Qalandia Checkpoint: The Historical Geography of a Non-Place
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Introduction: A Gate to the World

Qalandia. The name evokes a village, a refugee camp, a women’s handicraft cooperative (run through the refugee camp), a used-to-be airport. And now a formidable checkpoint. In the old days, Qalandia was a small village off the main Ramallah-Jerusalem road, today home to about a thousand people. In 1949, Qalandia became synonymous with a UNRWA refugee camp, whose population today is over eleven-thousand people, and within which is the first refugee women’s society. But Qalandia also used to be an airport. For a few short years in the 1930s this was the only airport in British Mandate Palestine used by the British military (before the Wilhelma Airport

– renamed RAF Lydda in 1943, and Ben Gurion Airport in 1973 – opened in Lydda, southeast of Tel Aviv); it was also the only airport in Jordanian controlled territories

(i.e the West Bank and Jordan) post-1948 until Amman boasted its own. After the Jordanians took it over, they turned it into a civil airport and renamed it Jerusalem Airport in the 1950s, where it remained under Jordanian control until 1967, after which it was unilaterally incorporated in the Greater Jerusalem Municipal Area annexed by Israel. Israel re-opened it as a domestic airport in 1969 and renamed it Atarot – after the nearby Atarot moshav that had been evacuated in 1948. In everyday parlance among Palestinians, it has continued to be referred to as Qalandia airport. Given its proximity to Palestinian areas, from the perspective of Israeli officials, the airport posed a hazard: during the first intifada it was not uncommon for Palestinian boys to aim their rocks at passing (Israeli) airplanes. With the onset of the Second Intifada, the airport was shut down in October 2000 and turned into an IDF base. It is no secret that during the Camp David talks, Palestinian negotiators were hoping to build a future Palestinian National Airport at Qalandia. Although Finance Minister Salam Fayyad still holds this dream, it has become rather far-fetched, since the airport is on the Israeli side of the 8-meter high wall. But, if in the past “Jerusalem Airport was their [Palestinians’] gate to the world”1, today the Qalandia checkpoint is that gate.

Qalandia has always been a point of gathering and dispersal, a crossing that has allowed Palestinian movement or enforced its status, a sphere that has asphyxiated the collective economic, social, and political practices of Palestinians, and one that has, at times, served as an enclave of economic and social interaction. But here I’m not referring to the village, the camp, or indeed the airport, but the checkpoint that emerged in late 2001 and has existed, in varying forms, since then.

I have spent innumerable hours and days at the Qalandia checkpoint since the early 2000s, watching how it functions and making friends with many Palestinians who ‘work’ at it or who have to cross it on regular and sporadic bases. It was through years of observation and the informal occasions and conversations that ensued from these friendships, that I realized that checkpoints, and Qalandia specifically, were more than what meets the eye. Of course they were, and still are, spaces where the Zionist/Israeli colonialist project is palpable in all its might and ugliness and where Palestinians are physically reminded of their subjugated position. In hanging out at Qalandia however, I witnessed thousands of Palestinians flowing through smoothly as if at an airport terminal, herded off and squeezed in ‘waiting areas’ like sheep for hours on end, or stopped altogether from getting home, to work, to the doctor’s or anywhere else. I met hundreds of drivers and merchants selling their services and goods, waiting for the checkpoint to open and the ‘shoppers’ and ‘travelers’ to pass through again. I saw all kinds of goods, from tomatoes to computers, passing through without issue, loaded off trucks and carried to the other side, or rotting in the sun and eventually turned back with a flick of a soldier’s hand.

Checkpoints, which litter the Palestinian landscape, speak to a central Palestinian predicament of a disordered experience of geography and space-time, whereby “Palestinian life is scattered, discontinuous, marked by the artificial and imposed arrangements of interrupted or confined space, by the dislocations and unsynchronized rhythms of disturbed time.”2 Checkpoints are a contemporary incarnation of Israel’s denial of the collective and individual rights of Palestinians to a (contiguous) living space.3 In After the Last Sky, written before a time of checkpoints, Edward Said offered a pertinent commentary on the phenomenon, and offered a justification of why such research is important in understanding the historical roots of Palestinian resentment and the everyday reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

