What I learned crossing the Qalandia Checkpoint

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The turnstile jams.

It rattles uselessly as I try to move forward again. I start getting nervous. I manage to manoeuvre out of the gate and back into the holding cage. My companions are still being held at the previous turnstile from which I’m separated by a metal detector. I dare not go back for fear of breaking some unspoken rule.

There is no indication anywhere of what to do other than your lack of alternatives. You are simply herded through cages and turnstiles like cattle until a disembodied voice emanates from a loudspeaker to tell you you’re doing it wrong. Even then, they speak in Hebrew knowing that the Hebrew-speaking settlers don’t pass through here at all.

I try pushing the turnstile forward again. Nothing.

A Palestinian man joins me in limbo. He says something in Arabic which I understand only the gist of through his gestures. I step back and allow him to give the turnstile a go. A buzzing sound that had allowed me through the previous gate echoes loudly but this gate still refuses to move. The Palestinian man and I look up questioningly at the glowing red light above the gate. The green bulb beside it remains dark. Supposedly, you’re meant to wait for the buzzing which matches the lighting of the green light and as many of you as possible cram through the metal turnstile.

I walk back to the window by the metal detector and peer into the office where four young soldiers sit, two women and two men. The woman closest to the window has her back turned to me as she sits in a circle with her comrades continues her conversation as I approach. Someone says something funny and they laugh. Still no one turns. I consider trying to get their attention but I realise I’d prefer to avoid engaging with them if at all possible. I go back to waiting patiently with the Palestinian man.

I notice a door to my right. A plaque, which vaguely reminds me of the ‘high voltage’ signs you might see in the maintenance area of a building, reads “Further Questioning” in English. The curious part of me wonders what the room beyond this door is like but I quickly decide that I am content to forever wonder. I later found out that one of my travelling companions had taken a picture of this very sign only to be made to delete it by soldiers.

An anecdote recounted by one of our companions of his first crossing of the checkpoint drifts into my mind. He had been brusquely shut into a room for questioning and kept apart from the rest of the group all for keeping his camera up as they approached the checkpoint. He recalls the way the boy soldier had kept the barrel of his gun pointed at him and remembers thinking that this soldier could very well shoot him and get away with it. I wonder idly if this was the room he was taken to.

It isn’t long before a distinctly feminine voice comes on the loudspeaker and says something in Hebrew. She repeats her words. I look at the man beside me and he shrugs. When neither one of us moves, she repeats it again. She says it a fourth time, still in Hebrew. We look helplessly at the window and then try the turnstile, which continues to stand stubbornly still.

The soldier changes tactic and tries repeating the same words but slowly, enunciating each syllable as if our hearing was the issue. I withhold the roll of my eyes.

I can feel it happening. Feel the way I’ve been warned they would try and make me feel. They’re not trying to scare you, just rattle you. Like the turnstile you try to escape through.

Everything about this place is inconvenient and calculated. All the way down to the narrow passageways and even tighter gateways. I don’t like it. And I’m walking through with a backpack and passport. Two privileges you wouldn’t think of as privileges but Palestinians don’t have the luxury of leaving their heavy oversized bags on a coach whilst they are hustled through the checkpoint. They are also not entitled to cross with a mere ID. They are required to present an Israeli issued permit for this. Even the permit does not guarantee to get them across this checkpoint that sits, not on the border to the Israeli State, but firmly within the West Bank along the infamous wall which follows its own chosen path, resolutely ignoring the UN appointed borders. So we are not talking about leaving West Bank, but rather crossing from one part to another.

I consider what it would be like if every morning on my way to work, the ticket inspector chose to make me wait at the station barriers whilst he chatted to his mates about today’s Metro headlines. He’d eventually reach over to his console and press a button during which time I had to push through the gates in time with my fellow commuters, not knowing at which point he would decide to remove his finger from the afore mentioned button, once again blocking the gateway until he felt he had inconvenienced us enough.

I follow this train of thought a little further, toying with the idea of what it would be like to not be sure if you will be allowed through the barriers today. Whether today will be the day that the ticket inspector looks at your Oyster Card a little bit longer and makes you wait a bit more until he decides you cannot pass today. Today, you will not be able to travel, not even out of London, but just across it. Tough luck.

But of course, this example pales in comparison to the reality being lived out by Palestinians on a daily basis.

I go back to the window but still no one deigns to look at me. The Palestinian man then approaches the window and holds up his ID and permit to the window as if this was the routine. He says a few words to the soldier and eventually gestures for me to come forward. I approach, passport in hand, and he takes the passport to show her the page where my visa is clipped in.

