It’s just past five in the morning and hundreds of Palestinian laborers have already crossed into Israel. Many sit along the concrete ledge of the security barrier, listening to the chirping of birds while waiting for a van to bring them to a construction site.
It’s a quiet day at the Qalandiya Crossing — the largest and most frequented passageway for Palestinian laborers from the Ramallah area to cross into Jerusalem, with lines flowing in a relatively orderly manner.
But it’s not always like that.
A recent Channel 2 report, titled “Like animals,” showed chaotic scenes of endless lines through metal cages, rioting and despair on a Sunday morning just a few weeks before the Passover holiday began.
However, on May 3, workers at the crossing told The Times of Israel things were generally going well. The early morning rush hour went smoothly, with waves of hundreds of men and a few women passing into Israel with a wait of 5-15 minutes.
Yet the Palestinian workers complained that overall they felt trapped in a capricious process. Whether it was this calm Tuesday morning, or a hectic Sunday morning before Passover, they always have to plan for long delays.
Samir Hassan, a 40-year-old construction worker from the village of Kusra, said he has been working in Israel for eight years. Every morning, he is up at 4 a.m. to make it to work on time.
“The length of the lines depends on the morale of the soldiers. Before the Passover vacation, the lines were much longer,” said Hassan.
“I try not to pay attention to these metal cages. It is more important for me to just get through,” he said.
Regardless of how fast or slow people move through the lines, many complained of the inhumane conditions.
There is only a single toilet — a hole in the ground — currently open at the crossing, where sometimes thousands can wait for hours. The state of the facility is grim, putrid, and the door to the bathroom itself is hanging off of the hinges. This reporter saw both men and women use this toilet. The room designated for men is locked.
The water fountains at the waiting site were also not working at the time of the visit.
Mahmud Abu Eid, 61, from the Ramallah area, is a store manager at a Rami Levy supermarket in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem and a father of 10 children. He argued that rather than defending Israelis, the crossing was a detriment to Israeli security.
“I don’t think this helps with security for Israel. Anyone who wants to do something, he can. There are many ways,” he said.
“When I am held up by a soldier here, in my heart it does not feel good,” Abu Eid added. “I didn’t do anything. Why should I wait?”
Israel Police Spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said the length of the lines at the site was not connected to hiccups in the crossing process, but were simply connected to the number of workers that cross on any given day.
“The Israeli police are in charge of security, keeping the site open and making sure thousands of people can get through the crossing, the spokesperson continued,” he said. “The crossing is open on an everyday basis, and there is no age limit. There is no problem there whatsoever. Quite the opposite, it is working efficiently and effectively.”
Rosenfeld said he did not know who was in charge of keeping the bathroom and water fountains operational. “It might be a private company,” he said.
Navigating a bureaucratic maze
The Qalandiya checkpoint, the largest crossing into Israel, is operated by four different groups.
As the crossing is located within the Jerusalem city limits, it is under the authority of the police, who guard the site. But once someone enters into the booth area where IDs and permits are checked, they are met by a soldier in the military police.
A member of each of these groups can stymie the crossing process along the way. The police open and close the turnstile out of the thin metal passage way that is fed into by a warehouse-like waiting area. The military police open and close the turnstiles that lead out of the crossing after an inspection.
Then there is the IDF Civil Administration, the part-military, part-civilian body which oversees Palestinian civilian activity in the West Bank. The Civil Administration is responsible for authorizing permits for Palestinians to enter into Israel, as well the “humanitarian gate,” which is a separate passageway through the crossing reserved for women, the elderly, disabled or medical personnel. This gate is opened on an as needed basis, but only by an officer of the Civil Administration.
Lastly, there are private security guards hired by the Defense Ministry who add an extra layer of protection.
Neta Efroni, an activist for the Israeli human rights group Machsom Watch, which sends out volunteers 3-4 days a week to monitor and write up daily reports of the activities at crossings and checkpoints, described in a blog post the consequence of having a multiplicity of groups operate Qalandiya.
“The result of this separation of authority is that each individual entity can avoid taking overall responsibility, which increases the burden on the Palestinians who have to go through every day.”
