Crossing Qalandia

I was recently in Ramallah, and turned down the offer of a lift to Jerusalem in favour of taking the public bus – just to see what it was like (the luxuries of being a tourist). All traffic between Ramallah and Jerusalem has to pass through the Israeli military checkpoint at Qalandia (or Kalandiya, Qalandiya, etc). It was quite an experience. I’d suggest every tourist in Jerusalem should try it out for themselves. (I’m going to keep my commentary to a minimum here and let the pictures talk for me).

This (right) is one of the approaches to Qalandia.

Pictured below is a section of the ‘separation barrier‘ at Qalandia, decorated with murals.

This (below) is what you see on the road from Jerusalem into Ramallah, having passed through Qalandia. The painted sign says “No entry to Israelis” in Hebrew (Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering Ramallah, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority).

Traffic trying to cross Qalandia from Ramallah into Jerusalem is often heavy.

Having left Ramallah, buses arrive at the entrance to Qalandia, where everybody has to get off with their bags, walk across a parking area and into this shed (below), to pass into a narrow barred passageway, wide enough for one person at a time.

Passengers from the bus are then corralled together in this holding pen (below). The barred turnstile at the far end is controlled by the Israeli army staff, who sit in a secure office just beyond: they allow one person at a time through the turnstile for checks. The rest must stand and wait. On the day I was there, I waited in this area for about 15 minutes, shuffling forward slowly one person at a time. People were courteous but quiet. Fortunately it was a cool day: there is no air-conditioning there.

This (below) is the notice on the other side of that turnstile: each person allowed through must pass their ID card (or, in my case, passport) through a transfer window for checking by the Israeli army staff.

I could not take photos of the ID check, but on that particular day, that particular office was staffed by four people – three women and one man – all in army uniform and all, in my estimation, in their late teens or early twenties. One was seated at the window, running computer checks on the ID of the people passing through the turnstile; as she worked, she also leaned back, smiling and chatting with her colleagues, who were lounging behind – one woman was reclining in an office chair with her boots up on the desk, while the man was seated on a desk nearby, his feet on a chair, chatting and laughing.

After I passed in front of the window, there was a sudden shouted command which came out of a speaker on the wall. I turned, the person who was coming just behind me shrank back, and the shout came again. The soldier at the window merely wanted me to show my passport again – but it was (how can I put this?) disconcerting, in that context, to have a disembodied voice suddenly issuing shouted commands at me through a crackly speaker.

After the ID check you walk on. Pictured below is the sign which hangs above this passageway; it says “Israel” in Hebrew and Arabic.

Turning right at the sign, as instructed, this is the view (below) – another turnstile.

Through that turnstile, you effectively enter Israel proper. This is the scene (below) – another watchtower, with more people and traffic waiting to pass into Ramallah.

Everybody reboarded the bus, which continued on its way into East Jerusalem.

For them, it was routine: they presumably do the same thing twice (or more) a day, every day. Perhaps, since the crossing only took about 20 minutes and nobody was singled out for body or property searches, it was a good trip.

It was the most shocking bus journey I’ve ever taken. Qalandia is a disgrace: it feels, looks and smells like a prison. The casual behaviour and jokey attitude of the Israeli soldiers running ID checks was disgusting. (Then again, perhaps it fits: imagine soldiers making eye-contact with everyone and smiling, saying please, thank you and have a nice day. It’s almost worse than the honest reality of treating people like cattle.)

And Qalandia is only one of dozens of similar military checkpoints, set up in and around the West Bank in order for Israel to control the movement of Palestinians.

It brutalises – but I wonder if it isn’t brutalising Israelis even more than Palestinians.

While I was waiting in that holding pen, it struck me that when Palestinians are one day governing themselves in a fully autonomous State of Palestine, Israelis will still be living with the insidious, corrupting mental and social consequences of having maintained such an occupation for so long.

I’m absolutely certain that the Palestinians can survive the occupation, however long it continues. They seem to have the kind of inner strength and collective resolve that no army can touch.

What I’m less sure about is whether the Israelis can.


  1. spunkygirlmonologues

    Sounds like an interesting crossing, I felt as though I was there with you. I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog.

  2. Mo-ha-med

    I took a few photos of Qalandia myself at the time.. creepy experience. Now imagine having to go through that every day – if you live in East Jerusalem and work in Ramallah, for instance, or if your Uni is in the West Bank..

    One remark though: “Through that turnstile, you effectively enter Israel proper.”
    Well, not really. You enter East Jerusalem, which remains and occupied territory.
    The fact that Israel considers it to be “Israel proper” (as it decided in 1981) doesn’t change the legal status of EJ.
    Practically speaking however, by passing Qalandia you have access to Israel proper, since there are controls between West and East Jerusalem, which has been severed from its natural extension that is the West Bank.

  3. Matthew Teller

    Thank you, both.

    Mo-ha-med – you’re absolutely right. Factual error on my part. (Hate bloggers who hit the ‘publish’ button without re-checking what they’ve written.) I’m going to let the original text stand, but please consider it corrected.

  4. Gail Simmons

    Great piece Matthew. I’ve had a similar experiences at Israeli checkpoints. Totally dehumanising. And I agree with your assessment that the Israelis are dehumanising themselves even more than they are the Palestinians, who have a strong and cohesive culture which will keep them going despite the injusticies. As one man in Hebron/al-Khalil told me : “There may not be a Palestinian state in my own generation, or even my children’s generation, but I’ve no doubt it will come. We are not going anywhere.”

