Sixty-Two-Year-Old Um Mazen Awad lives in Sameer Amees – just inside the Qalandiya checkpoint. Her husband Jamil suffers from complete paralysis and requires regular therapy and checkups. These once took place at home, or at a Jerusalem doctor registered with their Israeli medical insurance.
But now, says Um Mazen, their insurance is worthless. “Since the checkpoint was erected, the services once provided to my husband have stopped and because of the closure, we cannot even get the medicine that he has been prescribed.”
There are a total of 15,000 Jerusalem residents living in the four quarters of Sameer Amis, Kufr Aqab, the Airport and the Zghayar neighborhood, all of which fall on the Ramallah side of the Qalandiya checkpoint. As Israel gradually widened the boundaries of East Jerusalem north after occupying and annexing it, these neighborhoods were drawn into the municipality. But since the establishment of the massive Qalandiya checkpoint nearly two years ago, residents complain that they pay all the city’s taxes and get none of its services.
Some of the families in these neighborhoods went so far as to file a suit in Israeli courts, claiming that the establishment of the checkpoint was illegal, and demanding that it be removed.
In response, the Israeli court ordered attorneys for the state to submit a document outlining changes to be carried out at the checkpoint between May 7 and June 10. Israeli army officials had argued in court that they planned to make amends and facilitate passage for Jerusalem residents living beyond the checkpoint and that the changes had already begun on the ground.
Truth is, some changes have been made over the last month. The army set up a huge canopy on the Ramallah side to shield those in the queue from the hot sun, and created two separate passages for men and women. Female soldiers were stationed at the checkpoint in order to search women travelers. When one inquisitive young Palestinian asked a soldier why the canopy was put up, he answered that the army was just responding to the court’s ruling to improve the checkpoint.
Still, most of these changes only underscore that those on the Ramallah side of Qalandiya must still wait in line to cross the checkpoint and get to the heart of Jerusalem. The decision essentially legitimizes the presence of the checkpoint and dismisses the Jerusalem identity card holders in the four Jerusalem neighborhoods on the other side.
In this last month, the inconvenience of the checkpoint has been stark. Twice, the Qalandiya checkpoint has been sealed for three consecutive days. People were neither allowed to cross it nor were they permitted to use side roads to circumvent it. Young journalist Hiba Tahan, who lives in Samer Amees, says she missed several days at her job in Jerusalem because of the continuous closing of the checkpoint. Twice this month, she was forced to sleep at a friend’s house because the soldiers at Qalandiya would not let her go home.
Tahan says that she is always late for work because of the morning jam at the checkpoint. People queue to wait for a sign from the patrolling soldiers to come forward, have their papers checked and then be permitted to go on to the other side.
“To get to my house usually only takes me 20 minutes in ordinary times,” says Tahan. “Now I have to wait more than three hours to cross the checkpoint.” Sometimes, she doesn’t make it to work at all.
Duties without rights
What aggravates the Jerusalem residents the most is that they are forced to pay city taxes, but receive none of their benefits. “For three months I have not been able to seek treatment in Jerusalem,” says 36-year-old Khalil Nofal, a shop owner in Sameer Amees. “I have been forced to pay from my own pocket despite that my financial situation is very bad. But I refuse to humiliate myself before the soldiers.”
Jerusalem residents are committed to paying the costs of Israeli health insurance as part of their residency status. But those who live beyond Qalandiya have trouble getting to Jerusalem clinics or hospitals because of the checkpoint delay. Instead, they use Ramallah clinics at their own expense.
“I would like to know why they set up this checkpoint,” Nofal asks angrily, “They claim that it is for safety reasons. But if that were true, why did they not put the checkpoint on Jaffa Street in West Jerusalem to protect them?” Nofal concludes that it is merely unjustified collective punishment.
Um Mazen Awad agrees. “There are now no services offered to us in our area. There is no sanitation, no lighting and even the street that the municipality was repairing has not been completed. They stopped repairs in the middle of the road.”
Awad says that all the Jerusalem neighborhoods that fall beyond the Qalandiya checkpoint are in the same boat. “It is not just Sameer Amees. The services that the Jerusalem municipality used to provide to all four neighborhoods in exchange for the high taxes collected from Jerusalem residents are now almost non-existent. The municipality does not do even the simplest of tasks, like collecting the garbage, maintaining the streetlights and electricity poles or repairing the streets. And this is all under the pretext of deteriorating security conditions.”
