Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Monday morning at Qalandiya
We fall out of bed at 3.45am and grunt at each other in a desultory fashion over bowls of cornflakes and a few sips of tea, depending on bladder strength. There are no mod cons at this checkpoint. The taxi beeps outside and we climb in. The road is not busy as we skirt the old city. Suddenly we turn and the wall is looming above us in the early morning half light— 8 metres of concrete topped with a twisted forest of razor wire.
We alight and divide up the tasks - some to go through to the Ramallah side to watch the forming queue and wait for the humanitarian gate to open. This is a special route for women and children, the elderly, people who need medical attention, or people who just want to visit relatives in Jerusalem.
Half of us go through the checkpoint to the Ramallah side to observe the queue and the others and stay on the Jerusalem side to count people as they come through. The queue is very long even though it’s still early and we position ourselves close to the soldiers’ booth. The windows are tinted and it’s hard to see how many are there on duty. Sparrows twitter frantically, trapped in the barbed wire around the booth. In contrast, the queue moves slowly and steadily and the men show nothing but steadfastness and good humour. Many greet us and even thank us for their presence. Two or three are turned back because their permits have expired.
At six o’clock the humanitarian lane opens. A man comments that this is because we are there in numbers today. Women and children begin to arrive. A tall, anxious-looking young man is carrying a tiny baby in a carrycot and an elderly couple explain that they are going to hospital for the wife’s treatment. Several professional looking men and women with briefcases are next. Two young men stop and chat to one of our outgoing team. She explains that they are student nurses on their way to work in a Jerusalem hospital. Ten minutes later one of them returns with a smartly dressed young woman,also a nurse, who has been refused entry because elf the metal belt on her coat. The EA reasons with the soldier and eventually, after twenty minutes or so, he allows her to pass.
I pass through the checkpoint myself, but fail to produce my passport and visa in an appropriate manner and a kind Palestinian behind me shows me what to do. ‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘this is my first time.’ ‘No problem,’ he says and grins. On the other side a group of about thirty men have gathered to pray, an imam wearing a striking head dress chanting and the others following. I admire their commitment, kneeling on the hard, filthy concrete, with no prayer mats, and I watch their sinewy, worn hands as they bend forward, heads and hands touching the ground.
Then, in a flash, they are up and piling onto buses to make the last leg of their journey to work. The spot-check timing sheets we have given out show that the average length of time today was 50 minutes to pass through the checkpoint. A good day, apparently. Our log shows that 2,222 people passed through this morning. Bearing in mind that many have a longish journey to reach the checkpoint and a bus journey the other end, it makes for a very long working day.
We go home for a rest. Late run the day, I wonder what all the people we saw at the checkpoint are doing now: sweeping the streets, working on an Israeli building site in West Jerusalem, waiting at tables? I call to mind the large official notice at the entrance to the checkpoint: ‘We wish you a safe and pleasant passage.’ There used to be an airport at Qalandiya. But the Occupation has changed everything.
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