Office workers, labourers, students and the elderly often pass through Qalandiya checkpoint near East Jerusalem on a daily basis. They are often placed far away from the violence of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Yet that distance has become notoriously smaller as they are often made the subject of punishment for a crime in which they had no involvement or knowledge.
The kidnapping on Thursday night of three Jewish religious school students: Gil-Ad Shaer,16, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Naphtali Fraenkel, hitchhiking in Gush Etzion (south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem) can be felt right across Israel and Palestine including the Qalandiya checkpoint.
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) response, dubbed ‘Operation Bring Back Our Boys’ has seen about 150 people arrested. The sweeping arrests began in Hebron on Friday and have continued into the wider Judea area. Most of the arrested were members of Hamas, including its leadership.
Whist Israel has the right and duty to seek the safe return of the young boys, it has unfortunately taken the position ‘that what is relevant is not where the attack took place, but where the attack originated, and that the terrorists set out from areas under PA control.’ Thus every Palestinian will ostensibly be held responsible until the boys are safely returned or found.
As a result not only has Hebron, and the greater Judean region come under an increased IDF presence in recent days, but even remote places have come under greater surveillance. This is not to say that the lack of proximity to Gush Etzion wholeheartedly rules out any given location. However the IDF must only act if and where it has reliable information that requires them to expand their increased sphere of presence. A case in point here is the Qalandiya checkpoint.
Every day I make the journey from Ramallah to East Jerusalem for work. Being less than 20 kilometres in distance it would ideally take about 20 minutes to get to work. However that is not the case, the trip is made to last about an hour each way by the checkpoint.
The checkpoint features as a gateway in the Israeli constructed Wall (also known as the ‘Security Fence’, ‘Separation Barrier’ or ‘Apartheid Wall’) dividing Ramallah from East Jerusalem. It is one of the busier checkpoints given the high population density of the area. It well known that most of those who travel between the checkpoint do so, so as to make their way to work, school or carry out other basic daily tasks (such as attending a doctor’s appointment). Experience corroborates these observations. Every day, whilst lined up at the checkpoint, I see people carrying their lunch (presumably going to work like me), children dressed in their uniforms and carrying their books (presumably going to school), and elderly men and women (presumably going to see the doctor).
Given the early hour that I travel through the checkpoint on a daily basis, it does not normally take me so long to pass through, usually ranging from 2 to 10 minutes. During religious holidays, such as Ramadan, passing through the checkpoint is also known to be delayed as people attempt to get home to be with family and friends.
The time it takes is very much dependent upon the mood of those staffing the checkpoint. Sometimes not all four gates will be open. Other times the guards may be eating their lunch, in clear view, forcing people to wait until they have finished. Or they could be busy sending an SMS, again people just have to wait until they have finished. Sometimes they are not even interested at all and you can simply pass through without them even looking at your ID.
In the shadows of any incidents of violence or otherwise, elsewhere in the country, the checkpoint is not spared from feeling the brunt of the response. With the kidnapping of the young Israeli Jewish students hitchhiking in Gush Etzion the checkpoint suddenly ground to a halt. Long lines of students, labourers, office workers and the elderly, lines which had not previously existed at this early hour, suddenly appeared over night.
The sudden change in circumstances could be felt. One elderly gentleman had become visibly distraught with the situation, yelling and arguing with others waiting in the line. At times he attempted to turn around and leave the line but found his exit blocked by fences and locked gates. At the other end, in the line up to one of the gates, people began to complain that the line was not moving, despite the path ahead being clear.
As conceded above, Israel has the right and duty to secure the safe return of these three young boys. However they must ensure that their actions are targeted and based upon reliable intelligence, especially the further they move away from the immediate scene of the crime. With the Qalandiya checkpoint, the case is thin. The area surrounding Qalandiya is not known for its support of Hamas (the group accused of the kidnapping), so how does it and the people that pass through on a daily basis suddenly come into the equation?
Either the sudden increase in time it takes to get through the checkpoint is unrelated to the kidnapping of the young boys or the people passing through the Qalandiya checkpoint were being collectively punished for the kidnapping of the young Israeli Jewish students, a crime of which they had no knowledge or involvement.
It is from the Qalandiya checkpoint that the fear reverberates. Palestinians have clearly received the message.
The trip home at the end of the day is normally at least an hour. But today it takes no more than five minutes. Palestinians are staying clear of the checkpoint and the IDF. As I make my way into the city centre of Ramallah it is the same. Shops are normally open until 7 or 8 at night, however today many are unusually closed. People have abandoned the daily travel through the checkpoint, and closed their shops. They have left to be with their family, seeking refuge in their homes. The only crime for which they are being punished; they are Palestinian.