New checkpoints aim to minimize degradation

28 hi-tech facilities aim to facilitate flow of goods, people between sides.

checkpoint kalandia 298. (photo credit: )
checkpoint kalandia 298.
(photo credit: )
From over the loudspeaker, a woman's voice echoes its way through the lines of people. "Women go to aisle number four," she says in Arabic. With that directive, the men and women split up, forming lines to pass through the security check. One by one, when the red light turns to green, the men from one of their three lines come through the turnstile. Jackets, handbags, and anything in pockets are placed on the conveyor belt for scanning. They step through the metal detector, turn left, and place their identification cards up against a window. On the other side of the booth built with reinforced concrete and bulletproof glass, a soldier checks the face against the picture, enters the ID number into a computer, and, assuming all is in order, waves the man through. The Palestinian is now in Jerusalem, and since he arrived at the checkpoint from Ramallah, not a hand has been laid on him. All along the boundaries between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which are only now being delineated, this is the new reality. While the task of separating Israeli and Palestinian towns is moving methodically toward completion with the security fence, the burden of preventing terrorist infiltration into Israel is falling on the 28 checkpoints similar to this one at Kalandiya that Israel is building to facilitate the flow of people and goods between the two sides. While the fence is carving out the probable future borders of at least one nation, the hi-tech checkpoints - which bare a resemblance to security facilities in sci-fi movies - are shaping the daily lives of those who cross between them. "With the fence going ahead, everyone recognizes the importance of the checkpoints," said Brig.-Gen. (res.) Bezalel Triber, who is in charge of planning the crossings. "We must maintain the quality of life as best as possible for the Palestinians, but also make sure to protect our own security." Striking that balance has proven difficult. Whereas the debate around the fence has centered around Israeli security vs. greater Palestinian land rights, the dispute around the checkpoints is being framed around Israeli security vs. personal Palestinian dignity. Around Jerusalem alone, some 220,000 people legally cross into and out of Israel every day. When the Jerusalem segment of the fence is completed later this year, commuters will pass through one of 11 new checkpoints being built around the city. Kalandiya, the largest of the facilities, sees about one-fifth of that traffic. After more than 100 suicide bombers in Israel in the last five years, many of whom came through the less formal checkpoints, the army, though attuned to the burden the security checks place on thousands of innocent Palestinians, does not feel like taking chances. The new NIS 30 million facility is designed to maximize the thoroughness of the search Palestinians endure before entering Israel while minimizing the degradation. "The point is to move to full remote control, where no [Israeli] should talk to [a Palestinian] or touch him," Triber said recently at an interview in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. "It is more respectful, it's better from a security standpoint and there is no friction between people." But Palestinians who passed through the Kalandiya checkpoint into Jerusalem were not enthusiastic about the new arrangement. While some acknowledged that the daily grind of going through checkpoints was made easier, all but one, who said tersely "We deserve it," bemoaned the checkpoint as another manifestation of lost Palestinian rights. "They treat us like sheep," said Rami Samman, 25, who comes through the checkpoint at least twice a day for his job. For the men, who cross through in much greater numbers than women, the new system, though less physically intrusive, means a longer wait. Samman, who has a Jerusalem ID, said he often waits around 45 minutes if he crosses during the morning and afternoon "rush hours," around 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. respectively. "It also depends on the soldiers," he said. "If they want to operate the station, they can. But sometimes they put on music and don't do anything just to provoke us." For the women it is a different story. Separated into a lane that they share with children under 18 and adults over 60, they often pass through the terminal in five minutes or less. That is an advantage, said Wissam Hisham, 20, a math student from Jerusalem who studies at Bir Zeit University, north of Ramallah. Dressed in a full hijab, she said she also appreciated the new policy of having only female soldiers check her identity. Before, she was often forced to remove her veil in front of crowds of Palestinian men as well as male soldiers. Nevertheless, Hisham said, the treatment received at the checkpoint was highly variable. "It depends on the mood of the soldiers," she said. More importantly, said Hisham, the hi-tech checkpoint did not change the fact that the Palestinians' dignity was being violated on a daily basis. "They have no right to do this to us." According to Triber, both the waiting time and the treatment of people should improve in the coming months, as the army cedes control of the checkpoints. As of March, Kalandiya and the 10 other Jerusalem-area checkpoints will be manned by the police. For the last month, a private security company has operated the Erez checkpoint, which joins the Gaza Strip with southern Israel, and another will soon take over the Sha'ar Ephraim crossing adjacent to the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm. These transfers are part of a government plan to steadily decrease the army's presence in the daily lives of Palestinians. Like Kalandiya, the Erez checkpoint, which was attacked twice on Thursday by Palestinian terrorists, is receiving an expensive face lift, with a new NIS 150m. terminal scheduled to open there by the end of 2006 at the latest. As part of their training, Triber said, the security guards were given a three-week course that includes lessons in Arabic and directives "on how to behave toward the Palestinians." But there is no slackening of security. Everyone who crosses through Erez - Palestinian and foreigners alike (Israelis are not allowed into Gaza) - passes through not only metal detectors but advanced scanning machines that capture a total body picture. The procedure of stepping into the machine, lifting one's arms above the head, and standing for five seconds inside a transparent plastic booth with remote controlled doors is necessary, Triber said, because many suicide bombers have detonated themselves around Erez and the scanning machines are more reliable than metal detectors. At both Erez and Kalandiya, Palestinians who move through the checkpoints on a regular basis are now also receiving biometric cards which have their basic information encoded along with their travel status to Israel. The long-term goal, Triber said, was for Palestinians workers to be able to swipe their cards through scanners and proceed through the security measures nearly unabated by any Israeli - either soldier or civilian. Many of these procedures are being coordinated during twice daily meetings between representatives of the Civil Administration and the Palestinian Authority, said Maj. Shadi Saif of the Civil Administration, who has command over the 11 Palestinian villages that feed into Kalandiya. Whether or not the meetings continue if Hamas assumes control of the PA "is a political decision," Saif said. "Either way, we can do our job." Saif, who is from the northern Druze village of Yanuh and has served in the army for 11 years, said every effort was made at Kalandiya to provide service to the Palestinians. "Wherever they wait, there are washrooms and water, and we are always talking to them about ways to improve the conditions here," he said. Once Israel builds additional roads and Civil Administration offices for the Palestinians around the checkpoints as part of its overall scheme with the security fence, "there will be freedom of movement and economic development, and hopefully that will lead to social prosperity," Saif said.