He and I decided to go into the old city of Jerusalem yesterday. Because Yasser and his cousin, Lama, were both at work we went via the bus system. From Al-Ram, where Yasser and Lama live, there is no route to Jerusalem without having to pass through the Israeli military checkpoint located near the Qalandiya refugee camp, a well-known center of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s illegal occupation.
The distance between Al-Ram and Jerusalem is about 6 miles. Our journey took us nearly 2 hours. What we experienced is common for Palestinian people without cars. And on that day there were no additional delays imposed by the Israeli military at the checkpoints— just the “usual” waiting in long lines.
We left Yasser’s at around 9:00 am and were walking down the hill to the bus stop located on the town’s main street when a man in a car stopped and asked us where we were heading. We told him, he beckoned us to get in, we did, and he drove us to the bus stop, only a short distance away. A small bus was waiting, and once we learned it was heading to Qalandiya checkpoint, the first leg of our journey, we got on.
The buses that take passengers to the checkpoint are yellow mini-vans that hold up to 7 people. Like the majority of vehicles in the smaller towns in the West Bank, they tend to be battered—dusty inside and out, worn shocks, the upholstery clean but stained. Sometimes there are seatbelts, sometimes none are apparent or are broken or ripped. I never saw anyone wear one.
The driver (who was maybe in his 40’s) didn’t interact with his passengers, except to collect the bus fare and return any change to a hand at the front that passed it back to the paying passenger. Because I had a good view of the driver in the rear view mirror, I could see his face—I thought his dark eyes and face looked worn and tired, maybe bored, too, with deep creases across his forehead and along the sides of his cheeks and mouth. The exception was when a small child got on at one of the stops. His face brightened, his eyes lit up, and a small smile formed at the corners of his mouth. As everywhere, children here offer a spark of life—perhaps it’s even such momentary joy a child’s presence brings that helps keep total despair at bay.
For some unknown reason, the driver didn’t drop He and me off until we were about a ¼ mile past the checkpoint. He asked a man in one of the many shops on the street for directions. With the help of his Arabic phrase book, He managed to ask “How do we to get to Qalandiya checkpoint?”, and with hand gestures waving and pointing, the man directed us.
We turned back and headed down the shop-lined road, crowded with cars, vans, buses and pedestrians. But for one bright splash of a rose bougainvillea, it was dusty and bleak—stone rubble and trash on both sides of the road, a cement-block building with a demolished second floor, exposed rusted spines of steel holding the carcass together. We soon saw many other people heading in a particular way, so we followed.
At first we walked on the right side of the road, directly towards the gates where cars pass, but we heard a sharp whistle to get our attention, and a female soldier waved at us to move to the left side of the area. We climbed over and around temporary cement blocks and barriers and met another soldier—a young man, dark-skinned, small in stature, with a smile that softened the effect of his being fully equipped with weapons used to threaten, wound or kill. He gave us additional directions to the pedestrian Qalandiya checkpoint.
Later I remembered that not so long ago (September 2019) at this same checkpoint, a young Muslim woman had similarly seemed confused about where to go to reach the bus section. Apparently she did not turn back when warned, and so the private security guards hired by Israel chased her, shot her several times and then left her bleeding—medics of the Palestinian Red Crescent were prevented from getting to her to provide first aid. She later died in an Israeli hospital in East Jerusalem. Israel claimed she was carrying a knife.
We continued on to an official looking one-story white building with two Israeli flags flying from the flat roof—the location of the Qalandiya checkpoint that demarcates a boundary between the West Bank and East Jerusalem. With many others, mostly young or old and seemingly poorer Palestinians, we walked up the steps and into the front entrance. We then needed to pass through a winding and walled, single-person-width passageway into a large room that branched into three separate smaller rooms. We stayed in the middle room designated for people going to Jerusalem.
An elderly couple with a battered piece of luggage and large black plastic bags looked around, clearly uneasy, and uncertain about where to go. The woman in traditional Muslim dress with a hijab (headscarf that covers the head and neck) and brown, unadorned thob (a long, full robe-like dress) took the lead and walked around examining the rooms and signs. After a brief and quiet discussion with her husband, the couple moved to the room on the right.
The next step in passing through the checkpoint was to go through a floor-to-ceiling metal turnstile big enough for one person at a time that allowed only a certain number of people to pass through before it stopped turning. As we exited, we were directed to another turnstile (similar to those for getting onto a train in a subway) where we were required to show our passport to an armed guard. Palestinians were required to show their ID card.
We moved through yet another floor-to-ceiling turnstile before we were required to put our backpacks, jewelry and other metal items onto an airport-type conveyor belt that moved through a machine checking for dangerous items stowed in the bags. And we, too, had to walk through a metal-detecting device so the Israeli guards could be ensured that we posed no security threat.
From that point, we were allowed to exit the building and go to the bus station, a large dirt-packed parking area with white coach-sized buses for passengers wanting to travel to the East Jerusalem bus station. Two full buses later, we were able to get onto a bus with vacant seats. And at 11:00 we arrived at the East Jerusalem bus station, 2 hours after leaving Yasser’s.
Such is the daily life for many Palestinians.
Sending this with love and with the commitment to work for the freedom and human rights of the Palestinian people,