‘ISRAEL is going to enter the Guinness Book of Records for having built the world’s biggest prison,’ said an angry Abed Yabrud, waiting his turn to cross the Qalandiya military checkpoint last Saturday.
The checkpoint, on the separation barrier Israel is building through the occupied West Bank will, from today, be turned into a veritable frontier between Ramallah and Jerusalem, only accessible to those with special permits.
Thousands of Palestinians will then have to take lengthy detours to reach their homes or places of work.
Yabrud, who works as a pharmacist in Ramallah, lives in Al-Ram, a village on the Israeli side of the barrier. Normally making the crossing takes five minutes, but from next week he will have to find another route that will take ‘at least an hour.
‘With what right is Israel doing this on our land? Now they say it’s us who are not creating peace. We can’t have hope when we see they want everything and don’t trust us,’ he said, shouting to be heard over the noise of bulldozers working under the supervision of Israeli soldiers.
Ehud Olmert, whose Kadima party won Tuesday’s election in Israel, vowed during his campaign to turn the security barrier into a border, in what could see tens of thousands of Zionist settlers recalled from the Palestinian side.
The plan, which he is prepared to carry out unilaterally, is condemned by Palestinian leaders, but could soon become reality at Qalandiya.
‘Olmert’s day of glory has come. With his election victory, and the Hamas government in Palestine, he can do whatever he feels like. It’s the perfect pretext,’ said Mussa Naji, a civil servant who lives on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
For Naji, Olmert’s election ‘is no reason for hope’, despite the fact the Kadima leader announced he was ready to make ‘territorial concessions’ to the Palestinians in his victory speech after the Israeli ballot.
Referring to the last three Israeli premiers Naji said: ‘We have seen very different Israeli leaders: Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon . . . we don’t believe their words. They don’t need to rely on us for anything.
‘Take Qalandiya, people are asking, “Did they ask anyone’s permission to build a terminal like this”?’
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has also criticised the move.
‘You cannot turn a checkpoint into an international crossing in order to suffocate the Palestinian population and inflict on them collective punishment’ he said.
Crossing the checkpoint to Ramallah is no problem, but heading for Jerusalem, Palestinians will be split in two: those with a blue permit to enter the Holy City and those without, who must find another, more distant, way in.
‘I’ll need at least two hours to reach my house. Now it takes half an hour. Thanks a lot, Olmert,’ said Rabija, an economics student at Ramallah University, who lives in Beit Hanina, north of Jerusalem.
Hundreds of Palestinians cross this checkpoint daily. At both ends of the concrete passageway are snaking queues of people and a cacophony of taxis, buses and small stall holders, creating an unbearable chaos that the new terminal will only make worse.
‘I remember when the people of Qalandiya could go freely to Jerusalem. Now I can see myself dying with the image of this wall in my head and with the feeling my grandchildren won’t know peace either,’ said the elderly Abdallah Raja, a photo of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the door of his shop.
Finally, after going through various control points, Abed Yabrud, with a gesture of tiredness, crossed towards Al-Ram. There, a sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English welcomes him: ‘Have a pleasant and safe stay.’
Meanwhile, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, has said that the problem in the Middle East is the denial of the Palestinian people’s basic human rights by Israel.
Speaking in London last Friday, Haniya said that Palestinians were ‘sick and tired of the West’s racist approach’ to the Middle East conflict.
The Hamas government leader said Israel’s unilateralism was a formula for conflict and asked if Western policymakers ever felt ‘ashamed of their scandalous double standards’.
He said that the West had piled demands on Hamas since they won the Palestinian general election in January, while equivalent demands had not been directed towards the parties in Israel’s general election, held last Thursday.
The centrist Kadima party of acting prime minister Ehud Olmert topped the poll, having campaigned on a plan to fix Israel’s borders by 2010 without any consultation with the Palestinians.
Haniya charged: ‘Olmert’s unilateralism is a recipe for conflict,’ adding that the problem in the Middle East is not with any particular Palestinian group but with the ‘denial of our basic human rights’ by Israel.
The United States, European Union and Israel all regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
‘We in Hamas are for peace and want to put an end to bloodshed’ said Haniya.
‘We have been observing a unilateral truce for more than a year without reciprocity from the Israeli side.
‘The message from Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to the world powers is this: talk to us no more about recognising Israel’s “right to exist” or ending resistance, until you obtain a commitment from the Israelis to withdraw from our land and recognise our rights.
‘We are sick and tired of the West’s racist approach to the conflict, in which the Palestinians are regarded as inferior.
‘Though we are the victims, we offer our hands in peace, but only a peace that is based on justice.
‘If the Israelis continue to attack and kill our people and destroy their homes, impose sanctions, collectively punish us, and imprison men and women for exercising the right to self-defence, we have every right to respond with all available means.’
Haniya said that his party was democratically elected and if his government was boycotted by foreign powers, ‘we will persist – and our friends have pledged to fill the gap.
‘This is a good time for peacemaking – if the world wants peace.’