School crossing

Kalandiya and the surrounding neighborhoods are the site of a paradoxical effect of Israel's new security barrier.

The moon is still sitting far above the horizon when schoolchildren start to appear at the Kalandiya checkpoint. It's dark at 6:15 in the morning, but one doesn't need sunlight to see the barren ugliness of the place, dust-covered and filled with litter. This is Jerusalem. Located within the city's municipal boundaries, Kalandiya and the surrounding neighborhoods are the site of a paradoxical effect of Israel's new security barrier: as construction of the barrier nears completion, getting from one side of the country's capital to the other can require crossing as many as two checkpoints. For some 3,600 Arab students who live on the eastern side of Jerusalem, Kalandiya and other crossings have become as much a part of the school day as yellow buses are in other parts of the world. Instead of crossing guards in bright orange jackets, however, Kalandiya is staffed by helmeted, armed soldiers some of them barely older than the Arab high-school students whose bags they sometimes check. These are the Arab children of east Jerusalem who have been cut off or soon will be cut off by the security barrier and the 11 checkpoints, including Kalandiya, that divide east and west Jerusalem. The Kalandiya checkpoint, set up in the early months of the second intifada to identify potential suicide bombers, is now one of the major monitored gaps in the barrier, which in this area takes the form of a high concrete wall. According to data provided by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, walls comprise roughly eight kilometers of the barrier in the Jerusalem area, while another 57 kilometers of the meandering structure are made up by fences. The completion of the security barrier will leave 55,000 city residents on the eastern side of the barrier, according to Jerusalem officials other sources say the figure could reach as high as 80,000 and tens of thousands of children will be among those living in the cut-off neighborhoods, suburbs and refugee camps of east Jerusalem, which include Kalandiya, a-Ram and Kufr Aqab. Fifteen state-funded schools are spread throughout the eastern side of the city, but their capacity already falls far short of what is necessary to educate children in the area, and the completion of the barrier is likely to increase the number of east Jerusalem students needing spots at schools on the eastern side of the barrier. While Jerusalem officials and the education ministry are currently planning the construction of new schools for their education, those additional facilities will not open in time to alleviate the space shortage this year. At an official press conference marking the opening of the new school year, city officials promised that they would take steps to ensure that east Jerusalem schoolchildren would be able to cross smoothly to schools on the western side of the barrier. At Kalandiya, the officials promised, these changes were to include buses to transport students from the checkpoint to their schools, and improvements to the checkpoint itself. In fact, not far from the current checkpoint, construction is underway on a new, permanent terminal through which east Jerusalemites will pass on their way into the west. But until that NIS 20 million project is completed, adjustments to the current checkpoint will have to suffice. So far, east Jerusalem commuters and advocates say, the situation is improving to a point. Traffic at Kalandiya passes in two directions, both on foot and by car. Drivers hoping to cross into the western part of the city remain on a paved road which is now blocked by an inspection point, while pedestrian commuters veer off that road onto a dirt path, which takes them between two wire fences to a separate inspection terminal. During the week, adults and schoolchildren begin arriving early. Pedestrians start at 6:15 a.m., and the line of cars also gets longer. By 6:30, at least 50 cars are in line, and the line will stay that long throughout the morning. Drivers honk relentlessly, the narrow road becomes gridlocked, and gas fumes make standing along the road nearly unbearable. In contrast, the pedestrian inspection terminal is quiet and orderly, though not serene. A stand sells large bourekas and chocolate pastries just outside the terminal, but no one seems to be eating or drinking. The terminal is about the size of a small reception hall, bare and dank, without visible efforts to make the place more pleasant for the east Jerusalemites or the soldiers. An armed soldier named Nir politely but firmly asks a reporter not to interview people inside the terminal, adding that taking photographs of the queues and metal detectors is not allowed. Photos can be taken outside the terminal, he adds, meaningfully. One third of the way into the terminal, revolving iron gates cut off the entrance into the inspection area. There are three lines this morning, with chest-high dividers separating them. The terminal is exposed on all four sides. Today, it's warm and pleasant inside, but probably won't be so during winter rains or summer heat-waves. There are no chairs to sit on, piped-in music or anything else to help pass the time. Some of the people in the line say that the checkpoint has been reorganized over the past few weeks and that the lines move faster. The wait on foot to cross Kalandiya never gets longer than 10 minutes, while cars appear to wait at least three or four times that long. Perhaps for that reason, just