For several months, huge traffic jams have been forming daily near the Qalandiyah checkpoint to the north of Jerusalem. Palestinians needing to pass through describe an impossible situation in which it sometimes takes an hour to travel only a few dozen meters. The congestion disrupts the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who live beyond the separation barrier, in the village of Aqeb. “You can’t plan your life, you never know how long it will take to arrive anywhere,” says attorney Moien Odeh, who lives in Aqeb.
The road passing next to the checkpoint is the Jerusalem-Ramallah highway, one of the West Bank’s most important transportation arteries. It serves Palestinian drivers from Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron. Problems at the checkpoint often create pile-ups stretching to the highway, so that even people not wishing to enter Jerusalem find themselves in a traffic jam. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of traffic control and the anarchy prevailing at the site. The Qalandiyah checkpoint and surrounding area are part of Jerusalem’s municipal area. According to the Oslo Accords, Palestinian police have no jurisdiction there. Israel’s police force almost never operates beyond the separation barrier, certainly not in traffic matters.
For example, there are always taxis picking up and depositing passengers near the checkpoint, often blocking traffic and exacerbating the situation. Store owners along the road park on one of the lanes, moving to their stores the concrete blocks placed in the center of the road to facilitate traffic. There are a few inspectors around from the Palestinian Authority, but they are not authorized to issue tickets.
One of them says that if it’s a Palestinian car, they send the licence plate number to Palestinian police, who fine the owner. If it’s an Israeli plate they can’t do anything. “There are no police here. Nothing. Who can ask you what you’re doing? It’s grown much worse over the last two months, lasting throughout the day,” one driver on his way to the checkpoint told Haaretz. “Sometimes there’s an ambulance sounding its siren but you can’t help – there’s nowhere to move.”
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“Sometimes 100 meters can take an hour and a half. Because of one car they block the entire crossing. If your work starts at 6 in the morning you have to leave home at 4. Many people leave their cars on the other side and cross on foot,” says Shaker Abu Asab, who regulates traffic at the crossing. “You need to plan for up to two hours from Aqeb to the checkpoint, sometimes it’s even three hours,” adds Samih Abu Ramila, who manages a postal outlet at the checkpoint.
A year and a half ago the police did some work there, dismantling a traffic circle and parking lot near the checkpoint. According to Tamar Fleischman, an activist who is there every week, this work only made things worse. The Jerusalem municipality started paving a new road for public transportation next to the crossing but this work was stopped – the conditions are now so bad that only four-wheel drive vehicles can use this road.
Things got worse a month and a half ago after a shooting incident at another checkpoint. It was closed, increasing the pressure at Qalandiyah.
The police, responsible for checkpoints around the city, had this to say: “In contrast to the claims, the crossing has been upgraded and improved this year. Security checks are shorter and more efficient. The upgrade included installing 27 biometric crossing points, the addition of security checkpoints and new technology, a convenient bus terminal and new passages for pedestrians. This was intended to address the significant increase in the number of people using the checkpoint in recent years, which overloaded the system, especially in the mornings and afternoons. We’re planning new projects such as a pedestrian bridge which will allow underground movement of cars. The police will continue to try and maintain a quiet routine with efficient and safe passage for users, while taking any action necessary to maintain security and the protection of Israel’s citizens.”