locks the gate.
After this first turnstile, there is another chute-like area, this one wider so people press and push against another turnstile at the end. You can see the screen machine and the metal detector, and sort of guess that this is where you will be checked. But again, you don't see a single Israeli soldier.
This turnstile is even worse than the one before - it lets less people through and this time, it cut off Doug and Leah from us. We watched them disappear through the check area and the turnstile just wouldn't open again. The boys freaked and I had a hard time calming them down.
Just then, a door opened and two Israelis (not soliders, I don't think) came out to sweep the floor. That was nice and all but all the while they swept, studiously ignoring us, the turnstile was locked (so that we wouldn't attack the cleaners?). I was a bit panicked myself since I didn't know what was going on with Doug and Leah, and I was afraid my boys would be cut off from me on the next round. I handed them their passports and told them to put their bags into the screening machine, and not to make a fuss of any kind. Their Daddy (I hoped) would be waiting on the other side. (Remember that all this time, we were in a metal cage, pressed against the turnstile that just would not unlock, and there was a feeling of helplessness, panic, and urgency in the air, all the while nobody spoke. It was eerie.)
The sweepers disappeared, and still the gate was not unlocked. Someone, somewhere, was watching the proceedings, either getting a kick out of it or not caring at all. It was hard to tell. This impersonal treatment, the way that you don't see anybody, that everything happens automatically and that voices only come through loudspeakers, make this all seem very unreal and surreal. 1984 came to mind.
A man behind me, with a neatly cropped beard and intelligent eyes, told me to squish two of my boys into the turnstile at once, and to keep their passports with me. I was so confused, and felt so threatened by the anonymous soldiers that controlled the turnstile, that I whispered to him, "This is horrible! Why would they treat people like that?" He quietly replied, "Because they can."
Because they can.
Eventually, we got through. There was really not much to it. There were four or five soliders in the checkpoint office, behind bulletproof glass, extremely young all of them. They didn't seem to have a care in the world. The soldier doing the checks only wanted to see the Israel entry stamp in one of the four passports I held, and waved us through. At the end there is another turnstile that releases you into East Jerusalem which is not part of Israel in the eyes of the world, although Israel sees this differently.
Because they can.
Yes, security has increased considerably in the past years and of course, Israel claims that the wall and the checkpoints are responsible for that. Having seen how Israeli-Palestinian drivers can simply drive around checkpoints, how low security is at other checkpoints, how if you really wanted it would be a peace of cake to smuggle a bomb or two across, I cannot concur. The checkpoints are there to harrass the Palestinians, for no other reason.
I can choose to avoid Qalandia. But many Palestinians, school kids and university students, workers, doctors, women, men, disabled, old and young - they don't have that choice. They have to go through this every single day. What this does to their minds, is anybody's guess.
Here are two more very interesting accounts of Americans going through Qalandia, with photos. I didn't dare to take out my big camera and shoot away. An iPhone would have been handy...