Qalandiya - There was no movement in the sleeves and no progress through the three pens - the soldier at the inspection booth fell asleep

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Virginia Syvan, Ina Friedman (reporting)

An Unspeakable  Mess

We have been observing at the Qalandia checkpoint for 10 years now and cannot remember a morning like this one.

It was bitterly cold both outside and inside the shed. Two fluorescent light bulbs had been added to the four (out of twelve) that were burning last week. On the other hand, the falafel fryer had been moved back into the shed, filling the area with the choking odor of cooked oil.

Five security checking stations were open when we arrived at 5:30, but the lines already reached outside well beyond the shed and there was no movement forward in the “sleeves” (the corridors leading to the checking stations with a turnstile controlling movement into them). Therefore  there was also no progress forward in the “cages” (the three bar-lined passages with a turnstile at the end to control the flow into the “sleeves”).

We don’t know how much time had passed since the soldier responsible for opening the turnstiles at the end of the cages had last opened them before our arrival at 5:30. However, we could see that the lines in the “sleeves” were short. And the Palestinians waiting in the cages could see that too. When they began to whistle and call out to the soldier to open the turnstiles, we noted that he had fallen asleep and knocked on the bars with a coin to wake him up. That did the trick and opened the turnstiles.

But then, at 5:37, when they saw that the turnstiles had opened, a number of young men who had been sitting on the benches toward the back of the shed got up, ran directly to the opening to the cage on the left, and tried to push themselves into it.  The sight of them running alone was sufficient to cause all three lines to collapse and lead to the familiar mess: a crowd of men pushing to enter the cages, shouts, whistles, climbing above the entrance to the cages, and so forth. And two hours passed before the lines into the cages re-formed (more or less).

The Humanitarian Gate was opened at 6:25 by a Civil Administration officer and a security guard. Since only men who were willing to risk life and limb were trying to go through the cages, many others who are otherwise not entitled to go through the Humanitarian Gate gathered by it – blocking  it to those who were allowed to use it -- in the hope that they would be let through. However, the DCO officer checked every permit, turned away all those not allowed through the gate, and thus restored order in that corner of the checkpoint. The Humanitarian Gate remained open until sometime after 8:00.

Once the lines through the cages re-formed, more or less, we joined one of them at 7:35. After 15 minutes, however, when there was no progress forward and we also saw that new arrivals to the checkpoint were jumping the queue, we allowed ourselves to go through the Humanitarian Gate (so as to get to work on time) and joined the line in one of the “sleeves.” The problem there was that after a few minutes, that line turned into a crowd, as newcomers created two new lines, one on each side of the original, legitimate line. And the more this crowd advanced forward, the worse the pushing on all sides became in an effort to squeeze into the turnstile. In other words, the situation in the sleeveinfo-icon was now as bad (and dangerous) as the situation at the entrances to the cages had been most of the morning. And as it was, the progress forward was agonizingly slow because the turnstile rarely opened, at one point the soldiers in the checking station took a 10-minute break, bringing the entire process to a halt.

In that mashed-together crowd were elderly men and women, not to mention two young children who looked terrified that they might be crushed on their way to the turnstile or in it. A young woman who was rejected by the soldiers in the checking station (apparently because she did not have an entry permit ) and sent back into that human mass pressing up against the turnstile, which now had to be turned for her in the opposite direction, ended up in tears from the whole experience.

In short, it took us 1 hour and 15 minutes to transit the checkpoint, all but 15 minutes of that time spent in the sleeve leading into the checking station.

At one point the two of us were separated during this wait. One of us got through the turnstile and the security check and , in the corridor leading out of the checkpoint, met a policeman who was reporting  (presumably to his commander ) on the lack of movement through the checking stations (it seems ours was not the only one having a problem). But from where he was standing, all he could so was report. We did not see any sign of supervision over the situation after the Civil Administration officer left – and he had authority only over the Humanitarian Gate and none over the soldiers working in the checking stations. For years we have been asking for responsible supervision over the checkpoint by all three of the authorities that operate parts of  it, to no avail. You can’t imagine the level of frustration, anger and despair felt by everyone going through the Qalandia checkpoint  this morning.