Mohammed Harhash, 28, owns a pharmacy in the Qalandiya Airport neighborhood, just meters from the checkpoint. For him, the checkpoint is not a personal hassle, but an obstacle to keeping his business alive.
“Pharmacies and stores are suffering from a severe shortage of nutritional products, such as baby formula,” says Harhash. “I can no longer bring medicines from Jerusalem or Bethlehem because of the siege imposed on all of the Palestinian territories.”
He says it is not bad enough that one must go through what he calls “humiliating” security inspection at the checkpoint, but he is unable to bring in the goods he needs to sell. Medical supplies as basic as aspirin are in shortage. “The list of medicines that my pharmacy needs is long and my supplies are running out faster every day,” he laments. He says the Harhash Pharmacy has incurred losses of 60 percent from a previously brisk business.
Nofal reflects the same sentiments. A shop owner in Sameer Amees, Nofal says that things just get worse and worse. “I am living through a depression. I have a 60 percent loss from my store,” he says. He says a number of his former customers cannot get to him because of the checkpoint. “Even Jerusalem residents that live on this side of the checkpoint have decreased their purchases because of their tight financial situation brought on by unemployment and their inability to move around. They can’t even buy the most basic foods.”
Nofal continues, his face twisted in despair. “We can’t bring in goods to our stores because of the checkpoint. We have so much missing. Just look at the shelves in my store – they’re empty.” Nofal is waiting for the staples of milk and yogurt that now sit in the heat at the checkpoint before making their way to his shelves. “It is the middle of the day and still the goods have not reached us,” he says, eyeing the afternoon sun.
Nofal speaks bitterly of a double standard that is out of his hands. “In Jaffa Street in West Jerusalem, and all the stores in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, none have been affected one bit by the security situation that they talk about in Israel. Their stores are open and their goods get to them and their customers buy whatever they come for.”
Kholud Sidr, 21, lives in Kufr Aqab. She was a student in the Amal School for Special Education in Essawiyeh for two months before she had to quit. Now, her mother Basema says that not being able to go to school has affected her mental state. “Kholoud has become very anxious. She is always screaming because she can’t go to school. Every day she waits for the car to come get her and it never comes because of the checkpoint. Then Kholoud starts crying.”
The entire family is at their wit’s end, Basema says. “We called the school and told them of our situation and they said they would take up the issue with the municipality. School was a haven for her but now she is stuck in the house with nowhere else to go,” says her mother, tears welling in her eyes.
Yezen Tahboud, a 17-year-old student, carries a packet of papers as he crosses the checkpoint every morning to get to school. With him is the Arnona tax paper proving he lives in the Qalandiya Airport area, his identification card and even a report card to show that he goes to a Jerusalem school. “Despite all this, sometimes they still do not let us cross. Then my friends and I are forced to take a winding dirt road where we might be shot by the soldiers,” says Tahboub. “The Israelis don’t care if we finish our education,” he accuses. “Look at what they do to prevent us from getting to school.”
A lawless land
Nor are Jerusalem residents exempt from the destruction that is regular fare at the Qalandiya crossing. Abed Abu Layla, 38, tried to avoid the long queue of cars by parking and then crossing the checkpoint on foot. “When I returned,” he remembers, “I found that my car had been demolished and burned. When I asked the neighbors what had happened, they said the soldiers had destroyed my car and then burned it along with two other cars. They also said the soldiers would not allow anyone to put out the fire.”
Abu Layla thought maybe he had some recourse – he went to the Israeli police station at a nearby settlement to complain. But they sent him to the army headquarters at Beit El. “Everyone knows that they don’t even let anyone go into this settlement,” says Abu Layla. “You can imagine their response when I wanted to complain about their soldiers.”
While a friend whose car was also burned was finally issued a paper confirming his loss for insurance purposes, Abu Layla says that no investigation has been opened into the incident. “What can we do?” sighs Abu Layla in resignation.
The daily travails of living beyond Qalandiya is aggravated by fears that the Israeli government wants to make the checkpoint a permanent boundary between Jerusalem and the West Bank, thus cutting off the four Jerusalem neighborhoods from the city.
Residents do not mince words about this possibility. “This is unacceptable,” says Awad. “No one can dismiss the fact that we are residents of Jerusalem and that our lives depend on Jerusalem where we work and where our families are – especially the Israelis who, since the start of the occupation, have made us pay high taxes to them under the pretext that they treat us like citizens. They have no right to take our money and then decide that we are no longer from Jerusalem.”