Ramallah is about 9 miles north of Jerusalem. The journey to the holy city should be a short one. In the last few years, the construction of the Israeli Separation Wall has meant that the opposite is true. Jerusalem has been physically cut off from Ramallah, and most Palestinians cannot reach their holy city unless they have a special permit, granted by the Israeli authorities to a small minority. Even those blessed with this allowance must pass through a military checkpoint known as Qalandia before they can arrive.
This morning I am making the journey myself. It took me little over half an hour to reach Ramallah from Jerusalem, but I am about to discover that getting back is an entirely different story.
The bus is full when it pulls into Qalandia. The checkpoint is a huge complex, with different roads for Israeli and Palestinian vehicles. It is far more intensive than the Gilo checkpoint which breaks up the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem – but it is also fairer, if that term can be used at all. At Gilo, Palestinians must get off the bus and wait to have their documents checked, while ‘internationals’ like me stay on the bus and the Israeli soldiers come on to look at our passports. Here, everyone is required to get off – regardless of nationality – and we all wait to have our passage to Jerusalem approved by the Israeli soldiers. Qalandia might be horrible, but it is without any of the guilt or awkwardness. Here, I stand in line with the Palestinians.
We wait inside what might best be described as a large cage, constructed of metal wires. There is a full-size turnstile at the front, through which people pass to get to the other side – or more accurately, to the next stage of inspection.
They are letting people through one at a time, with long waits in between. The words “wahad wahad” (one by one) are announced over a loudspeaker, Orwellian-style. The use of the Arabic language is obviously considered enough of a concession to tolerance; none of the soldiers milling about comes to speak to us, or even acknowledges that we are there. When someone is allowed to pass through the turnstile, a green light is switched on. When we are held back, it is a red light. The dehumanising effect is complete.
We are constantly told that the Wall and the checkpoints are a necessary measure for security, to prevent suicide bombings in Israel. I doubt that there has been much consideration of their wider consequences. Dehumanising an entire people does not tend to facilitate peace with them.
The wait is extremely uncomfortable. We are approaching the midday sun and there is nowhere to sit, nowhere to buy water and no chance of using the bathroom. Aside from the physical discomfort, it is also very boring. I look around. A few men are smoking. One is staring at me. I am the only white person in the line. I wonder what he is thinking.
I start counting people, to pass the time. The couple in front of me appear to be doing the same thing. There are at least 50 of us waiting. I wonder what it must look like at 7 or 8 in the morning, with people trying to get to work. I know that in Bethlehem, it is common for Palestinians who work in Jerusalem to arrive at the checkpoint at 4am and wait for several hours before they are allowed through.
The red light has been on for a while. They have stopped letting anyone through, at least for the time being. I check my watch. The indefinite nature of the wait is the worst part. If I knew for how long I would be here, it would be far easier to tolerate. As it is, I could be here for a few minutes or a few hours.
The woman behind me pushes forward, and I feel my British outrage at queue-jumping stir, then die immediately. It hardly makes much of a difference.
More minutes pass. A woman in a blue headscarf walks past us; she appears to be leaving. Perhaps she got tired of waiting, but it seems unlikely; it has only been about half an hour so far, and longer waits are common. Maybe she has been turned away.
The green light comes on, and people at the front can pass through the turnstile. 3 go through at once! It is a miracle. Then the red light again, and the 4th person has to wait. The man next to me is still staring. He does not return my smile. It’s fair enough; there isn’t anything to smile about. I am suddenly very aware of the passport in my hand.
As more people are allowed through, I near the front of the line. The woman in the blue headscarf returns, and the man closest to the turnstile lets her go ahead. He sees me looking and evidently thinks I am annoyed.
“It’s OK, she was here before,” he tells me. “She went to make a phone call.”
“Yes, it’s OK.”
“They want to teach us how to stand in line, so we will observe how to stand in line. That’s the point of this, no?” He grins, and I smile back. It’s a good joke – and an impressive one to make given the circumstances – but there’s a serious point behind it. One effect of waiting at the checkpoints is that people become impatient, lose their tempers, start pushing. This man is determined to hold onto his dignity.
Finally I am closest to the turnstile. The man who had been staring now tells me to go through first -but as I push against the metal, the green light goes off and the red one comes on. More waiting. I check my watch again.
After I few minutes the green light comes on again. I pass through the turnstile and now have to walk through an airport-style body scanner. My bag goes on a conveyer belt. An Israeli soldier behind a glass screen tells me to place my passport on another scanner and records my details. He looks about 20; presumably he is on his military service. The human interaction, if uncomfortable, is definitely preferable to the loudspeaker and green light.
He checks my details and I am allowed through. I am finally on the other side. Now I just have to wait for the bus. The man-who-had-been-staring is now quite friendly and suggests to me the best place to stand. Thankfully the bus comes quickly and we all pile on. The journey to Jerusalem continues as if there had been no interruption. For most others on the bus, this has been an unremarkable morning.
Getting through Qalandia has added about 40 minutes to the journey. I am lucky; it is common to hear stories of people spending 2 hours there. I am luckier still; this is not something I have to do often, or indeed ever if I don’t want to. It is not my daily routine, my journey to work, my visit to my family or my trip to hospital. I am not a West Bank Palestinian. For the duration of this journey, I have been – and after less than one hour at one checkpoint, I am full of outrage. I will avoid making this journey again if I can. The Palestinians of Ramallah are not so lucky.
 Israeli and Palestinian vehicles can be easily identified by their license plates. Israeli cars have yellow license plates with the Israeli flag; Palestinian license plates are white with green writing. The visible distinction reinforces the separation between the two communities.
 All Israelis are required to serve in the army once they reach the age of 18. The period of conscription is 3 years for men and 2 years for women.
Anne is currently studying for a Dual MA-MSc at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, specialising in the modern history of the Middle East. She is in the process of completing her thesis on the role of the UN in the Palestinian refugee camps after 1967.
Anne has spent two summers in the West Bank, her main area of interest. She has volunteered as an English teacher in Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps, as well as at Bethlehem University. In her home city of London, she is involved with the charity Unipal, which sends British volunteers to work in Palestinian refugee camps every summer.
In the past, Anne has also volunteered as an English teacher in Niger, working with the local NGO Mouvement Nigérien pour la Défense et la Promotion des Droits de l’Homme et les Peuples (MNDHP).
She graduated from Oxford University in 2009 with a BA(Hons) in Modern History.