The Israeli visa, which sits paper clipped into my passport, stands in place of a stamp and benefits from being entirely temporary. To mark my passport in Israeli ink when I crossed from Jordan into the Palestinian West Bank would be to acknowledge they unlawfully control access into the area. So a floaty waft of paper will do.

“Visa. Visa. She has a visa.” He explains this to the woman in English.

She sighs impatiently and turns back to her comrades. Once again, the Palestinian man shrugs and offers me a small smile, handing back my passport. I thank him in English and repeat it in Arabic under my breath, still slightly ashamed of my accent. We go back to waiting.

My traveling companions are then released from their limbo to join ours. After that it’s not long before the turnstile releases us. I find I have to force myself not to run out of the exit, afraid of getting trapped again.

The rest of the group waits for us outside and once we are all out we start to make our way to meet up with our coach and baggage. I stop to look back at the checkpoint only to realise that I had not seen a single ambulant soldier or attendee. They all stayed in their little boxes with their one-way glass, isolated, but controlling. Hollering over loud speakers when they felt the need to break up the monotonous operations of the day.

I’m snapped out of my reverie when, as if hearing my thoughts, another booming voice sounds out from the checkpoint we’re trying to leave behind.

“No photos!”

One of our group has stopped to photograph the grey buildings behind us. I note that this announcement has been made in English.

“No photos or it’s all over!”

It takes me a moment to register what was just said and to then process what the threat implied. A few of us giggle nervously at the absurdity and hurry along a little faster, phones tucked back into pockets.

Artists traveling with the Palestine Festival of Literature approach the Qalandiya checkpoint on May 24, 2015 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Photo: Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)
Artists traveling with the Palestine Festival of Literature approach the Qalandiya checkpoint on May 24, 2015 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Photo: Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

I catch sight of the wall again, stretching out into the distance, keeping Ramallah tightly cooped up. But it’s not its vast reach that draws my attention, nor its height. I expected this. What catches my attention is how awfully grey it is.

My first sight of the wall had been on the other side of the checkpoint. The wall, a sickening sight from any angle anyway, was, on the Ramallah side, covered in scars. Beautifully colourful scars. The kind that tell stories. Stern faces, abstract illustrations and promising words. Some scars hold a more violent undertone, black smoky stains bleeding up from the ground to reach up towards watchtowers as if that was enough to tear them down. Together, they make up a stunning bright canvas to hide the hideous grey beneath it, so you will not forget the wall is there. So you will not ignore it. So you will not ignore the injustice it so clearly symbolises.

But here, on the other side of the checkpoint, it stands clean and proud. Bland and forgettable.

I look at it and imagine a day when it will not stand there. A day when, like the Berlin Wall, it will stand in pieces. But never will it be forgotten. However broken and crumbled it stands, never will the injustice be forgotten. The scars have been etched too deep for too long to forget.

That is what I learned crossing Qalandia Checkpoint.

A general view of the outskirts of Ramallah near the Qalandiya checkpoint on May 24, 2015 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Photo: Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)
A general view of the outskirts of Ramallah near the Qalandiya checkpoint on May 24, 2015 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Photo: Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)


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They’ve planned this Hell very carefully.

Everybody is imprisoned and at the mercy of their evil moods and whims. I don’t know how the Palestinians endure this.

You’ve written about the horror so very well, Léa Georgeson Caparros. Your eyes tell the story, too.

Thank you.

“No photos or it’s all over!”

Shows over, move along.

Some good news from Columbia University today. CNN is reporting that the Ivy League school is divesting from the private prison industry, notably the security firm G4S and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The G4S firm provides equipment, including body scanners, and services to Israel at checkpoints like Qalandia and helps Israel run five prisons and interrogation centers. It is a common target of BDS divestment campaigns. It’s unlikely that the successful student activists… Read more »

“I notice a door to my right. A plaque, which vaguely reminds me of the ‘high voltage’ signs you might see in the maintenance area of a building, reads “Further Questioning” in English.” That must be code for strip search/torture room. Maybe its an international code, known to countries who practice the euphemistic enhanced interrogation and that’s why the picture had to be deleted? Every day the only democracy in the middle east sinks lower… Read more »

Reading this I had a vision of a short film. People with sunken eyes and paper thin skin, wearing dirty soiled gray and white striped rags, a green crescent moon and star badge is roughly sewn on to the arm or chest of each one. They stand for hours under a baking sun waiting, waiting to glacially shuffle through tight barriers, on towards a turnstile where post adolescent guards in shinny new uniforms cackle, “PIG,… Read more »