“The stability of geography and the continuity of land – these have completely disappeared from my life and the life of all Palestinians. If we are not stopped at borders, or herded into new camps, or denied reentry and residence, or barred from travel from one place to another, more of our land is taken, our lives are interfered with arbitrarily, our voices are prevented from reaching each other, our identity is confined to frightened little islands in an inhospitable environment of superior military force sanitized by the clinical jargon of pure administration.”4

This article analyzes the checkpoint and how it functions as both a unique anthropological space and a non-descript non-place. First, I trace the birth of modern-day checkpoints in the Palestinian Territories and describe their formations, variations, and functions. Then, by describing the Qalandia checkpoint specifically, and showing how it is an economic and social hub, I argue that it is an ‘anthropological space.’ But Qalandia and checkpoints generally can also be theorized as ‘non-places’ akin to airports. I then weed out this contradiction by suggesting that it is both. Finally, I contend that checkpoints play a central and symbolic role in Palestinian society.

Situating Checkpoints in History and on the Ever-Changing Map

Checkpoints have become central in enforcing closures as the physical barricades that imprison Palestinians into their segregated cantons. Closure is meant to deprive Palestinians of their right to free movement, stemming from a ‘pass system’ first introduced in 1991, which stipulated that every Palestinian had to obtain a color-coded – and later biometric – identification card and apply for a permit to move between and within what would eventually become Areas A, B, and C. Movement restrictions have been instituted by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) since 1967, and were a significant feature of the first Intifada (1987-1993) but it had been Israeli fear of Palestinian reaction to the 1991 Gulf War that provided the occasion to institute policies of immobility. The colonialist advantages of the pass and closure system were elaborated with time as it transformed from an ad hoc military-bureaucratic measure into a fully-conscious Israeli strategy with a clear political goal: “separation between the two peoples with an appearance of political separation, but with only one government– Israel– having any effective power to shape the destinies of both.”5 Checkpoints are diverse in their material formations, placement, and function. They can take the shape of a moving tank whose soldiers stop to check identification cards, known as the ‘flying checkpoint’; or a dug-up road with one-meter-square cement blocks placed to stop or divert the flow of vehicular traffic; or a 12-meter high control tower from which soldiers communicate with passers-by through peep-holes; or remote-control operated metal turnstiles that literally squeeze people through them. More often than not, checkpoints are erected in the middle of a Palestinian area or town: ‘internal checkpoints’ that serve to control or prevent Palestinians from moving within their own territories. There are challenges in accurately stating the number and type of checkpoints at any given time: as it depends on how a certain checkpoint is classified (is a roadblock with occasional military control a checkpoint?); second, they increase, or sometimes decrease, in time. Mapping checkpoints is an absurd exercise of documenting the shifting temporal landscape of occupation – a map created today does not necessarily reflect what was yesterday and could likely be obsolete tomorrow. The numbers for permanent checkpoints since the mid-2000s ranges between 215 (B’tselem 2006) and 588 (OCHA 2007) for the West Bank alone, but have decreased since the mid-2000s. The majority of these are not on the ‘border’ between the West Bank and Israel (i.e. the 1949 Armistice or Green Line), but in the middle of Palestinian areas. According to one report, of the 588 physical closures documented in December 2007, only eight were for entrance into Israel (OCHA 2007).

Checkpoints have also grown in terms of the Israeli military making their presence larger and physically amplifying the checkpoint’s volume: increasing the number of soldiers; erecting control towers, bunkers, and cement blocks; forming lines, installing metal turnstiles, razor-barbed wires, and concrete walls. The physicality of a checkpoint changes over time: what may have started out as a temporarily-manned road block now sits along the security fence/wall, is made up of hundreds of tons of concrete, CCTV cameras, automatic turnstiles, and has twenty-four hour surveillance.

Qalandia, approximately ten kilometers north of Jerusalem, can be considered an ‘internal checkpoint’ as it separates the southern boundary of Ramallah from the northern (Arab/Palestinian) Jerusalem suburbs of Al-Ram and Beit Hanina. However, Al-Ram and points south are considered by Israel part of the ‘Greater Jerusalem Area Annexed to Israel.’ By 2005-2006, the wall was erected along the main thorough-way in Al-Ram and through and around the Qalandia checkpoint, making it no longer for all intents and purposes an internal checkpoint, but a hard barrier between the West Bank and the greater Jerusalem area and Israel, and also among various points within the West Bank.

