A Day in the Life of an EA: Checkpoint duty

Going through the checkpoint is not just a story of queues, turnstiles, and metal detectors, but encompasses the permit system for Palestinians and the sometimes arbitrary attitudes of Israeli soldiers. It is a story of daily humiliation and dehumanization, in stark contrast to every humans right to freedom of movement.

by Bron, Ar Ram team

One of our regular tasks as EAs in Ar Ram is “checkpoint duty” at the nearby Qalandiya checkpoint. Qalandiya checkpoint stands between the two Palestinian cities of Ramallah and East Jerusalem. It is on the Separation Barrier, which is at this point not on the international border known as the Green Line, but some 8 km north-east, in Palestine.

After waiting in queues, those crossing the checkpoint must make their way through caged aisles, big enough only for 1 person, before reaching the first set of turnstiles. Photo EAPPI/B. Currie.

After waiting in queues, those crossing the checkpoint must make their way through caged aisles, big enough only for 1 person, before reaching the first set of turnstiles. Photo EAPPI/B. Currie.

Twice a week we arrive about 4.15am, as the queue of workers from Ar Ram and Ramallah begins to build up, and for three hours we monitor the queues and the length of time it takes to pass through, and count the numbers of men, women and children crossing the checkpoint.

At 4.15am, the checkpoint building is alive with birdsong, and fat sparrows hop backwards and forwards under the metal bars, doing very well on the crumbs left by men eating breakfast as they wait. The freedom of the birds to come and go as they please is in marked contrast to that of the Palestinian people.

Let me give you an idea of what is involved in crossing the checkpoint. First you wait in line in one of three metal cages that is just wide enough for one person. At the end of this cage is the first turnstile, which at busy times opens to allow perhaps 10 or 12 people through at a time and then closes again for several minutes. Once through the first turnstile you go to one of 5 booths where you wait again at another turnstile. This turnstile usually opens to allow 3 people through, and then closes again for three or four minutes. You are then at the checkpoint proper, which is a little like airport security. You take off your shoes and jacket and belt and pile your possessions on a conveyor belt. You walk through a body scanner and present your ID and permit for inspection by the soldier on duty. You may well have to have your handprint checked too. If all is in order you are free to pick up your possessions and pass through 3 further turnstiles before you reach the other side and the buses waiting to take you to Jerusalem.

 

Men, women, and children begin to line up at Qalandiya checkpoint at 4:15 am every morning. Their daily commute involves this dehumanizing treck. Photo EAPPI/B. Currie.

The queue at the checkpoint during busier hours of the day. Photo EAPPI/B. Currie.

It sounds simple. It is anything but.  The permit system which controls the freedom of Palestinians to travel around their country is a story in itself – there are 101 sorts of permits for different sorts of need, many are temporary and the process for acquiring a permit is complex, time-consuming and stressful. For now let us just say that, having reached the checkpoint, you may find that your permit has expired, or that it has been revoked, or that your handprint does not match that held on the database, or you have simply been “blacklisted” for some reason that you know nothing about.

The numerous turnstiles are frustrating to navigate, especially for women with children or those with many personal belonging in tow.  Photo EAPPI/B. Currie.

The numerous turnstiles are frustrating to navigate, especially for women with children or those with many personal belonging in tow. Photo EAPPI/B. Currie.

Or, as happened recently to families embarking on a day out, you may have been told that you do not need permits for your under-5s, but when you get to the checkpoint window the soldier on duty arbitrarily decides that you do and refuses to let the children through. (The wonderful Israeli organisation Machsom Watch  sorted that out very quickly for us by phoning the Commanding Officer).

For many Palestinians, crossing the checkpoint is a daily piece of frustration and humiliation inflicted upon them by the occupying power, Israel. For the most part they deal with it with stoicism and patience, though understandably resorting to some shouting and remonstrations when the queues stretch out to the car park and only two or three of the booths are open.Even if your permit is fine, navigating the route through the checkpoint can be an obstacle course. There is a “humanitarian gate” for women, elderly or sick people. But it does not save you a single turnstile. And the turnstiles are a menace to small fingers and difficult to negotiate if you are carrying small children or bags and a walking stick.

