Monday, 23 July 2007

Cattle or humans?

Qalandiya checkpoint, just outside Ramallah, where thousands of Palestinians have to pass through in order to continue their journeys to or from Jerusalem. As internationals, we could have stayed on the coach and passed through without any issues. However, this is something that is a major part of many West Bankers' day to day lives, so as an act of solidarity we went too.

This clip gives you an idea of the checkpoint's layout, but imagine it full of people. We were there around 9.30am - after the morning rush but still busy. After waiting in line for 10mins, the checkpoint shut, no reason was given, and it didn't reopen for over half an hour. This is normal, soldiers can shut it down whenever they want. At least it gave us even more insight into the frustrations that these barriers cause.

The group heard and saw many different stories. Some include:
- The family separated when the gates shut. Father and children got through, Mother was left behind. Negotiations with soldiers and human rights observers were held to try and reunite them.
- A woman on her way to Jerusalem for a medical appointment, having had a long wait for her permit. If she was late she would have to start the process all over again.

Two observers were there from Machsom Watch, which is an Israeli human rights group consisting of around 400 women who monitor checkpoints. An interesting perspective on Qalandiya as viewed by one of these observers can be found in this article.

And how did it make us feel? Personally, I went through a whole range of emotions during the hour we were in there. I started out nervous, but a little excited that we were doing something so important in terms of understanding reality in the West Bank. Within minutes of waiting in line I felt really selfish. Here we were, 30 internationals, none of whom needed to be there. The 4 of us who got through before the gates were shut had deprived 4 Palestinians from getting through without the wait. I shared this with Krista who's been on the Sabeel staff for over a year and she said she felt the same, but that it was still really important for us to have this experience so that we could share it with others. Then I felt angry that we were being controlled by an 18yr old soldier (most of those working on checkpoints are on their mandatory national service) who we could see through the glass was bored and falling asleep! Once through the first turnstile where we waited for half an hour, we faced another queue in one of 6 different rooms. Only 2 or 3 could go through at a time to be questioned and have their ID checked. So the closer you got to the gate, the closer you watched the green & red lights that determined whether it was your turn yet. In some ways this was even more disturbing becuase we couldn't see what was going on at the other gates. There were 5 other Sabeel people with me, but we couldn't see where the others were or whether any of our Palestinians had been stopped. However, we could see that Omar was still trying to help in negotiations at the first gate. Once at the glass window the teenage girl simply barked "passport", "visa" and that was it - I was through.

At every stage we saw people who weren't through and would not be getting through that day. Victims of a regime that seems intent on restricting the movement of people, simply because of their race. Treating them like cattle - moving them from gate to gate and through turnstiles at a soldier's whim - until they are completely dehumanised. Why?

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