one in every eight or nine waiting cars contains a child on his or her way to school. According to Fuad, a Kufr Aqab resident who declines to give his last name, last year he had to wait over half an hour each time he crossed; now he waits about 10 minutes, on average. He arrives every morning at 6:50 a.m. with his nine-year-old daughter, Aris, who has to catch a 7:15 a.m. bus on the other side that will take her to school. Aris can attend a better school on the western side of the checkpoint, Fuad explains, which is why he chooses to cross Kalandiya with her each day before going to work back on the Kufr Aqab side. But the bus will leave whether Aris is on it or not. So on days when delays make her miss the bus, Fuad is forced to take her by cab and then return to the checkpoint. It's an expensive delay that makes him late for work, too. On this particular day, however, Aris catches her bus without a problem, and fifteen minutes after starting down the dirt path to the checkpoint, Fuad is once again on its eastern side. He and his daughter crossed "almost instantly" this morning, he says. "Instantly" means a wait of five or six minutes. Fuad says that he is relieved by the shortened wait time. But Aris, who has never gone to school without crossing a checkpoint, still asks why she must wait in line each day. He says that he simply tells her that she must be patient and that they "must also wait for a better situation" with Israeli authorities. Many children arrive at the checkpoint unaccompanied, standing in the same lines as the adults. No one in line is reading and no one seems to be engaged in serious conversation. The children hold on to their books and backpacks - Spiderman logos seem to be a favorite this year. They seem to be as resigned as the adults as they stare straight ahead, as if trying to avoid looking at the dusty landscape or the graffiti covered security wall. At the front of two of the lines, unsmiling and business-like soldiers watch as adults and children take metal objects out of their pockets, set their bags and backpacks in receptacles off to the side and pass through metal detectors. Occasionally, a guard checks one of the bags. At the other end, along another dusty path, a mass of cars, taxis, vans and buses slowly tangles and untangles itself to bring commuters to school, work and appointments on the western side of the barrier. Since this is still east Jerusalem, many of the commuters will pass through at least one more checkpoint before reaching their destinations. The pedestrian terminal is the main passage point for schoolchildren crossing the barrier, with very few being driven across at this time of the morning. But children crossing Kalandiya on foot face barriers of a different sort once they've reached western Jerusalem, says Hussam Wattad, the community center director in Beit Hanina within the Jerusalem-side of the barrier. While he concedes that foot traffic at Kalandiya may be moving more quickly now, he says buses have not been transporting Beit Hanina students to schools in western Jerusalem as the city promised, and he has not been told when they will start operating. He doesn't believe that the improvements at Kalandiya are permanent, saying that the very existence of the checkpoint unjustly complicates the lives of the students who must cross it. City officials and spokespersons for Jerusalem schools were repeatedly contacted about busing, the new terminal under construction at Kalandiya, and plans to build more schools on the far side of the checkpoint, but requests for information went unfulfilled. The Supreme Court has deliberated on a number of cases related to the security barrier, and a judgment is expected soon in a case filed by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel on behalf of a-Ram, an east Jerusalem area split in two by the barrier. The court has called for the re-routing of the barrier in a number of other places, notes Sarah Kreimer, the associate director of Ir Amim, an organization that works for a "sustainable and equitable" Jerusalem. But the judges may not apply the same legal logic to the barrier's routing in Jerusalem, she says, because the eastern half of the city, unlike the rest of the West Bank, was formally annexed by Israel in 1981. Kreimer says that there is no perfect balance between Israel's security needs and the east Jerusalem residents' rights to lead unobstructed lives. "That doesn't mean on a temporary basis that there doesn't need to be some kind of physical barrier," she says. However, she continues, if the Jerusalem security barrier is completed according to the currently proposed route, "there will be people from a-Ram, Abu Dis, and all along the eastern wall of Jerusalem who are going to be stuck having to go through checkpoints. "Our question is, will the [new] terminal be set up to serve all those people? Will it be enough for all of the people coming through?" Residents of Kufr Aqab and surrounding Arab neighborhoods will have to wait, as they do each morning, to see whether the new Kalandiya terminal will allow relatively smooth pedestrian crossings to the western side of Jerusalem. Even if it does, however, concerns remain about the checkpoint's effects on the students who pass through it to get to school. "That a child on his way to school must have his bags checked by a soldier is bad enough," says MachsomWatch activist Yehudit Elkana, who regularly monitors Kalandiya and other checkpoints. "If the checkpoints are better now, that is something, but it's not an answer."