Crossing Qalandiya: My West Bank checkpoint story

This is part of an occasional series about my experiences with the American Jews for a Just Peace Health and Human Rights delegation to Palestine in June 2014. My previous posts in the series are here and here.

Qalandiya Checkpoint, which I misheard as “Columbia” the first half-dozen times I heard it referenced, is the major IDF checkpoint between Ramallah and East Jerusalem (and thus, a pretty high-traffic checkpoint). You can go through it on vehicle or by foot – the West Bank’s shared Service taxis can’t go through, so you have to get out, pass through the pedestrian side, and catch a bus on the other side. As with most checkpoints, the experience is something of a crapshoot. I had gone through the pedestrian side in the West Bank to East Jerusalem direction once before, in low-traffic conditions, without a problem. This time, I was going through with only one other delegate, MF.

There were 20-25 people in front of MF and me in the checkpoint holding area, waiting to go through the turnstile and up to the interview window, all Palestinians except for a young white woman a few people in front of us who said that she was a human rights observer from Germany. When we got into the line, it was stopped. It stayed stopped for a few minutes. People started to become agitated, to shout. Some of them banged on the metal bars, trying to catch the attention of the unseen soldiers working the interview window. I wondered if the soldiers were taking a bathroom break, or maybe a nap. Finally, they started to let people through. Two or three people. Then the turnstile stopped moving again. A woman was lodged in it, midway through. The people who had been let through finished their interviews and left. The crowd gradually became agitated again. The man in front of us went to the back of the holding area and appealed to the soldier there to call his interview window colleagues and get the line moving again, which he did, and two or three more people were let in. The cycle kept on repeating. Two or three people would get through and then we would wait for a while for no apparent reason.

On the other side of the barrier separating people going in our direction from people going into the West Bank, a woman stood with several young children, patiently waiting for someone to let her out, which she did for probably 15 minutes until someone got around to doing so. MF was understandably very upset by this, and by the strange dominance game being played with the people in our line, saying that it was the first time she’d ever felt ashamed of being a Jew.

I have been told that internationals are usually not the ones who get targeted at checkpoints, but our line was apparently an exception. The first person we saw detained was the German woman, who was taken into a small side room. The man in front of us, who spoke good English, told us she was being questioned further in there. By the time it was MF’s turn, she was tired and upset, and I could hear most of her end of the conversation at the interview window, answering some normal-sounding questions and then sounding increasingly irritated while repeating at periodic intervals that yes she was Jewish and no she didn’t speak Hebrew, only English. Eventually they took MF into the questioning room too, and I could no longer hear her end of the conversation. She came out after a few minutes looking fed up but all right, and turned around and apologized to the waiting line for her detainment having slowed its progress further before grabbing her bags and walking out. I was supposed to be right after her, but by now the line was clogged enough that some people were pushing and shoving to be the next one in the turnstile, and I lost four or five places in line before a couple of kindly people helped me out.

As I walked up to the window, I noticed two things. One was that someone had scratched a Star of David and the words “Israel Forever” in English into the soldiers’ side of the plate glass. The other was that the soldiers at the window were two very young women, no more than 18 or 19. I guessed that one was Ashkenazi and one was Sephardi-Mizrahi, though you can’t really tell such things at a glance; some Ashkenazim are dark and some Sephardim/Mizrahim are light. Both were conventionally attractive with long hair and well-done makeup, all styled like they were planning on a photo shoot for a fashion magazine. They looked much like the popular girls from my teenage years. As I walked up to the window, putting my bags on the scanner, and walking through the metal detector, I gave them a big smile and a slight friendly wave, hoping for some sort of young female-presenting bonding dynamic.

I took out my passport and visa, which were all that I had needed to get through last time, and held them up to the window for the soldiers to see. They looked at me, completely unresponsive. Puzzled, I pushed them a little harder at the window, trying to convey “See, here are my papers.” One of them silently gave me a really slow and exaggerated shoulder shrug with an exaggerated, fake-confused expression, and then they went unresponsive again. I asked “Can I go now?” One of them held up a finger and said “No, one minute.”

After a few routine questions about where I was from, how long I was staying, and so on, they wanted to know why I had been to Ramallah. I told them, truthfully, that I had heard it was a nice place to visit. “What?” they said skeptically, looking befuddled, as though they couldn’t imagine anyone saying such a thing about Ramallah. I repeated my answer, and they moved on. They started repeatedly asking me something that I couldn’t understand at all, while making various gestures that only confused me further. I kept trying to guess, incorrectly, what they were asking me, growing increasingly bewildered and flustered (and a little nervous) while trying to maintain an air of cheery friendliness beyond what I normally do in day to day life. “No, I don’t have a vest or a jacket. Oh, are you asking me to bring my bag over?” They were mildly annoyed, but also giggly – they giggled at each other a lot, at almost everything I said. They ordered me into the questioning room, which was labeled “Further Inspection” in English, and proved to be a yellow-walled room, about the size of a bathroom stall, with another plate glass window and a microphone on one side.