On April 27, Maram Hassan Abu Ismail, 23, a mother of two, and her brother Ibrahim Saleh Taha, 16, were shot dead at the Qalandiya Crossing.
The Israel Police said the two had slowly approached policemen, continued to move forward after warning shots, and then “suddenly,” Maram threw a knife at an officer from a short distance, but caused no injuries.
Then, “the officers and security guards worked quickly and shot at the terrorists, neutralizing them,” a police spokesperson said.
Four days after the incident, the Military Police’s investigations unit announced the defense establishment would drop its investigations into the incident. It was not one of their men, but rather a private security guard, who had fired the fatal shots, they said.
Despite demands by Israeli lawmakers, media outlets and the family of those killed to release footage of the incident — something which the police have done in the past to exonerate themselves — no video has been released.
The April 27 incident will now be probed by investigators from the Jerusalem District Police. The Jerusalem magistrate’s court imposed a gag order on the details of the investigation, as well as the names of the suspects.
A recent Times of Israel inquiry into who is ultimately responsible for funding the Qalandiya Crossing ran into a dead end after spokespeople for the Israel Police, the Civil Administration as well as the Ministry of Defense, which is directly responsible for administrating most crossings, denied their respective organizations had control over funding.
Each organization believed one of the other three controlled funding.
The difficult conditions that have remained the status quo at the crossing since it was opened in 2002, according to Machsom Watch members and workers interviewed at the site, appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough as both security and economic realities are forcing Israeli authorities to act.
Israel Police announced soon after the fatal shooting on April 27 that a new crossing for pedestrians and vehicles into northern Jerusalem from A-Ram is going to be opened. The new crossing, which will be located at Dahiat el-Barid, will greatly relieve congestion at Qalandiya, the police say.
The police statement also said the new crossing will initially only be open daily from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The army says it will consider increasing hours in the future.
When asked why the police did not decide to open the new crossing during the morning rush hour, the police spokesman answered, “[The new hours were chosen] in order to enable people who are coming in the morning via the Qalandiya Crossing to get back home quicker in the afternoon.”
The police announcement also noted the crossing comes just as a new shopping center opened in A-Ram, which is expected to increase traffic but also provide thousands of jobs.
Additionally, as part of a wider effort to boost Israeli-Palestinian economic ties, the Finance Ministry pushed a resolution recently calling for new work permits to be granted for 7,800 additional Palestinian laborers.
To facilitate the expected increase of workers crossing into Israel, the plan immediately allocates NIS 10 million ($2.6 million) to improve crossings, and calls for “upgrading and expanding” the crossings to a level “suitable for regular workers.”
The Finance Ministry’s plan also allocates up to NIS 100 million ($26 million) in 2016 for implementing the entire economic improvements plan, which also includes boosting public transportation in the West Bank and a professional training program for Palestinian laborers employed in the construction field in Israel.
However, representatives for the Civil Administration said they could not comment on whether any money had been transferred to their organization for improving crossings.
In the security sector, the seven-month wave of Palestinian attacks against Israel that began in October have prompted the security cabinet to pass a motion calling for 30,000 more Palestinians to be granted work permits.
The theory is that those who work in Israel are less likely to carry out attacks. Of the hundreds of Palestinians who have attempted attacks since the wave of violence began, only a few were holders of legal work permits.
Currently, 58,000 Palestinians have Israeli work permits, although experts assess that about 120,000 Palestinians from the West Bank are actually employed — both legally and illegally — by residents of the Jewish state.
The tens of thousands of Palestinian workers without permits travel illegally into Israel everyday, rather than coming through a crossing.
Abu Eid, the Rami Levy employee, said that allowing Palestinians to work in Israel was beneficial for the country’s security, but he hoped officials would ease restrictions on who could enter.
“They only let men in above a certain age, or married men with children. But a person who lives in Palestine, he can’t buy a house, he can’t marry, he can’t do anything. So he starts to think all kinds of thoughts. He says this is no kind of life so he does a terror attack. If they would allow young men to enter, I believe the security situation would be much better for Israelis,” said Abu Eid.
Times of Israel Staff and agencies contributed to this report
Find Dov Lieber on twitter at: @DovLieber
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