When you walk past an Arab and catch a flicker of hatred in his/her eyes, you can think about ‘48, ‘56, ‘67, ‘73, ‘82, ‘06, or ‘08-09, and even that Arab anti-Semitism you’ve read so much about. But you must also think about the Qalandiya checkpoint, where hatred is renewed daily. Here’s a story to demonstrate.
It was a cool and soft night. I was returning from an iftar (breakfast) in Ramallah that my employer had invited me to. My stomach was happily filled with traditional Palestinian and Italian food, and my mind content with a night of non-political discussion. But joy and satisfaction are fickle, and when I arrived at the Qalandiya checkpoint—a horrid concoction of metal planks, filthy cement walls painted red and yellow, and barbed wire—my heart sank. I’ve quickly passed through before. This time, however, I was met with two long lines.
“I am going to try a bus,” said Aziz. “Would you like to come with me?”
Aziz is a short man, with a thick chin patch, dark scruff, and a beaming smile. At the central bus station in Ramallah, he had intervened between two men who were hitting on my travel partner, Alli, whose blonde hair and blue eyes unfortunately make her a target for such treatment.
I looked at Alli, and she responded by saying, “It’s no use. I’ve tried to get through by bus before, and was asked to get off because of my foreign passport.”
“Sorry, but we will wait in line here,” I told Aziz.
I was saddened by Aziz’s imminent departure. On the ride to the checkpoint, I’d learned that he works at the Muqasid hospital just a minute from where I used to live on the Mt. of Olives. I felt I’d seen him before. He was such sweet man: someone who upon meeting you know is kind down to the bone.
“Yes, I must go. I start work at the hospital at ten.” He opened one of the plastic bags he was carrying. “Look, here is the medicine I must bring to my patient. These are painkillers.”
“Go then,” I said. “We’ll be fine here. It was nice meeting you.”
Before leaving, he opened another bag. “Would you like, how do you say teen in English?”
“Yes, would you like some figs.”
“No thanks. Go now to your bus and good luck.” And Aziz left—for the moment.
Back at the bus station in Ramallah, we’d also met Mike, a spikey-haired American, who was in visiting his parents in Bethlehem. Mike spoke perfect Arabic but has been the proud owner of a gas station in New York City for the past ten years. He was very much a tourist and quickly became anxious.
“Maybe I will take a taxi,” he said. “Would you like to come along?”
I looked at Alli, and we agreed through glances that we’d prefer to wait.
“Sorry, but we’ll wait here.”
“Okay, I’ll wait with you,” said Mike looking upwards. I could see the doubt in his eyes. The line before us was intimidating, and the softness of the night did not penetrate the metal planks above us or metal bars that kept us neatly packed in. This is not like waiting in an airport. There’s not even a resemblance of comfort around you. Nor is there anything waiting for you at the end of that long line except another bus home. And mostly importantly, if you don’t get through, you’re forced back to Ramallah to fend for yourself.
A few minutes later, we had hardly advanced in the line, when Aziz returned.
“No buses?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders, gave his pleasant wide smile, and stood in line.
Time passed. The line was full of families returning from their own iftars in Ramallah. The children, full of food and energy from their meals and a long day of sleep, were anxious and rowdy.
A half hour later, as we were finally nearing close enough to the gate to breathe easily, two teenage boys were denied entry, and turned back. Poor things, I thought. But after their denial of entry, everyone on line became frantic.
“What’s happeing?” I asked Aziz. He didn’t know. Then I heard a young female voice from a loud speaker. “Msakrin!” (Closed!) I was filled with anger. Some on line, however, took the news nobly. They’ve experienced this before. They were quick to act and ran to the back of the only line left at the checkpoint.
Our wait in the first line was entirely in vain. Furthermore, not only were we to start from scratch, but this new line was even longer than the first. A resentful mix of people collected at the back, and no real order seemed apparent. We were all powerless. This line could be closed as well, and to whom could we complain? Just the night time sky as we walked back towards Ramallah.
Now, even the calm and gleeful Aziz was losing his cool.
“I need to get to work. I start at ten. Now I’ll never get there on time.”
I remained silent. There was nothing to say. Powerlessness creates silence, like a person whose limbs are all strapped tightly and out of his control. Most people turned their sights to the still giddy children, as entertainment, and perhaps as an escape.
Much time has passed. We were moving, but barely.
“I’m going to take a taxi,” said Mike, now fidgeting with his hands and staring longingly toward the exit. “You can come if you want. I’ll pay for everything.” But Alli and I were determined to ride out this line. Mike, already attached to us, remained.
