Today was the first time I was able to experience for myself what it is like to go through an Israeli checkpoint. The checkpoints have become infamous as being synonymous with the very worst elements of the occupation; their very tangible, physical presence and what they signify has meant that anything I have ever read or been told about has always been framed by their overbearing existence.
The students at Birzeit are constantly having access to their education restricted due to being continually – and often pointlessly – held up at checkpoints when travelling from their villages and cities to the university. One of the girls that I work with told me that complaining about delays at checkpoints has become something of a national past-time, akin to our recent British love for banker-bashing. However, just like our current desire to have a good old banker blaming session, there is a darker and more disturbing side to what this surface whingeing indicates.
The unjust and inexcusable accounts of Palestinians’ treatment at checkpoints is well documented, and I have been told many horror stories since arriving here. Yet whilst fortunately my experience today at Qalandia was nowhere near as traumatic as other’s have suffered, it was nonetheless an incredibly jarring experience. We were travelling into Jerusalem, and having caught a bus from Ramallah, when you arrive at the checkpoint everybody has to unload from the bus and go through security, and catch the bus again on the other side.
As we got off the bus we were herded into a long metal cage, with a growing crowd of over 100 other people all trying to get through the checkpoint as quickly as possible. Standing in the midday sun, in a tunnel that had vomit spattered all down one side, the jovial smiles we shared with others around us on the bus quickly turned to frustration as we stood there for over an hour and a half. Mothers and their young children and elderly Palestinian women with their shopping bags were given no reprieve and subjected to exactly the same treatment, and as the queuing wore on the atmosphere started to get rather more tense, with children crying and people beginning to shout.
With an IDF soldier on the other side of the cage only intervening every now and again to shout a few words in Arabic, hand firmly gripped on the handle of his massive gun, the absolutely idiotic revolving door at the end of the tunnel that let you through to the next part of the cage only worsened the situation. It was electrically operated and at apparently random intervals it would swing round letting a couple of people through at a time, and in a queue that was at least ten times its width, this led to a bit of a scuffle and lots of shouting as people tried to get through so they could go about their daily lives as quickly as possible. Mothers were separated from their children as there was no way of telling how many people the revolving bars would let through at a time, meaning that when I finally got through I was waiting on the other side for my friends with a little girl of around 7 years old.
Having had my bags scanned, I went up to the window where two Israeli soldiers sat languidly smoking behind bullet-proof glass. They were no older than 20, and when I showed them my UN identity card, which explains I am a development worker, with a smirk they asked to see my passport and visa stamp. I don’t know if it was being in the cage for a few hours, or the huge guns resting casually in their laps, but I felt my heart racing as I flicked frantically through my passport trying to find the right page. I knew that I had all the correct accreditation and absolutely nothing to hide (apart from a growing inner loathing) but I felt stupid and pathetic proving that to these nonchalant teenage soldiers.
As we climbed back on to the bus with everybody else, nobody that had gone through had been given more than a cursory glance over, and more than anything the whole ordeal had felt completely… pointless. I have repeated that word three times now in this post because that is exactly how the checkpoints seem to me. From speaking to our friends here, if you really wanted to go into Israel, there are definitely ways of going about it as we have heard many tales of getaway cars and rope-climbing the wall. The people we have spoken to are far from a threat, only looking to experience a piece of life on the other side of the wall. So if a suicide bomber was really intent on blowing him or herself up, a big bloody wall and some checkpoints probably wouldn’t do the trick, and surely the Israelis know that.
As a result, the predominant purpose of the checkpoints seems to be to make life as difficult for the Palestinians as possible, with a dose of added humiliation in the process, so that they are forced to surrender to the will of this almighty military power on a daily basis. Even if putting an Israeli checkpoint into Palestinian East Jerusalem was legal (it is supposed to be the capital of a future Palestinian state), making the process so slow, difficult, and often traumatic demonstrates once again that “national security” appears to sometimes be a mere facade in order remind the Palestinians exactly who is in charge.