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Anyone who has crossed the Qalandiyah Checkpoint north of Jerusalem in recent days would have noticed what seemed to be a Palestinian traffic policeman. Wearing army boots, a blue uniform, a yellow vest and sporting a whistle in his mouth, he yelled at drivers and tried to unsnarl the endless traffic jams at the crossing.

Could it be that before indirect talks with the Palestinians have even begun, Israel has already ceded part of its eternal capital and allowed the Palestinian police to take over? Not quite.

"I'm just a volunteer," the man said when questioned. "A few friends from our taxi stand decided that each would give me a little money to direct the traffic here."

Abd al-Basat Hamad, 39, is a taxi driver, not a policeman, from the Qalandiyah refugee camp. The Palestinian Authority gave him the green light, he said, as well as the boots and pants. "But this isn't the PA's area, so it can't operate here."

Hamad spends most of the day sitting on a concrete block and smoking. Only when a "crisis" erupts does he leap into action. But he cannot approach the checkpoint itself, which is where the worst problems occur.

For several months now, Israel has been doing construction on the checkpoint. The work has dragged on, compounding the suffering of West Bank Palestinians and, even more, East Jerusalem residents coming home from Ramallah, who comprise the bulk of the traffic.

The checkpoint is not even the one that separates Israel from the West Bank: After making it through Qalandiyah, drivers must pass through additional checks.

At Qalandiyah, chaos rules. There are huge traffic jams at all hours of the day, as cars try to crowd into the two lanes allocated for security checks. The air is filled with honking horns, quarrels, curses and soldiers shouting through loudspeakers. Young children offer to sell pirated CDs or wash drivers' windows for money, and spit at the drivers or threaten to break their windows if they refuse.

On the northern side of the checkpoint lies a vacuum: Israel has no forces of its own stationed there, but it refuses to allow the PA to send its forces, since Qalandiyah is within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.

(What exactly this refugee camp has to do with Jerusalem remains unclear, but its residents do carry Israeli identity cards.) Apparently, no one cares what goes on here - except for Hamad and his friends.

And if a driver manages to avoid both getting his car banged up and paying ransom to the youngsters, he still has to deal with the security check.

Qalandiyah is manned by both civilian security guards and military policewomen. Civility is in short supply.

"Come on!" a military policewoman yelled in a threatening tone. When we rebuked her, a look of contempt passed over her face. "Lift up the floor mat. Higher," she responded. Without another word, she handed back our ID cards and waved us on.

Thank you for using the Qalandiyah Checkpoint.

Posted by Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel on March 12, 2010

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