Sitting on the number 18 bus riding from Ramallah to Qalandia I only see Palestinian life. The roads run through the valleys, and even with a discerning eye, there are no settlements in sight. But while Qalandia is the main route out of the West Bank for Palestinians, Hizma, another checkpoint a few kilometers to the south, is the entry point into “Judea and Samaria” for settlers.
I crossed Hizma by accident for the first time on Sunday, the third day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, when I traveled three and a half hours from Ramallah to Jerusalem to have lunch with a friend and her family. Normally the trip takes between 40 minutes and an hour and a half despite Ramallah and Jerusalem being only about a 20-minute drive apart. But the distance between the two cities no longer determines the time it takes to travel there. Instead what matters are the whims of the soldiers manning the checkpoint who seem to change their rules everyday.
“Stop,” “go,” “wait,” “on the bus,” “off the bus”—and in case you did not hear the instructions that were hurled in Hebrew—and only Hebrew—they will be amplified over loud speakers that can be heard in every part of the checkpoint, from the two parking lots to the passport window.
Some days when I cross Qalandia I can stay seated on the number 18 bus. If I am lucky I will have a window seat. But other times at the checkpoint I lose my seat when I am instructed by a plain-clothed middle age solider who speaks Arabic to exit the bus. Sometimes it is just me, sometimes it is people without children under the age of 65, sometimes it is only the internationals and sometimes it is everyone.
I, we, or everyone then walk through the metal turn-stop, and can re-board the bus on the Jerusalem side of the crossing. This process can take 30 seconds or three hours depending if the Israeli soldiers manually lock the turn-stop, holding up lines of people eager to exit the West Bank. But during Eid, when Palestinians who usually are unable to enter Jerusalem receive special holiday permits to visit the holy city, the lines are longer and the buses are fuller than usual.
A full bus is a problem because the bus drivers will not stop to pick up additional passengers, which means one could wait for hours on the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint for an empty bus. Of course there are private taxis that can take the stranded to the Jerusalem bus station near the Damascus Gate, or Bab al-’Amoud, but they are expensive and certainly not a financial option for everyday travel.
While the streets of Ramallah were quiet with most shops closed during the holiday, the checkpoint was lively. Kids sold candy and fruit, youths burned trash and lots of people walked in one of two directions, in or out. After watching full buses pass by me for 30 minutes I decided to take a service, or shared taxi. That day instead of going through Qalandia the service I was in was re-routed to Hizma. The checkpoint itself is built on land expropriated from a Palestinian village of the same name, and it is surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements, also built on land expropriated from Hizma in the 1980s.
On the Jerusalem side of Hizma, the neighborhoods of Pisgot Za’ev, Ya’acov, Adam, and Anatot look like bedroom communities. But on the West Bank side of Hizma, these same neighbors appear as deep cuts into occupied Palestinian land, stitched together by Jewish-only roads and the separation wall. The road to Hizma shows a nakedness of the occupation that cannot be seen from the low elevation of most Palestinian roads near Jerusalem. Once part of the landscape of what would have been the capital of a Palestinian state, Hizma now represents a forgotten era of geographical continuity between Palestinian localities. Say the name, “Hizma,” in Jewish West Jerusalem, or even Ramallah, people will only visualize the checkpoint because village has vanished from the rest of society.
All photos are by the author.