The Qalandia checkpoint has grown at a speed that few other ‘developments’ have in the West Bank – perhaps with the exception of settlements. In late 2000, it emerged as an earth mound along the main Jerusalem-Ramallah road that drivers had to circumvent with sporadic military checks; by 2001, there were concrete barricades and a fence controlling the flow of pedestrians and vehicles 24 hours a day. By 2003, there was a watch tower, a corrugated tin roof overhead the travelers’ walk-way; around it an open-air shopping mall was taking root. By 2005, a nearby hilltop had been razed, the 8-meter high wall snaked along its Western flank and increasing numbers of merchants were permanently located there. By 2006 it became a monstrous – and in certain ways, final – border crossing point, one of ten ‘official’ crossing points for two million Palestinians across the West Bank6 dubbed by an Israeli journalist as “a five-star roadblock”7 and referred to by the IDF as a ‘terminal.’As two Israeli scholars explain, a ‘terminal’ is no insignificant edifice:

“Unlike other checkpoints’ terminals are built through and through. Surrounded by concrete walls, roofed, and containing clearly marked designated areas (such as a ‘waiting area’ or gates for people with wheelchairs), they are erected as architectural monstrosities. These constructions are equipped with an array of monitoring and control apparatuses – from electric iron turnstiles to security cameras and biometric identification devices – that enable soldiers to control the checkpoints from an isolated edifice. Despite their title, most of them are located, like most checkpoints, inside Palestinian territory. They are built like border crossings, reinforcing the illusion that they are normal sites marking the border between two sovereign entities and concealing the fact that Israeli rule applies on both sides of the terminal. With seemingly friendly welcome signs, vast parking lots (in which no one parks – the Palestinians have no access by car to the checkpoint area), benches (on which no one sits), toilets (which are often out of order), the terminals present a façade of legitimacy.”8

Even if they are difficult to count and classify, and not marked on any official (Israeli state) maps, checkpoints are an inevitable presence. Also unavoidable and arbitrary is the speed through which one may pass, or not. A voluntary group of Israeli women who record human rights abuses at checkpoints, Machsomwatch, rightly explains that “the checkpoint regime is arbitrary and random, and the regulations governing them change constantly.”9 Behind checkpoints is a suffocating bureaucracy of restriction on movement that is daunting and complicated for a Palestinian to navigate. First, a person needs an identification card, which can only be obtained at the Israeli Civil Administration office of one’s region (which usually requires passing a checkpoint). Second, a person needs to obtain a crossing permit to pass (often between two Palestinian towns), which requires that some institution apply on that person’s behalf; that the permit gets sent through the proper bureaucratic channels; that it gets approved by the Israeli Civil Administration; and that the person applying go pick it up (which often requires passing a checkpoint with proper documentation already in hand). In the words of Machsomwatch, “every movement by Palestinians from place to place, for whatever purpose, is […] in itself […] not a simple action for people whose freedom of movement is restricted... At the end of this torturous obstacle race, there is no certainty that the person will actually receive the permits they require”.10 Third, these permits come in various kinds: daily, weekly, monthly, from 7am to 7pm, for work only, accompanied by an escort, not by vehicle, and so on. The variety is endless, and the choice not up to person in need of the permit.

Once a person possesses all the necessary paperwork and the means for which to get to the checkpoint, there is still no guarantee that she will pass. The soldier does not necessarily communicate the reason why one is denied passage. Perhaps the soldier frowned on one’s perfume, disapproved of the amount of shopping bags in hand; perhaps he finds one’s face or clothing suspicious, perhaps he’s just having a bad day. Other times, it is not the individual soldier that calls the shots, but the ‘invisible’ system: the checkpoint is closed, for an hour or a day – seldom is a passerby told for how long, let alone why. It could be a shift in soldiers, a bombing attack in Netanya, a pre-emptive measure due to tensions in the war in Iraq, a Jewish holiday, a Muslim holiday, or no reason at all. One human rights report explains: “nothing is transparent […] it is never clear who will [pass…] and who will not… The reasons [for prohibiting Palestinians from passing] are so numerous, and the use made of them changes so much, that uncertainty becomes the ultimate system of control within the framework of the certainty of the occupation… Not only is the arbitrariness deliberate, the inefficiency of the system is built in too.” 11 The structure and arbitrariness of the permit and checkpoint processes demonstrate that Palestinian lives are under the control of the Israeli military. Furthermore, forcing Palestinians to apply for permits and pass checkpoints necessitates their acknowledgement of the system of Israeli occupation as the mechanism of approval over one’s mobility.

