A scene out of Dante
Qalandiya checkpoint, the main northern entrance to Jerusalem for Palestinians from the West Bank, is a tense and dangerous place at the best of times. On Fridays in the holy month of Ramadan, it turns into a scene out of Dante as thousands of pilgrims claim their right to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque, one of the most sacred sites in Islam.
We arrived at the checkpoint at 5am on the third Friday in Ramadan. It was relatively peaceful. Men and women began arriving from Ramallah, the older women wearing their beautiful hand-embroidered dresses, the younger ones in colourful hijabs. All seemed in a good mood, looking forward to the midday prayers.
But praying at Al Aqsa has never been easy for Palestinians under occupation. The construction of a massive concrete barrier around Jerusalem has made things far worse. Thousands of pilgrims are funneled through three checkpoints around the city, while many others are turned back. Things often turn violent.
As the morning wore on, things started to deteriorate. The sun got higher, the permit checking proved too slow, and the gathering crowd meant that the gaps between the concrete blocks were too narrow for women to pass freely. A huge crush built up. Old ladies were squashed against the blocks, screaming children had to be lifted out by medics, women emerged visibly distressed and some fainted. The soldiers and police started losing their tempers, yelling through megaphones, pushing the women, abusing those without valid permits.
The permit system means that these crowds form only a small percentage of the Palestinian population. Men between the ages of 12 and 45 are prevented from entering the city on Fridays in Ramadan, as they are considered a higher security risk. This applies even to those who have permission to work in the city.
Those worshippers who emerged relatively unscathed after the first ordeal crossed the car park to the next permit check. Men waited in the usual three lanes inside the checkpoint out of the sun (plus a ‘humanitarian gate’ for men over sixty), but the women and children, were funnelled down a lane behind a metal barrier erected one metre from the back wall of the checkpoint.
The line moved painfully slowly, taking over an hour to reach the corner of the checkpoint where passes were checked again. The women then went through a turnstile to be frisked again with metal detectors before they finally emerged to get buses the Jerusalem side of the terminal. Their men folk had waited over two hours for them. Why conditions had to be so much worse for the women was unfathomable.
By 10.00 am thousands of women were being funnelled down this one narrow lane behind the inflexible barrier in full sun. The crush was unbelievable, there was real panic. It reminded me of the Hillsborough disaster in Britain, where 96 people lost their lives when inadequate crowd control resulted in spectators being crushed to death against the barriers.
Small children were stuck in the middle of the crowd. We dived to help medics pull kids out. One small boy emerged with a broken arm, another was badly concussed. Many were gasping for breath. The metal barrier gave way under the sheer force of the women, and the broken concrete caused more injuries.
At this point, mounted police arrived to push the women back by riding their horses into the crowd. A UN official repeatedly asked the commander to open the vehicle lanes to relieve the pressure and panic, but they stayed resolutely shut. When asked why, the commander said: “these are my orders today”.
The tension kept rising. Soldiers and police began pushing, kicking and punching the women - including the elderly. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
At midday, the Qalandiya checkpoint was finally closed. The car park was a battleground littered with lost shoes, strewn with hijabs, medics attending to the injured and children separated from their mothers. Elderly ladies who had started the day in their beautiful dresses sat dishevelled and distressed. We later heard that a Palestinian had been shot dead at Gilo checkpoint, on the way into Jerusalem from Bethlehem. All this for trying to exercise a fundamental right – to practise one’s religion and pray in a place revered as holy.