Soon, a new commotion began. Suddenly, a large sector of the line was tossing their hands up and shouting.
“What’s happened?” I asked Aziz, but now it was Mike who answered.
“Some people are only allowed to cross until 10:00 PM. Now it’s past 10:00.”
About a quarter of the line just turned around, and walked away with despair splashed across their faces. They would be sleeping at their relatives’ or friends’ homes tonight. Those who were with us on the last line probably would’ve made it if not for its sporadic and merciless closing. I felt a deep sense of injustice: hundreds of people returning home, and just one line open in the country’s largest checkpoint during the busiest season of the year. Pathetic.
“Everything okay with you?” I asked Aziz. He proceeded to take out his identification card and wave it in the air.
“I have a green [a Palestinian ID] and they have blue.”
“Can you still get through?” I asked.
He responded by showing me his special permit to go through because he works at a hospital. I feel a pin prick of pride for Israel, which still allows Palestinian doctors to work in its borders. The reverse is still just a dream.
I looked at Mike and his frustration was palpable.
“They should put some televisions in here to liven the place up, don’t you think?” I asked Mike.
He was not amused. He pointed to the room wherein the soldiers were, and said, “Pfff, ya, I bet they have televisions.” In his mind, it seemed, these Israelis were incapable of such a friendly gesture.
Part of what makes standing in line at this checkpoint so hard is that there is nothing to distract you from the reality of it all. In an airport, televisions and stores can distract you from the fact that you’re in line because terrorists half way across the world are threatining your life. At Qalandiya, all you can do is ask yourself why you’re stuck in this godawful place. And slowly, you look around at bare yellow and orange walls, and then you see the large illuminated Israeli flags waving against the night, and you hear the Hebrew and limited Arabic of the young Israeli girls who are completely in control of your destiny. No, I was not surprised by what came next.
After ten o’clock, the line moved much slower, and more and more people were being rejected. There were mumblings around us about Jews and Israel, and my innate reaction to defend the state was activated.
“It’s like this at any border,” I said to Aziz.
“Border? What border? Between cities?”
“No, I mean like between two countries.” I said.
Aziz smiled and said, “Borders? This isn’t a border between two countries. This is not a border at all.”
We were in a thick crowd and I wasn’t prepared to open the conversation to irked strangers. What exactly he meant by that I can only give conjecture: East Jerusalem residents tend to talk as if they live in Palestine, and thus, this would not be a border between two states. Additionally, some Arab residents of Jerusalem, who still pay municipality taxes, are on the other side of the checkpoint, and thus, in reality it is not even a border into Jerusalem.
“Hek il-Yahud. Hek il-Yahud,” (thus are the Jews) bemoaned Aziz, who was now serving his grapes to everyone in the vacinity. It was well past ten. He was still in line, and his patient was without his painkillers. Everyone nods in agreement about his or her poor treatment by the Jews.
Eventually, Aziz got through, and so did Alli and I. Mike could not pass because, somehow, he’d come via Jordan without ever getting a tourist visa.
At the soldiers’ window where you show your passport, there were but two very young girls. One of these girls was sitting in the back of the room, doing her make up for what seemed, due to all the layers, like the tenth time that night. Below the window was carved, “Israel forever”—I was sure that anyone who passed through the checkpoint that night wished it wouldn’t be true.
The checkpoints may be necessary, but Israel’s total lack of concern for what transpires there is not. That night, when Aziz went around muttering about his treatment by Jews, I had nothing to say. He was right. He and everyone on that line were being treated disgracefully. Furthermore, all of Mike’s odious perceptions of Israelis were confirmed that night, not because he didn’t make it through—he eventually took his cab and got through no problem (how sad!)—but because he witnessed Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinians.
I know Israel faces much unwarranted criticism. Consequently, it’s difficult to face real criticism. But Qalandiya is real, and it acts as a contempt-toward-Israel-factory for both Palestinians and foreigners.
Qalandiya doesn’t have to be an embarrassment for Israel. In fact, it can be a symbol of a better future. Take a fraction of the money used for Hasbara (P.R. for Israel), and hire some more people to man this checkpoint. Make it more comfortable and less of a torturous process. Show people it’s a necessary evil, and we’re willing to alleviate as much suffering as we can. Whenever a human rights activist crosses into Jerusalem, they should be confounded by the care Israelis show Palestinians. And beyond that, far beyond that, we should fix Qalandiya because it’s the right thing to do.