Checkpoints are first and foremost extensions of the Judaization, militarization, and fragmentation of Palestinian land, a physical manifestation of the territorial project of Zionist expansion; of, to put it more succinctly, ‘spacio-cide’.12 Checkpoints form part of the matrix of Israeli occupation, or if one prefers, colonialism and apartheid 13 which includes the wall/separation barrier14, Israeli/settler-only access roads15, policies of closures16 and bureaucratic controls over Palestinian life that includes everything from the doling out of differentiated identification cards and travel permits 17 to the arcane policies of land ownership/confiscation and residency registration18. Although introduced onto the landscape in the 1990s, checkpoints are legacies of the matrix of control and oppression that Israel has been building since 1948, whereby the landscape is reshaped to imprison and squeeze Palestinians and force them to trespass through an ever-shrinking geography of (their own) Palestine. Checkpoints are an extension of the Zionist project of ‘hollowing’ Palestinian land, to borrow a term from architect Eyal Weizman (2007). They are an arena within which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict expresses itself, and the domain within which, and through which, the conflict is constituted on an everyday basis.

The conflict has always had a geographic dimension, wherein spatiality has become the product of politics and the material theater of war. In a new take on Foucault’s argument that space is fundamental in any exercise of power (1986), the Palestinian landscape is used as a playground and laboratory by the Israeli state/military to exert power, create new modes of organization, parcel out and govern territories and people in ways heretofore undreamed of. Israeli policies of territorial segmentation of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, combined with the erection of settlements, by-pass roads, walls/fences, checkpoints, and closures demonstrate how directly and explicitly domination and control are inscribed into the way space is organized.

To suggest, as I do here, that checkpoints make interesting subjects of study in and of themselves is not to belittle their process in this larger matrix of uneven Palestinian-Israeli relations. Given the history and landscape in which they exist, checkpoints should be understood as quintessentially colonial gestures through which the indigenous population is reduced to mute objects of history, unrecognized as active subjects – or so it is hoped. But checkpoints also symbolize and challenge central issues about the relationship between power, politics, and space. They are important sites of analysis as geographic manifestations of Israeli control over Palestinian life, and indeed, of the way, in the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinians are being cast into “redundant shadows exiled from space and time” (2001). Additionally, while Qalandia is unique and checkpoints have sprouted across the Palestinian Territories in astounding numbers and formations, they inform our understanding of other spatial mechanisms of stratifying, separating, fragmenting, and/ or immobilizing (sub-altern) populations across the world: not only at checkpoints and border zones such as in Iraq, Cyprus, or along the US/Mexico border, but spaces such as ghettoes, reservations, Bantustans, gated communities, and all kinds of no-go zones and no-man’s lands. Checkpoints also beare resemblance to spaces of interest to social scientists such as airports, terminals, and zones of exception; and contribute to the growing body of literature on borders and territory, crossing-overs and trespassing, mobility and immobility, in challenging these simple dichotomies.19

On-Going Contradictions

Checkpoints are not free-standing and geographically discrete places, and must be understood in the context of social relations that stretch beyond them and in the context of how the intersection of social relations function within them. They are shaped as much by events and processes that happen elsewhere (Knesset decisions, foreign policies in Washington DC, suicide bombings in Haifa or in Baghdad) as they are by what happens within them (commercial activity, Palestinians refusing to turn back, soldiers shooting tear gas). The role of checkpoints is a process charged with political and social significance. Thus a checkpoint can also be understood as a representation carrying different meaning to different people. Moreover, spatial organization impacts how society functions and how it changes, implicating the spatial in the production of history and politics.20 And it is precisely in the recognition of checkpoints’ layers of contradiction, that we can theorize the spatial aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli context and transpose the example to other sites across the world.

Qalandia as Gathering Point and ‘Anthropological Space’

Early in 2003, after spending two consecutive weeks at Qalandia, including a few nights of ‘camping’ out there all night, I noted a (week-day) rhythm: laborers heading into Israel before the crack of dawn, the rush of morning commuters and students, the lull between 10am and lunch time, the chaos of lunch and noon prayer, the increasing afternoon tempo with the dismissal of children from school and the onslaught of those who stray behind and cause trouble by throwing rocks at the soldiers and the latter’s often disproportionate response, the arrival of workers at day’s end, the evening slowdown. Qalandia was being transformed into a space with unique conventions and practices, that became part of a routine for hundreds of merchants and thousands of ‘travelers’ that had to get through, in both directions. I recognized early on that Qalandia is an anthropological space, by which I mean that it compelled ethnographic research in order to understand it, and drawing on Merleau-Ponty (1945), that it is invested with incarnate consciousness existing in the world, a space where people exist.

