As the bus approaches the checkpoint people begin to gather their things and stand. It stops, on a grey, littered section of road, about twenty metres from the barriers and heavily armed border police ahead. Those who have collected their belongings begin to file off the bus and head towards a bleak-looking outbuilding, passing through crowds of vendors selling grilled sweetcorn, cab drivers touting for business, and other weary travellers passing to and from the checkpoint.
The bus grinds into gear again and wheezes towards the barriers. As we stop, border guards clamber up into the bus and begin to inspect passports, thoroughly scrutinising some whilst disregarding others. Passing through the bus, the guards seize the occasional passport or ID card, and then head off the bus. The owners of the ID cards taken follow, meek and bemused. Once off the bus, they are given back their identification and directed to the bleak-looking outbuilding.
Inside the outbuilding is a network of cages and turnstiles. The cages reach from ceiling to floor, and are little more than shoulder-width. The turnstiles clank loudly as they rotate, when the green light from above blinks on. Behind larger sections of caging stand guards armed with assault rifles and body armour, warily eying those passing through the turnstiles.
Those passing through the checkpoint will navigate five turnstiles in total. After passing the first two, you are confronted with a walk-through metal detector side-by-side with an x-ray conveyor belt. Beyond this, a window. Behind this sit several border guards; often young, lounging around, rolling cigarettes, watching TV. They once again cast their gaze across the ID’s shown to them. And once again some are thoroughly scrutinised, whilst others warrant little more than a brief glance.
This is Qalandiya checkpoint. One in a series of checkpoints punctuating the 708km ‘security’ wall which successive Israeli governments have been constructing since 2002. The wall delineates Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and when it is completed it approximately 85% of the wall will be built on occupied territory (Al Haq, The Annexation Wall and its Associated Regime, 2012). Attacks in early 2002 instigated the construction of the wall as an ‘anti-terrorist’ or ‘security’ fence, and its presence is intended to prevent further attacks against Israel and its citizens. The logic behind this however, is questionable.
Passing the checkpoint with a Western international passport generates little resistance. At best, border guards will give a cursory examination, and wave you through. But holding a Palestinian ID card, looking Arab, or Muslim, can slow you down considerably. Those who collect their belongings and leave the bus early all fall into these categories. As do those plucked from the bus by border guards. The underlying assumption herein is that Arabs and Muslims are more likely to perpetrate attacks. Israel, by perpetuating a military occupation of majority Arab and Muslim territories, may feel that such a policy is justified. Yet one of the most high profile acts of terrorism in the country’s history was committed by an individual that was neither Arab nor Muslim; Yigal Amir.
One high-profile case obviously doesn’t discount the relevance of other terror attacks that may have been perpetrated by Arabs or Muslims, but it does highlight a key flaw in building a security policy around racial profiling. This isn’t a lesson for only Israel. Dylan Roof was neither Arab nor Muslim. Anders Behring Breivik was neither Arab nor Muslim. If you perceive that the institution you are protecting is likely to be attacked, then surely all peoples using it ought to be subject to the same degree of scrutiny. Singling out groups of people for higher levels of scrutiny and interrogation based on religion or heritage will only serve to generate resentment within said ‘group’, and create a bogeyman to those outside of the group. Assuming that someone’s religious beliefs or place of birth inclines them towards violence isn’t ‘security’, it’s racism. It tars all with the same brush. As Mehdi Hasan puts it, ‘I’m sick and tired of this relentless hostility towards Muslims; the negative headlines; the climate of fear and suspicion; the constant collective blaming’.
If Qalandiya exists for security reasons, then the inconsistency of security policy application seems ill-considered. More than anything it seems the checkpoint primarily disrupts the lives and the communities of those who span it, those who must cross it in order to work, to access government services, or even just to visit family and friends. This is unlikely to breed positive feeling. In recent weeks, such checkpoints have actually become areas of insecurity.
In the cages of Qalandiya I met Mohammed. We shook hands as we introduced ourselves through the bars.
‘They’re like prison bars, aren’t they?’ he remarked.
Mohammed is an EMT with the Palestinian Society of the Red Crescent, where he has worked for over ten years. He was travelling, after having fasted all day, to Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem to pray.
‘We just want peace’, he told me, ‘We just want peace’.