It was early in the morning before the sun rose and Palestinian laborers started arriving en masse at the new Qalandiya checkpoint in northern Jerusalem.
Most paced quickly toward the crossing, eager to reach their workplaces in Israel, but some gathered to perform dawn prayers while others crowded around Abu Ramzi, a 64-year-old merchant who sells sesame rolls and onion-stuffed falafel to those using the crossing.
After years of operating a woefully inadequate and inefficient pedestrian checkpoint in Qalandiya that often left Palestinian laborers from the central West Bank waiting in extremely long lines, Israel finally inaugurated a new checkpoint in the area in late February.
Inside the checkpoint, groups of laborers formed orderly lines and patiently waited their turn to pass through metal detectors and automatic gates that verify their entry permits (all Palestinian workers in Israel have biometric permits) as IDF soldiers and private security guards observed them from a distance.
Within five to ten minutes, they exited the checkpoint and started to search for the vans and buses waiting to transport them to their workplaces.
The checkpoint is located at the southern end of Kafr Aqab, Jerusalem’s northernmost neighborhood, which abuts the West Bank security barrier and has suffered from years of poor municipal services. The estimated 60,000 Kafr Aqab residents, many of whom are permanent residents of Israel, and other Palestinians in the central West Bank must cross through Qalandiya or another checkpoint to reach the center of Jerusalem.
The laborers, who have various jobs throughout Israel, overwhelmingly said the new checkpoint has made their morning commute to work significantly more manageable compared to the old one.
“It is substantially better,” said 43-year-old Yousef Jabareen, who works as a butcher in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, while standing at Qalandiya’s exit. “It used to take about an hour to pass through the old one. Now it only takes a few minutes, which means that I get about an extra hour of sleep.”
Jabareen said he used to leave his home in the West Bank at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at Mahane Yehuda at 7 a.m., but now heads out at 5:30 a.m.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians cross into Israel weekly to work jobs at construction sites, shops, restaurants and other places, where they can earn substantially higher salaries than in similar positions in the West Bank.
The old checkpoint, which is located adjacent to the new one, lacked the necessary infrastructure to process a high volume of workers in an efficient manner, said Ina Friedman, who has spent the last ten years visiting and monitoring Qalandiya weekly on behalf of Machsom Watch, a dovish organization that tracks Israel’s treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints in the West Bank.
“There were not enough checking facilities provided for the amount of people crossing daily,” Friedman said, overlooking the entrance to the old checkpoint. “It is as simple as that.”
Approximately 4,000 people, mainly Palestinian workers, cross Qalandiya every morning, said Maj. Moti Stolovich, an official in the Coordinator of Government of Activities in the Territories, the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, on a recent tour of the checkpoint with local and international reporters.
The new checkpoint has six metal detector stations and 27 automatic gates that electronically read biometric permits; it also has a number of windows for Palestinians or foreigners who do not possess biometric passes, where they can show soldiers their identification cards or passports.
In contrast, the old checkpoint had three narrow metal cage-like walkways that Palestinians needed to pass before reaching one of five checking stations, where workers and others had to go through metal detectors and manually present their permits to soldiers.
The former checkpoint also included a bathroom facility, that was often unsanitary and putrid. The new crossing’s bathroom was locked at the time of visit.
Stolovich said Israel invested tens of millions of shekels in constructing the new checkpoint, which he described as “much quicker” and more “comfortable” than the old one.
A COGAT official who asked to remain nameless added that Israeli authorities either have completed or soon will complete upgrading several other checkpoints in the West Bank.
Ahmad Abu Rub, 38, who works at an excavation site in Jerusalem, said the new checkpoint is also more orderly than the old one.
“It is much more organized. People now wait in line and no one pushes each other,” he said, walking toward a nearby bus station. “In the old checkpoint, lots of people would shove each other and then the soldiers would shut down all the exits and everyone would have to wait until they would decide to start letting us through again. It was really problematic.”
A Channel 2 report in 2016 titled “Like Animals” about the old crossing showed chaotic scenes of endless lines, pushing and despair. The report also featured a recording of a comment made by the outgoing right-wing Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel to a radio station about the conditions Palestinian laborers faced at checkpoints at the time, which he called “a disgrace and embarrassment to the State of Israel.”
Even though the workers resoundingly expressed satisfaction with the new checkpoint, several other Palestinians, who do not work in Israel, offered sharp criticisms of it.
“There shouldn’t be anything here. It is my right to go from city to city in my country without going through a checkpoint,” said 43-year-old Hanin, a fitness instructor from Ramallah. “I honestly am shocked by this new checkpoint. I feel the occupation is trying to force upon us a false reality that we are going between two states here.”
Various forms of checkpoints have existed in Qalandiya since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s when Palestinian terror groups carried out suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks against Israelis, killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers.
Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organization official, said that Israel “should not be working to beautify checkpoints, but rather to remove them and end its occupation.”
“We are a people that wants its dignity and the only way we can achieve that is ending the occupation and establishing an independent state along 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as it capital,” Ahmad said in a phone call.
Asked about Ahmad’s criticism of the new checkpoint, the COGAT official who asked to remain nameless said: “I do not respond to that. Everyone is welcome to express his opinion. We want to provide a better service here,” adding later, “My duty is to improve movement, access and daily life.”
Maher Awawda, an official at the Palestinian Authority Information Ministry, criticized Israel for making Palestinian workers use biometric passes at the checkpoint.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that Israel is issuing biometric cards to Palestinians,” he said in a phone call. “Why should it be able to hold an electronic database of information on people who are not its citizens or voting in its elections?”
Israeli authorities require all Palestinian laborers to obtain biometric permits. A security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, defended them, contending they allow Palestinians to cross checkpoints quickly while maintaining security protocols.
Friedman, the Machsom Watch observer, said she thought the new checkpoint was a significant improvement in relation to the old one, but emphasized that Israel’s military control over the West Bank was still in place.
“Qalandiya now works very nicely, it is good for the people and everybody is really delighted about it, but Israel’s broader grip on the Palestinian people and the daily suffering that causes them has not changed,” she said.
Friedman also noted that she would now be spending less time at Qalandiya and centering her focus on monitoring other checkpoints without the same facilities.