The Qalandia checkpoint bleeds with character and uniqueness – even if other checkpoints look similar, have also turned into open-air bazaars, and share a similar rhythm. It is a social and economic space given form, function and signification by the human beings in and around it. For example, by 2005, there were thousands of taxi drivers and merchants that had made it their center of economic pursuit. One could purchase all kinds of goods: chewing gum from little boys; cell phones and timecards from merchants who owned stores nearby; contraband cigarettes from thieves; coffee and food from men who had invested in vans with built-in kitchens; live chicks and herbs from farmers; underwear, gloves, and socks from merchants who used the checkpoint as their sole ‘store-front.’A taxi driver explained the history of commercial activity at Qalandia as: “in time, everyone realized that this is the place to come and sell. You see them [the merchants] now, it’s a bazaar! The women selling herbs and peaches, the young men selling [telephone] cards…” Or, as one cigarette seller exclaimed: “there’s everything here, and there’s look [pointing around] too much business. Look at this place, it’s like an airport duty-free zone!” Already in 2004, it was a standing joke among cabbies, merchants and many passersby that Qalandia was a duty-free zone (perhaps evoking long-lost memories of the airport that used to be situated there), not just because it was evidently transforming into an ‘international border’ but due the wide ranging availability of goods for purchase. The hub-bub existed on both sides of the checkpoint, although has always been more vibrant on the Ramallah side due to the legal constraints on the Jerusalem side of the area being under Israeli municipal control.

It was not uncommon to hear from merchants that business was more vibrant at the local checkpoint than in town (Qalandia, or other large checkpoints such as Huwwara on the southern end of Nablus, or Surda between Ramallah and Birzeit – the latter two were dismantled by 2007). Some merchants closed their businesses in order to move to the checkpoint, while other entrepreneurs decided to ‘set-up shop’ at the checkpoint. After losing his job as a construction worker inside Israel, Radwan opened a ‘restaurant’ in late 2004 on the Ramallah side of Qalandia to serve taxi drivers and merchants who spend their entire days there. Ahmed used to own a bakery near the Amari refugee camp, between Ramallah and Qalandia, which he closed in late 2003; he explained: “the [bakery] was good business, but with the closures and curfews it was becoming harder… I decided to close and I came down here and joined the guys [to become a taxi driver]… I make much more [money] now than I did running the oven, and I have better hours too.” Similarly, a telephone merchant at Huwwara said:

I used to work at a [telephone] store in downtown [Nablus]… One day I was stuck [at Huwwara] for more than 10 hours. People kept asking me if they could use my phone… and I thought I should quit my job and come and sell telephones here… I bought as many phones as I could, I borrowed some [money] from family, I bought bundled telephone cards at a discount, and came the next day and was able to sell everything! That was four years ago. I have been here almost every day since and business has been good… Business is better here than downtown.

There were also numerous ‘workers’ who dealt only with transportation needs: taxi drivers, bus drivers, and push-cart owners who would hoist travelers’ goods (or sometimes travelers themselves) across. And along with all those in the ‘transportation business’ were growing numbers of merchants who catered almost exclusively to them, like Radwan. One of the longest-lasting food-stand owners at Qalandia explained, after he had already been in business for close to five years: “it’s not the people [passing through] who buy from us, but the drivers.” Indeed, in my own hanging out with cabbies, we purchased many drinks and meals at the checkpoint

– everything from hot coffee and ice-cream to chicken sandwiches and rice dishes. In response to their shrinking territorial space, Palestinians were creating out of checkpoints new centers of economic activity21.

Checkpoints were also becoming a public space of social life: where Palestinians gather and congregate, where they meet after long periods of absence. Since there are hundreds checkpoints this inevitably means that hundreds of thousands of people are separated from each other: family members, friends or business partners. As long as people are willing to spend their personal time in view of soldiers, there is no reason not to suggest a rendezvous at the local checkpoint to catch up on news, to give one’s son home-made olives, give mum some cash, or hand-deliver a business contract. At the Nuseirat checkpoint, one young man from Khan Younis living in Gaza City waited for his brothers to show up on the other side of the checkpoint:

We never know if they [the IDF] are going to let us through, so instead of planning to go home every Friday, my brothers and I meet so that I can give them money to take back to the [family], and sometimes they bring me things from my parents… like my mother’s [home-cooked] meals, or home-pressed olive oil.

