“You clearly don’t understand f****** Hebrew so let’s try in f****** English – you do not have a permit to enter so why don’t you f*** off back to whatever village you have come from”. My ears pricked up at this sudden harsh use of my mother tongue. I had for the last 15 minutes been sat in the middle of Qalandia checkpoint letting the mix of Arabic and Hebrew wash over me as I waited patiently for the man in front of me to pass through. The Palestinian man who stood with me turned a full 360 degrees looking at the ceiling before breathing heavily and saying to the young soldier on the other side of the glass, “I understand f****** English, I do have a f****** permit to pass and I would appreciate it if you showed some respect and didn’t use such f****** foul language”. The swelling queue behind me laughed. The young female soldier stared him straight in the eye.
Qalandia checkpoint is on the outskirts of Jerusalem and is one of the largest in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). It is not near any border between Israel and the oPt but rather divides the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Jerusalem. The man in front of me I would later find out was an orthodox Palestinian Christian wanting to go and pray at his church in Jerusalem.
The Palestinian man was at this point demanding to see the young soldier’s supervisor. Both parties were shouting and screaming. They both seemed to hold opposite opinions about this one piece of paper – his permit. Despite the close vicinity of the two, the man was shouting at the top of his voice, “I have a permit to cross 24 hours – why do you not let me through?!”. The soldier on the other side of the glass was matching his volume screaming, “You do not have the right permit so you cannot pass – it is that simple”. At this stage I had no way of telling who was right. Was the man confused about the terms of his permit or was the soldier mistaken? Without marching up and asking to look at the permit I had no way of really knowing. The following series of events however gave me a strong idea.
I had been stood waiting for just under half an hour listening to these two go round and round in their never ending argument. Back and forth with little variation they would shout, “I have a permit”…“no you f****** don’t”. Finally the soldier looked at her colleague and they both started laughing. The man did not. The young soldier (I guess aged between 18 and 20) turned to the man laughing and said, “Fine you can go through…you’re pathetic”. I was taken aback. The man scowled at her, picked up his belongings and turned on his heel to pass through the final turnstile. I watched him enter into the mid-day sun and temporarily out of sight.
I approached the young soldier with my passport in hand and with all the correct visas in place. I was a little worried though that she was going to cause me problems as well. I half smiled at her on my approach to the glass screen. She looked up and asked what my name was and so I nervously responded, “erm…Steve”. She smiled at me and said, “I hope you have a nice stay in Jerusalem, it’s a beautiful city. Sorry about the delay”. She then waved me through without looking at my visa or passport.
Outside, the Palestinian Christian apologised to me saying that he was sorry I had to witness him shouting but “they only listen to me if I shout”. I said it was no problem. I then asked him what the issue was with his permit. He laughed a bitter laugh and said, “nothing, look [he hands me the permit]…Everything is fine, they just do this to make life hard for you”. I folded the permit and handed it back to him. As we were walking towards the bus that would take us to the heart of Jerusalem he turned to me and said, “Can you imagine – every time I want to pray I have to go through this. I sometimes wonder if this is God testing me”. Sat on the bus I wondered how many people in my parents’ church would still attend if they had to pass through Qalandia checkpoint every Sunday on their way to church.
Thinking back to the soldier in the checkpoint I wondered what had driven her to respond in such a way to this particular man. Was it her own way of escaping the insurmountable monotony of working at a checkpoint? I do not know. All I can say for certain is that today I had another up-close look at the one of the many restrictions on life here and saw an ugly glimpse of the daily struggle that Palestinians face under occupation.