One of the most moving things we witness is the lines of men who, having spent perhaps half an hour or more queueing to pass the checkpoint, stop to pray on the Jerusalem side before boarding their bus.

Despite the long, daily waits, many men waiting in the queue stop to pray on the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint before loading the buses to work. Photo EAPPI/ B. Currie.

Despite the long, daily waits, many men waiting in the queue stop to pray on the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint before loading the buses to work. Photo EAPPI/ B. Currie.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”. But as an elderly man told me in frustration as he emerged into the sunshine on the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint last week:

“I am 70 years old. I was born in Jerusalem. I need a permit to go there. Half my family is in Ramallah, half in Jerusalem. I’m not from Europe or Africa – I’m from Jerusalem. And I need a permit to go there.”

The article Early Morning at Qalandiya was originally published on the blog Through My Eyes and Ears.

What can WE do?

At the end of his term in Yanoun, Rafael reflects on what EAs can do when they return home

by Rafael, Yanoun team, Group 49

EAPPI, Israeli, and other activists help build shelters for residents of Mak-hul after the demolition on September 20th. Photo EAPPI/R. Marques.

EAPPI, Israeli, and other activists help build shelters for residents of Mak-hul after the demolition on September 20th. Photo EAPPI/R. Marques.

In the middle of last century George Orwell foresaw that “Big Brother” would dominate our lives completely. In his book “1984”, the author tells the story of a fictional country controlled by a government matrix that decides from the clothes you will wear to what kind of information you can get from the media. The control is justified by the constant threat of an external enemy that you have never seen.

Those who are controlled seldom realize this. In the context of the Israeli occupation, the awareness of the Israeli people about what is happening is amazingly close to zero. But for every rule there is an exception.

The events of Mak-hul

The community of Mak-hul, in the Jordan Valley, Palestine, was demolished on September 16th, affecting at least 12 families. On September 20th, several organizations joined efforts to deliver shelter and tents to the village through the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED). EAPPI joined the delegation to provide protective presence to the community and help with the shelters.

Several diplomatic representatives were also present. The army took the truck with the humanitarian aid by force. Some clashes then occurred between the villagers and the army.

On October 11th, we returned to Mak-Hul to help build shelters for the animals and some tents. This time, several Israeli activists, especially from the organization Machsom Watch, came to the community to deliver materials and offer help.

 “Dangerous” areas

Most of them were elderly. In one conversation, one of the activists said that several members of her group have been arrested for being in Palestinian areas. She herself had been arrested. After that, she decided to seek the Israeli administration responsible for the occupation, and there she was forced to sign a document taking all responsibility for visiting areas considered “dangerous”. The entry of Israeli citizens in these areas is prohibited by Israeli law.

For its citizens, the Israeli government justifies its actions as measures necessary to guarantee security. For Palestinians, the Israeli activists are always welcome.

‘What did you do, so that others may live in peace and you can enjoy the paradise?’

Among Israelis in Mak-Hul, we found Mr. Yehoshua Rosin, now 70 years-old, who, early on, decided to oppose the occupation and the decisions of his government. Mr. Yehoshua asked us to email the photos we took that day. He, then, told us a beautiful story.

“In the past I used to take pictures myself. I am a free thinker, but I’ll use a religious metaphor. According to the Jewish religion, when a Jew dies he will be judged before God. If innocent, he will go to Paradise (Garden of Eden), but if you sin and do not repent, will be condemned to hell. So I thought I’d take photos with me to the grave and when asked ‘What did you do, so that others may live in peace and you can enjoy the paradise?’, I’ll show the pictures and say ‘That’s what I could do’. Many thanks and greetings to your group for your contribution.”

It was sad to realize that most Israelis present were of advanced age. It seems that the new generation is not listening to those who have enough experience. But, just like Mr. Yehoshua and the lady to whom we have talked, we cannot surrender to “Big Brother”. As EAs, we do our part: we record what we see and we tell others. After all, “this is what we can do.”