QALANDIA, West Bank -Inside the airy hall, people step up calmly to the electronic barrier and allow their ID cards to hover for a second over a green laser before an automatic gate pops open. It could be one of today’s more-advanced airport terminals, a biometric border crossing with speed lanes, but it’s not.
It’s Qalandia – the notorious Israeli military checkpoint known for its reviled metal turnstiles and caged tunnels. For nearly two decades, thousands of Palestinian civilians were forced to wait here, sometimes for hours, as they tried to enter Israel for work, school, medical appointments or family visits.
As the main crossing into Jerusalem from Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, Qalandia has become a stark symbol of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and a constant source of humiliation for ordinary Palestinians. It also serves as a daily reminder of how deeply Israel controls their lives.
The place that sparked a thousand protests and endless clashes has been given a facelift. It is a multimillion-dollar renovation that Israelis hope will improve lives – on both sides.
Even for Israel, the checkpoint had become a problem. Designed to help maintain security and prevent terrorist attacks, it drew international criticism as a form of collective punishment imposed on the broad population of Palestinians subjected to such harsh conditions.
On a recent day, sparkling lights were strung across the narrow passageways. The turnstiles and cages were gone, and Palestinians breezed through, encountering the Israeli military only if they had not yet received a biometric identification card. Since the renovations, security guards, for the most part, are hidden behind frosted glass or tucked away on overhead walkways. Even during busy times, it takes less than five minutes to cross.
The goal is to “improve the fabric of life,” said Col. Shai Carmona, deputy head of COGAT, the Israeli military body that governs the West Bank.
But while many Palestinians have welcomed the change, they continue to object that what was once an ad-hoc military checkpoint. What started with a few army jeeps and a handful of soldiers has developed into a permanent border crossing that keeps Israel in control of their lives. The high-tech makeover only reinforces that reality.
“The principle of checkpoints and all that means in terms of a system of control making life difficult is still there,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “Improvements are good, but does it improve life overall?”
He pointed out that most Palestinians still need permits from Israeli authorities to cross the checkpoint, which, he highlighted, is in a part of East Jerusalem that international law considers occupied territory. The checkpoint should not be there at all, Khatib said.
Both Qalandia and Checkpoint 300 – the other main access point from the West Bank to Jerusalem, on the road from Bethlehem – have been overhauled in recent months, allowing smoother and faster passage for some 16,000 Palestinians each day.
“The situation has completely changed here,” said Khaled Yousef, 29, who is employed by the Israeli soft-drink maker SodaStream, which was recently purchased by Pepsi. “It used to take me more than an hour to cross every day. Now it’s only a few minutes. I get an extra hour of sleep.”
His colleague Rami Shamasneh, 41, agreed, saying that they all used to suffer at the Qalandia checkpoint and that treatment had vastly improved, though he added, “This crossing should not even exist.”
Sameh Abu Omer, 59, who works at an archaeological site in Israel, recalled fondly the days when he could drive to his job in Israel with no checkpoints and no permit.
Qalandia checkpoint, named for the nearby Palestinian village of the same name, was established 18 years ago during the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising in which suicide bombers were sent to blow up buses and restaurants inside Israel and Israelis responded with a brutal crackdown. That round of violence ended more than a decade ago, and Abu Omer wonders why the checkpoints are still necessary.
Shaul Shay, an Israeli military historian, said that even though the security situation is different today, the threat of terrorism is still real for Israelis. Maintaining checkpoints such as Qalandia but upgrading them for a smoother crossing was the best way to maintain what he called the “coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“A return to suicide bombings is just a matter of strategic decision,” Shay said. “Unfortunately, as long as Palestinian terror continues, Israel cannot take any risks. This system is unavoidable.”
Ilan Paz, a retired military commander of the region, said the checkpoint at Qalandia was never meant to be permanent.
“It was March or April 2001 – I was alerted by the intelligence that a terrorist was planning an attack in Jerusalem,” Paz said. “All they knew was that a terrorist was planning to penetrate Jerusalem through Qalandia. They said they needed 48 hours to track him down.”
Paz encircled the area with his troops, erecting a temporary checkpoint at Qalandia. When the threat passed, he tried to remove it, but Israel received intelligence of another threat, and he was told to maintain the checkpoint, he recalled. When the Israeli government decided a few years later to construct a permanent barrier between Israel and the West Bank, Palestinians wanting to enter Jerusalem from Ramallah had to pass through Qalandia.
To enter Israel from the West Bank, most Palestinian adults now must have some form of Israeli permit. Palestinian men between ages 16 and 55 and women between 16 and 50 are typically required to have one, though Israel’s criteria are continually changing. A complicated system of work permits, special permits and medical permits is enforced.
Hanna Barag has spent the past 18 years monitoring human rights violations at the checkpoint for the Israeli organization Machsom Watch or Checkpoint Watch. She described the early days as chaotic. “Cars, trucks, taxis pushed their way through a roadblock, while young Palestinian men were made to stand, legs and arms spread against a wall, as soldiers checked them.”
“Slowly they developed the checkpoint, making it easier for Palestinians to cross,” said the 83-year-old activist. The turnstiles and cages were added to keep order among the ever-growing number of people.
The images of thousands of Palestinian laborers pushing, shoving and clambering over each other to reach the Israeli side, combined with pressure from Israeli employers, whose workers arrived exhausted from long hours at the checkpoint, finally forced the Israeli authorities to make key changes at Qalandia and other checkpoints that now lay between the occupied West Bank and Israel.
“It took years for them to address this,” Barag said. “But the physical development of the checkpoints is not the interesting part.”
She said the system of permits for traversing the checkpoints is the real story.
“If you ask the average Palestinian, they will say that finally Israel is using a high-tech system and everything is great,” Barag said. “What no one is talking about is who is allowed to pass and who is not.”
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The Washington Post’s Sufian Taha contributed to this report.
Video Embed Code
Video: Israel gave its infamous Qalandia checkpoint a multi-million dollar makeover, but many Palestinians say the new technology only reinforces the reality of a permanent barrier.(REF:EGLASHR0-V,Sufian Taha,REF:leej3/The Washington Post)