Crossing Kalandiya

Where Israel’s security needs meet Palestinian frustration.

kalandiya crossing 311 (photo credit: AP)
kalandiya crossing 311
(photo credit: AP)
The journey to Jerusalem, for tens of thousands of Palestinians, begins in a dank, trash-strewn hangar.  They move through cage-like passages and two-meter-high turnstiles to be checked by IDF soldiers from behind bulletproof glass. The soldiers often yell at them through loudspeakers. They are supposed to work in pairs to speed the lines through, but sometimes one of them is asleep, his feet on his desk.
The Kalandiya crossing between Ramallah and Jerusalem is where potential attackers are filtered out before they can reach the capital. Palestinians say it is a daily humiliation they must endure to reach jobs, family, medical appointments and schools.
The West Bank security barrier slices through several of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, making Kalandiya the only way for 60,000 taxpaying residents to reach their city. They, too, must line up along with tens of thousands of West Bank residents to enter Israel for work, provided they are patient, have permits and do not arouse suspicion.
For five days, an Associated Press reporter waited with them.
• Sunday: Hands plunged deep in his pockets to fend off the pre-dawn chill, Ziad Abu Jalil, 36, enters the hangar and joins one of several long lines. He is headed to his $35-a-day job at a Jewish butchery, yanking chickens from cages to be slaughtered according to the rules of kashrut.
Until a decade ago, his commute from his West Bank village 20 km. north would have taken less than an hour. After the second intifada broke out in late 2000, however, IDF checkpoints started going up. The Kalandiya crossing grew steadily more arduous, and now Abu Jalil has to get up at 4:30 a.m.
Outside of rush hour, crossings can take mere minutes. But Abu Jalil has to be at work just before 7 a.m., and he never knows how long the line at Kalandiya will be.
Sometimes he is a little late getting to work and is sent home without pay, “and the crossing is always the reason we’re late.”
Even a hint of someone cutting in line is enough to ignite arguments or fistfights. In Abu Jalil’s line, men stand centimeters apart, some gripping the coats of those in front of them to keep their place.
The line takes Abu Jalil into a 4-meter-long cage of metal bars, barely wide enough for a large man or high enough for a tall man to stand upright. At the far end, a turnstile clicks open, letting about 10 people through at a time before clicking shut again.
Once inside: Another line to another turnstile, this one leading to a window where soldiers check IDs. Abu Jalil waits, then a worker at the front of the line gets turned back. He tells the others they cannot carry lunches through, so Abu Jalil and others with lunches change lines, starting again at the back.
It is a common problem. Sometimes, certain lines accept only certain IDs, but the workers do not know that until they reach the window. A soldier may close a window without announcing it, leaving people waiting in vain.
There is no supervisor or hotline they can take complaints to.
When Abu Jalil finally reaches the window, a young soldier in a baseball cap checks his ID and gestures him through with a tilt of his head.
The wordless encounter is his only one with an Israeli at the checkpoint.
It has taken him 22 minutes to get through.
• Monday: Israeli police caught a young Palestinian at Kalandiya this morning with a pistol and four knives hidden in his belongings. He told investigators he was planning to carry out an attack, police say.
Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld says about 24,000 Palestinians cross Kalandiya every day on foot and in cars and that police have seen a rise in attempts to bring in weapons since the checkpoint opened in 2005. They now catch about 20 a month, he says. In a videotaped incident last October 25, a young Palestinian woman stabbed an Israeli security man in the side.
“People forget that the crossing is there for a reason and not because Israel decided, ‘Let’s make Palestinians wait in line,’” government spokesman Mark Regev says. He says the barrier and crossing were built after “a wave of very murderous suicide bombings that killed all too many innocent civilians.”
At the height of the terrorist attacks in early 2002, suicide bombings were a near-daily occurrence in Israel, often in Jerusalem. There have been no bombings for two years, proving the checkpoints work, Regev says.
Over the years, Kalandiya has evolved from a small crossing manned by a few soldiers into a large, industrial-scale terminal with technology helping to speed the process. While most travelers still show their IDs and permits manually, some now swipe magnetic cards or place their palms on hand scanners that pull up their information for the soldiers.
Police say a new lane for bus traffic will open within a few weeks.
Still, Palestinians say the crossing could be run more efficiently.
“We enter like animals and go out like animals,” says Samir Sublaban, a 31-year-old grocery store owner. “Sometimes they make us wait while the soldiers play around inside.”
The security barrier splits his Jerusalem suburb, leaving him on the “inside” and many of his relatives on the “outside” of a towering concrete wall.
“It would take two steps to get to my uncle’s home, but now it takes me an hour to get there,” Sublaban says.
Today, his crossing takes the same as Abu Jalil’s – 22 minutes.
• Tuesday: Just before 6 a.m., someone in the hangar cuts in line and everyone yells and rushes forward. The passageways become a mass of thrashing bodies.
“I work by the hour, and if I’m late they take it from my pay,” says Mustapha Shibaneh, 34. He pushes into the crowd.
Now the lines move slowly. The distorted voice of a female soldier booms from a loudspeaker in Arabic: “Go back, go back!” or “Jacket, jacket!” meaning the traveler must run his belongings through the X-ray machine.
Sometimes soldiers belch through the microphones at people crossing or mock their attempts to speak Hebrew.
Mixed in with the workers are dozens of children, some as young as nine, lugging backpacks on their way to school. Girls open notebooks to study for a geography exam.
Shibaneh reaches the window to find both soldiers asleep inside their glass booth. He pounds on the window and one soldier stands up, checks his permit and waves him through. The other, draped in a coat, does not move.
The AP reporter saw soldiers sleeping in their booths four times during five days at the crossing. When told about it, Maj. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said he was “surprised,” adding, “This has to be looked into further.” Time crossing: 54 minutes.
• Wednesday: Seventy-year-old Rihana Awad gazes through the bars of a turnstile as a fight breaks out.
One of the lines has disintegrated when a student pushes too hard and a worker punches him in the face.
Another youth pulls off his belt and swings its metal buckle before others restrain him.
“This the worst place I’ve seen in my life,” Awad says, shaking her head.
Awad has crossed Kalandiya a few times a week for five years, since Parkinson’s disease and a stroke left her husband bedridden in a Jerusalem hospital.
Her family is among the 60,000 Jerusalemites who live on the West Bank side of the wall. Her Jerusalem taxes mean she has insurance to cover her husband’s hospital bills, but she must cross Kalandiya to see him.
As she waits, Awad, a short woman with dyed auburn hair, pops open a folding chair she brings with her because standing in line makes her legs ache.
Awad and her family lived in Los Angeles for 11 years, but returned because her husband wanted to die where he was born.
“I made the biggest mistake of my life in coming back here,” she says.
Time crossing: 33 minutes.
• Thursday: For 15 years, Mustapha Taha, 45, has worked in aJewish-owned fish shop in Jerusalem. He is fluent in Hebrew, knows hiscustomers and earns more than he could in the West Bank.
His Jewish colleagues do not know what he goes through to get to work,he says. Israeli law prohibits Israelis from traveling toPalestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, so few ever seeKalandiya.
“If I’m late, my boss says, ‘I got you a permit; how can you be late?’ He has no idea what it looks like here,” Taha says.
“If there was another option, no one would put themselves through this,” he says. “But you have to live.”
He walks though the last gate, past a sign in Hebrew, Arabic andEnglish that says “Have a safe and pleasant stay.” Time crossing: 25minutes.