In their particular case, the three brothers were lucky since the checkpoint separated the two sides with three-foot high concrete barricades manned by soldiers who did not forbid cross-over chitchat or swapping of goods. At other checkpoints where meeting face to face is impossible because of the materiality of separation, people have devised alternative means of trading goods or news. For example, at a checkpoint outside of Jenin, family members trust taxi drivers to deliver their goods. At another checkpoint in the hills between Jenin and Nablus, I joined a family on their weekly hike to wave and scream to family members on the other side.

Where before people would meet in the privacy of their home, their offices, or in the comfort of their city centers, they now met in the ‘open’ spaces of checkpoints. I once witnessed a meeting between three men at Qalandia, all dutifully dressed in their suits, each coming from a different direction, conducting business. Papers were shifting across the fence, notes were jotted down, phone calls were made, hands were shaken. A few hours later the meeting adjourned, and back to their respective offices each one went. TV and radio stations wishing to simultaneously broadcast the same program often sent ‘gophers’ to checkpoints to exchange tapes with other stations. The kinds of business transactions carried in and around checkpoints were endless, as were the various social exchanges. A woman I met at Qalandia was convinced her story inspired Elia Suleiman’s 2002 film Divine Intervention about a couple furtively meeting at a checkpoint:

a friend of mine told me to see this movie because it was exactly like our lives!… And it’s true. Ever since [my boyfriend] started his new job in Al-Ram, we’ve had to meet here to see each other. I don’t have a permit, and it’s been difficult for him to get out if he enters. So we meet here… Of course it hurts our relationship since we can’t be intimate with everybody watching us. But I think people also understand the situation.

In fact, all kinds of people meet, greet, and say goodbye at checkpoints. I too found myself saying goodbye to friends at checkpoints, uncomfortable that my tears were spotted by soldiers and passersby, yet having no choice. Checkpoints have become like Palestinian living rooms, the new downtowns of everyday life, private and public spheres available under occupation where one can (physically) share an experience with others. Palestinians have been squeezed out of their city centers onto the margins, recreating markets and social rendezvous places at checkpoints – under the gaze and control of a foreign military– at the center of the conflict, yet invisible on maps.

Checkpoints serve specific objectives for the Israeli military: controlling and surveying the population, separating and segregating Palestinians from Israelis and from each other, fragmenting Palestinian land, veiled under the rhetoric of security. It is doubtful that the IDF expected that these very spaces would serve as ‘centers.’ Palestinian cooptation of checkpoints as economic and social centers is a manifestation of how space is simultaneously constrained and constraining in an evolving dialectic.

In economic and social ways, checkpoints have turned into gateways, spaces where capital, goods and people flow, thus making them crucial and central in Palestinian everyday life. As spaces where people gather, even if to disperse on the other side, they are central hubs of Palestinian mobility and movement. With so much traffic passing through them, or stopped at them, with so many merchants and concomitant social and economic activity, they are part of the larger matrix of Palestinian life. They are not just manifestations of occupation but of an urban-like experience. Given the wealth of exchange and interaction that happens at them, checkpoints are a space of social existence, where human articulations render an otherwise oppressive place into a lived space.

The Checkpoint as Non-Place

I spend days and months, returning year after year, hanging out at Qalandia – participating in impromptu January snowball fights between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youths, buying ice cream under the burning August sun with my cabby friends. Yet every day feels like the next or the previous: as if time never moves here. For in a sense it doesn’t. The checkpoint slices and cuts across Palestinian life, transforming Palestinian space-time into one of constant transience, impermanence, volatility, or sometimes simply standstill.