    And they also see that the separation wall that the Israelis are building is not only keeping the Palestinians out, it is keeping the Israelis in – they are in fact building a prison for themselves.

  5. Jeremy Head

    Great post. My experiences in the West Bank (several years back now) were pretty similar. Interestingly for the Palestinians with me at that time this kind of grind made them try and beat the system just for the hell of it. Our Palestinian driver didn’t have the right paperwork (I think he did this intentionally) so we had to get out of our jeep and cross on foot and wait take a taxi. Half a mile down the road, he was there waiting for us, having taken a couple of dirt tracks and used his 4 wheel drive to drive up a steep bank thus avoiding the checkpoint. Made us all laugh a lot.

  6. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, Jeremy – yes, I think that happens a lot! Or, rather, used to: the ‘separation barrier’ has put paid to a lot of that kind of entrepreneurial approach…

  7. Rodney

    Back before the other wall collapsed, East German guards were generally courteous and efficient, albeit cool. My experience of Qalandia last Tuesday at 10pm was of surly and insolent 20 year old soldiers behind very thick panzer glass, whose preferred method of communication was screaming into the microphone.
    The middle-aged man waiting behind me put it in a nutshell “they treat us like animals”. This has nothing to do with stopping terrorist attacks, this is all about power.

  8. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for dropping by, Rodney. Sorry to say I agree…

  9. 99daysinthewestbank

    I wrote a similar post today and have linked to your pretty one with pictures from my blog. I haven’t seen that attitude from soldiers at Qalandia but at Bethlehem it really felt like a supermarket with bored kids on the checkouts laughing and shouting to each other from lane to lane, only these kids had guns and their produce was people. Occasionally one of them didn’t scan properly so was not allowed through. Absolutely disgusting.

  10. Matthew Teller

    Thanks, 99days – for the comment and the link.

  11. katya zukov

    it`s`all about stopping terrors attacks, Israel stopped them with 95% with this security checks. The palestinians put themselves in this situation by blowing themselves up in Jerusalem every single day march 2002 killing hundreds of innocent israelis. The checkpoints may seem ugly, but they are life savers.

    1. Matthew Teller

      Sorry, Katya, collective punishment is illegal. And an occupying power has substantial obligations under international law, including not taking intimidatory measures to prevent hostile acts.

      Individual Palestinians committed crimes. Qalandia is a crime committed by the Israeli state.

      Qalandia saves lives. It also threatens lives, causes deaths, contributes to fear, hatred, insecurity and injustice, and is – I would add – morally repugnant.

  12. eddiegd

    It really is wonderful that you all speak with one voice… almost as if you are making a blog prison for yourselves as apparent supporters of Palestine.

  13. Matthew Teller

    @Eddie, thanks for the comment – though I have no clue what it means. Would you like to clarify?

  14. ellapenso

    Hello Matthew,
    my name is Ella,I’m 27, born and raised in west Jerusalem,and I came across your blog quite by accident.
    This post you made really felt like a slap on the face to me, But it’s good, feels a bit like waking up. So please forgive me for this quite long comment, I truly feel that I have to write this:
    As a ‘normal’ Israeli girl, I grew up knowing almost nothing about the ‘Occupation’ of my country over the Palestinians. And I admit, I never really tried to learn anything about it.
    Israeli schools, from elementary to universities, simply ignore this issue, as if it does not exist, and never mind the face that you can see the separation wall around the town of Isawiya and Abu-Dis from almost every window in the Hebrew University campus in Mount Scopus, where I studied. Even when you’re drafted to the IDF and placed in checkpoints, you know nothing of what you do there, you’re simply do what you’re told. ( I did not serve in a checkpoint).
    I do have vague memories of visiting Biet-Lehem with my father when I was a young kid, I think we even went to Hebron, my father had a lot of Palestinian friends,but that changed in 2002 after he was severly injured in a bomb suicide on a bus.
    I don’t know if you know this but you probably do, that today, as a Jewish Israeli, even saying out loud the word ‘occupation’ can instantly tag you as a ‘smolani’, which is the synonym for ‘betrayer’. this may not be true if you are in Tel-Aviv, but everywhere else , that’s the case.
    Israel is falling apart, it is a split nation. Racism is everywhere all the time, between Arabs and Jews, sephoradians and ashkenazim, Russians and mizrachim, Ethiopians and refugees from Sudan, it really feels like everybody simply hates everybody else,
    But people simply stick their head in the ground, like Ostriches, and watch reality shows like ‘the voice’ and ‘big brother’ all day.
    This is good for our corrupted government. Netaniahu will be elected again, and continue to do whatever he likes. I wonder how long this country will hold.
    many Israeli’s greatest desire today is to get a foreign passport that will allow them to leave to another country.

    What I’m trying to say is that you are probably right, we have built a prison for ourselves, but most Israelis don’t see that and they don’t care, and our government is keeping it that way.

    again I’m sorry for the long comment.

    I hope there is a future for both the Israeli people and the Palestinians but the situation is so tense and complex that I can’t see a solution.

    thank you for reading.

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