“Why are you afraid of us? Are you afraid of us?” “No,” I thought to myself sarcastically, “I’m not afraid of you; I love it when people with machine guns who can have me indefinitely detained and possibly tortured single me out for scrutiny and then take me alone into an interrogation room.” I put on another bright smile – I think I was hammy enough throughout this exchange to embarrass William Shatner – and shook my head. “Oh, no, no, I’m just tired from standing in line for so long.” They could hardly claim that I hadn’t been standing in line for a long time, since they’d been intentionally slowing down the line, so they blamed it on the computer not working properly. “Oh, yes, I work with computers back home, I understand!” I said sympathetically. I beamed expectantly at them, hoping that now that we’d cleared that up they’d tell me I could go, but it wasn’t to be.

“Do you love Israel?” What sort of foolish question is that? What does it even mean to say that you love a country? “Oh yes, yes, I came on a Taglit [“Discovery” in Hebrew, known internationally as Birthright] trip two years ago! I had so much fun!” I started to prattle about my Birthright trip, but they cut me off, with a noticeably skeptical and accusatory “What cities have you been to in Israel?” I started rattling off cities, combining the Birthright trip and the delegation and being careful to use Hebrew rather than Arabic names in the cases where both exist and are obviously different. “Tel Aviv, Yaffa, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, Ramla, Nazareth, Lod…” When I mentioned Lod, their entire demeanor changed, from hostile and skeptical to amused, and they started giggling at each other and said “Oh, Lod!” Then they said, “You can go now. Have a nice day.” My best guess at what happened here is that people might know of and lie about having been to those other places, but Lod is both slightly obscure and a shithole. Like, that’s what our tour guide in Lod, a life-long resident and activist, described it as, right off the bat. It’s the city where a 10 year-old girl tried to sell drugs to our driver. I think the logic was that nobody would make up having been to Lod, so I must be telling the truth.

I got my bags and left the checkpoint to find MF. We compared notes. The two soldiers had identified her easily as Jewish by her name, and kept trying to speak Hebrew to her. Every time she told them that she didn’t speak it, she spoke English, they had asked whether she was Jewish, and when she said yes they had spoken Hebrew to her again. They had accused her of filming and tried to get her to turn over her phone. They had also tried to convince her that it was illegal for her to have gone to Ramallah. They had asked her “Do you love Palestinians?” to which she answered that she loves all decent people, which was not an answer that they liked. Perhaps seeing how upset she was over the entire checkpoint situation, they had asked whether she understood why the checkpoint was there. When she answered “Security,” they told her to pretend like they weren’t soldiers (as though that were possible in such a context) and tell them honestly, person to person, what she thought about that. They weren’t letting her go, so she finally started shouting a Jewish prayer at them in Hebrew, which made them laugh (as with me, they were very giggly) and let her go.

As we discussed our experiences on the bus, a young Palestinian man overheard us and joined the conversation. He shook his head over the silliness of some of our questions (especially “Do you love Israel?” and “Do you love Palestinians?”) and shared some of what Palestinians get at the checkpoint, which was much more focused on where people are going, why, and intimidating them by demonstrating how much the military knows about their individual lives. MF was overtly angry and unhappy about the whole thing. I was laughing a lot about Lod being my magic release word, and commenting that the two soldiers were like stereotypical high school Mean Girls…but armed and backed by state power.

How did this happen? I know that it’s naive to believe that oppression makes you noble, that having a boot on your neck in the past is a guard against mistreating others. But I’m still sad that those two soldiers have so little understanding of their history, our history, to use state power to abuse and humiliate people with petty cruelties for fun, for giggles. To make them perform for you for a laugh. When I got home and told this story to a friend, he commented that except for their Jewishness, those two soldiers would have fit in great in an SS unit.

A few days later, back on the West Bank side and preparing to go home, I realized that the thought of going back through the pedestrian side of Qalandiya was making me anxious. Surely I and my interview were now in the system somewhere and would pop up if they looked me up. I’d already been singled out once. Would they be angry that I’d gone back to the West Bank? I decided that if at all possible I would get one of the buses that could go through the vehicle side of the checkpoint (which I did) – at least then, even if the soldiers stopped the bus, I’d be one (relatively privileged) person in a group.

There are a lot of Palestinians who have to go through Qalandiya twice a day. At the end of the delegation, I got to go home. But for them, this is home, and this is normal life. No matter how worried they are about being singled out or how much anxiety their past experiences cause, they don’t get to avoid it.

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