A useful term in urbanist discourse is Marc Augé’s non-place: that sprawling, carefully banalized network of airport lounges, border terminals, hotel lobbies, gas stations, and so forth, that constitutes nodal portions of the global travel complex in which the mobile elite spend an increasing percentage of time. A non-place is interstitial, without inherent character, defined precisely by the quality that it affords: a smooth transition between one place and another. As spaces of transition, airports facilitate the shrinkage of the globe (for the hyper-mobile elite), even as they function as spaces of in-between-ness from which one becomes mobile yet immobilized in lounges, waiting rooms, gates, and cafés. Taken together, airports form part of a network that link places and people to each other, and distance those places and people that are un-linked. They are smooth corridors in a complex intersection of endless regimes of flow. In certain ways, checkpoints operate similarly as a network of ‘terminals’ in a traveler’s journey between one part of Palestine/Israel and another, or in many cases, between one side of a Palestinian town and another. The network of checkpoints may certainly be seen as extreme and transforms the territory itself into a mosaic; in 2005 for example, when traveling from Jenin to Ramallah, I had to pass through six checkpoints – the same was true for travel anywhere in the West Bank. As hubs for ‘travelers’, checkpoints form part of a tangled mosaic of barricades and crossing points, of interpenetrating nodes superimposed on the landscape.

There is another way in which checkpoints are the invisible nodes in the smooth network afforded to Israeli settlers especially in functioning as a means to render Palestinians invisible. Settlers have their own ‘access’ or ‘by-pass’ roads which Palestinians are barred from; and checkpoints sometimes function precisely to prevent Palestinians from either using those roads or passing over/below/across them. Other checkpoints are erected on major arteries, where one sees yellow license-plate cars (for residents of Israel and settlements) whizzing by and white license-plate cars (for Palestinians) idling for hours on end. The argument can thus be reversed: checkpoints are literal non-places for Israelis afforded a smooth transition between Israel proper and settlements and outposts in the Territories.

Checkpoints share in common with airports functional aspects: sites among modes of transportation (pedestrian, vehicular, etc.), facilitation and disembarkment of passengers and the loading and unloading of commodities. The ways that airports have been described as thresholds and transition spaces22 checkpoints too are an “iconic space for discussions of modernity and postmodernity”23, a “site of surveillance”24, and a “no-(wo)man’s land”25. Checkpoints, like airports, are where one’s identity must be formally checked, where one can spend time at the ‘duty-free’ shops, observe passersby, wait patiently, rush through the crowd, or feel anxious about the whole journey. They are often the first and last spot a visitor sees, a refueling stop for those in transit, the end-stop (literally ‘terminal’) for those without permits. Like airports, they are often anonymous zones, where one Palestinian is no different than the other, all subject to same methods of surveillance and control, no matter gender, age, or class.

Checkpoints require of ‘travelers’ two very different sets of relations: first, before or after passing, when and where the traveler is in economic and social relations with other Palestinians as producer, consumer and ‘citizen’; second, the act of passing through the checkpoint and dealing with Israeli soldiers requires of the traveler a different form of interaction where she is dealt with purely on a bureaucratic basis and where political decisions both near and far impact experience. In the first instance, checkpoints can be theorized as an isolating instrumental space, to evoke Simmel’s (1999) conception of the modern urban experience: where we encounter each other as strangers, where our interactions are with people who sell us things, who share the same space but who do not seek to be our friends (even if some Palestinians interpret/ use checkpoints as spaces of collective subjugation and/or resistance). In the latter, a checkpoint is a space of explicit manifestation of authority, “expressed through the terminal environment, its operations, and through authority-generated flows,” which is how Kellerman describes airports26. In being managed, operated and controlled by varying levels of authority, checkpoints coerce both positive and punitive powers on ‘passengers’ (and ‘workers’).

Checkpoints are spaces in which solitude is experienced as an emptying of individuality, as a temporal experience concerned only with the present task of passing through (the same can be argued about commercial relations such as buying a pack of cigarettes, for example). The person traveling through a non-place, “becomes no more than what he does or experience in the role of passenger, customer or driver. Perhaps he is still weighed down by the previous day’s worries, the next day’s concerns; but he is distanced from them temporarily by the environment of the moment.”27 While for a ‘regular’ traveler or tourist elsewhere in the world this experience may be accompanied by a passive joy of identity-loss and an active pleasure of role-playing, in the case of the checkpoint passer, who must confront this everyday, twice a day, it takes a toll. As one young woman who must pass Qalandia between home and work five days a week admitted:

“It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been through here, I’m always scared… There are times I’ve been so angry at the occupation that I talk to myself on the way over [to the checkpoint] and say, okay, this time I’m going to stare the soldier straight in the eyes, I’m going to speak up, I’m going to spit in their face, something, you know, to show them my anger, to resist this bullshit. I get there. I see them, I see the gun, I forget everything I had just told myself… I see the huge line [of people waiting] and my thoughts, my strength evaporate. Nothing. I feel beaten before my turn has even come.”

