A Land, Divided

Lines and Laughter at an Israeli Checkpoint

  • Photo Justin Giovannetti

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE—“No pictures,” yelled the Palestinian driver as he guided his bus through precariously thick traffic towards the Qalandia Checkpoint.

While the driver admitted that the Israeli Defense Force probably wouldn’t shoot at a foreigner taking pictures, the use of deadly force is authorized at Qalandia. Israel’s 600 other checkpoints scattered across the West Bank operate in a similar manner. Palestinians are reminded of that fact regularly.

On the road from Ramallah—the de facto capital of Palestine—to Jerusalem, Qalandia is one of the few holes in Israel’s snaking 700-kilometer wall. A mess of commuter traffic and pedestrians move along the grafitti-covered barrier as imposing concrete towers and cameras loom above.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians cross the checkpoint every day under the surveillance of heavily armed soldiers from the IDF and the Israel Border Police.

Despite weaponry and often humiliating demands from the border police, many of the Palestinians have a smile on their faces and make the most of a decidedly unique situation.

A coffee vendor moving between vehicles in the snarled lineup that leads to Qalandia asked for the names of us foreigners while offering a fresh Turkish brew.

Blowing kisses and calling, “I love you!” he jokingly proposes to a foreign woman traveling on the same bus as me through the window.

Three friends join him and take up the same playful flirtation.

The unpredictable nature of the Israeli occupation means that time in Palestine works differently and is not as precious of a commodity. A five-minute drive may take five hours; all appointments are flexible and tentative.
It’s 8:15 a.m. and Palestine doesn’t have rush hour, it has checkpoints.

“We are defiant of the siege. We are defiant of oppression,” Qadoura Mousa, the Governor of Jenin would tell me two days later at the Arab American University. “We are committed to peace, but not peace that is imposed on us.”

Despite rhetoric from Palestinian authorities, the situation on the ground is not one of even passive defiance. This is life—the normalization of occupation.

After half an hour of massaging the brake pedal, we reach the checkpoint.

It looks like any border station between Canada and the United States, but the conscripted guards look no more than 18 years old, wear military camouflage and carry automatic weapons.

Stopping at the station, a male Israel Border Police officer mounts our bus with an assault rifle and walks to the rear. A female IDF soldier waits at the front, gun in hand.

Both weapons are taped up, show visible signs of use and the safeties are switched off. The clips inserted into the rifles are each attached to a second magazine; as they walk past, we notice that these soldiers are ready for a firefight.

As the IBP officer walks down the aisle, the IDF soldier waits until he reaches the rear and then follows. The tensions on both sides of the muzzle are clear.

No passports are demanded this time, but the intimidation persists.

In the neighbouring lanes, Palestinians are standing outside their cars being patted down as soldiers pore through trunks and bags. Even the children are searched.

We travel through Jerusalem—our bus has a license plate that lets us pass though Israel—and continue south towards Bethlehem, skirting the wall to one side and the Judean desert to the other.

The sides of Israeli-controlled highways, even in Israel, are lined with barbed wire. As we pass through settlements—some of which are full commuter cities and suburbs housing up to 40,000 people—the wall becomes more intimidating.

Though the United Nations has deemed these settlements illegal, Israeli colonists are protected by the ever-present wall, arching over the highway, blocking almost all view of the colonies. Otherwise the road is a straight four lanes, cutting through mountains and bridging over valleys.

The city of Bethlehem is one of the holiest sites in Christianity and also lies fully under Palestinian control. While millions of Christian tourists visit the birthplace of Jesus every year, local Palestinians find entertaining guests difficult due to Israeli actions.

“To be in the place where Jesus was born and to be surrounded by a wall is not fair,” said Khalid Ali, a taxi driver in Bethlehem. “Millions from around the world come to visit this city and the church where Jesus was born and they see something bad, the wall. It is unacceptable.”

From the Church of the Nativity, Israel’s wall is less than a five-minute walk away. Settlements, which dominate the horizon, now separate Christians from the Holy Land.

“Bethlehem should be open to all, regardless of age or permission. They can’t order you or give you a permit to pray or not pray,” said Ali.

A Palestinian checkpoint on the outskirts of Bethlehem turns any curious Israeli around.

“The wall has affected the economy 100 per cent,” said Ali. “When people want to trade between Hebron and Ramallah, they can’t go through Jerusalem anymore. They need to go the desert way, through Fire Valley. It adds an hour and a half to the trip.

“Jerusalem is forbidden to us Palestinians. It is 10 minutes away […] It is sacred to us and we can’t go. That is unacceptable.”

As close to the Church of Nativity as Israel’s wall is Aida Camp, a refugee camp which houses approximately 10,000 people, originally built for Palestinians ejected from their homes by advancing Israeli forces in 1948.
Over the entrance to Aida Camp is what Professor of Islamic Studies Yusef Salim called the world’s largest key. The words “not for sale” in Arabic and English are inscribed upon it.

“It is symbolic. The Israelis took the houses of many people in this camp and they do not want to rebuild when they have homes to return to,” said Salim.

“They have kept the keys to go back home some day.”

The situation inside the camp is dire. A strike by United Nations workers has stopped the minimal collection of garbage that existed. Trash is piled high in the streets and the stench of burning garbage is everywhere.
The UN aid depot is abandoned, its gate closed to guard the water barrels inside.

The UN’s teachers are also on strike. Outside the boys’ elementary schoolyard, youths climb on barbed wire and 12 foot walls. They have nothing else to do.

The three-floor cement tenements built for the refugees are in a state of extreme disrepair, with holes the size of basketballs in the walls and stairwells. Inside, young girls giggle and point at the visiting foreigners. Children run up and down the dilapidated stairs.

Across the street from the tenements is Israel’s wall, cutting the refugee’s goats off from their grazing land. Goats travel up and down the wall, eating weeds and garbage.

Despite their situation, the children in the camp are optimistic. They spoke fondly of a recent visit by the Pope, where he denounced the apartheid-like conditions he witnessed. Pointing at a large mural by famed British graffiti artist Banksy, of an escalator carrying people over the wall to freedom, the children held out hope of a better future.

Justin Giovannetti was in Palestine as an invited delegate for Quebec at the World Education Forum.

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 12, published November 2, 2010.

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