Always having to be in the environment of the moment of the checkpoint makes it impossible to contemplate more important –political– thoughts. In an existential way checkpoints force Palestinians to confront questions of (bureaucratic) identity, common in airports too. Gottdiener suggest that when a traveler is at an airport, ‘entering the space triggers new feelings of self, new identities that are set off by stimulators…the airport is the definitive transition space. Trips are nothing if they are not existential’.28 In somewhat similar terms, Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi explains:

The quintessential Palestinian experience, which illustrates some of the most basic issues raised by Palestinian identity, takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified… For Palestinians, arrival at such barriers generates shared sources of profound anxiety… Borders are a problem for Palestinians since their identity […] not only is subject to question by the powers that be; but also is in many contexts suspect almost by definition.”29

In forcing Palestinians to confront the anxiety of crossing the border and of identity more broadly, checkpoints also serve as a space from which collective and individual roles in the conflict and the struggle over it are questioned. As much as the young woman may plan to ‘speak up’ or ‘spit in their face,’ the checkpoint serves to restrict the time-space development of resistance, and just as importantly, serves to redefine what resistance is in this context (for example simply getting through can be deemed resistance).

As transient spaces, checkpoints function similarly to airports, train stations, or duty free zones, as sanitized spaces of trade, exchange and travel, or ‘odorless’ spaces of globalization (Iwabuchi 2002), which, despite amenities they offer and any architectural, linguistic or other particularities, offer travelers a feeling of sameness. Qalandia has become a sanitized transient space much like an airport or border terminal anywhere else in the world – especially as the sanitized (and ‘hygienic’) aspect has increased over the years in the current format of the terminal: the dust, mud, smelliness and chaos has given way to hi-tech buildings, ordered queues, and surveillance cameras. Some checkpoints materially resemble each other: with watch guard towers, hugged by the wall/separation fence, manned by fatigue-wearing Israeli soldiers, where Palestinian drivers and merchants ‘welcome’ passersby, where the surrounding landscape is flattened to expand the military’s gaze or hidden behind a grey wall. Additionally, like airports, checkpoints do not have a home-based residential population – nobody lives at the checkpoint just as nobody lives at an airport. Checkpoints also rely on a huge, sometimes invisible, workforce: the soldiers and the Israeli physical and computerized bureaucratic infrastructure behind the scenes, and the Palestinian taxi drivers, merchants and supporting industries such as garages, gas stations and grocery stores. Like Augé’s non-places checkpoints are sites of coming and going.

Checkpoints are non-places that continually reinforce the transience of the Palestinian experience, its individual and collective vulnerability and dislocation. Checkpoints are not officially established Palestinian spaces, since they are erected and controlled (and dismantled) by the IDF. They neither appear on any authoritative maps nor mark accepted boundaries between the two ‘states.’ They are not considered Palestinian places by Israeli (or foreign) laws, thus can be the target of military violence that usually goes un-reported and un-punished. Israel neither officially acknowledges legal responsibility for checkpoints nor recognizes them as ‘sovereign’ spaces. In this sense, checkpoints are constructed by the Israeli military not simply as a ‘non-place’ but as ‘bare space’ that is part of a broader philosophical and political casting out of Palestinians as mere zoological humanity warranting no legal status or discursive presence.30 As such they are both ‘states of exception’31 and not exceptional at all as examples of Israel’s mechanisms of controlling and surveying its unwanted ‘other’.32

Whether from the perspective of the Palestinian government or the individual citizen, checkpoints appear or disappear overnight, without previous knowledge. That surprise element generally (i.e. will there even be checkpoint on the way?), the arbitrariness of passing (or not), physically, psychologically, and symbolically alters the Palestinian experience of space-time. In their function to separate territories, checkpoints exclude Palestinian life, segregate and fragment the nation, isolate and mute the individuals who pass through them, and especially those who are imprisoned behind and between them. In that sense checkpoints are part of ongoing Israeli dominance over Palestinian topography that symbolizes the extent to which ‘Palestine’ (historically and in the future) has been literally pulled from under the feet of Palestinians.

A (Non)Space: Border and Gate

To think of a checkpoint, and Qalandia specifically, as only a non-place has theoretical and practical limitations. Augé’s theory is not so easily juxtaposed onto Qalandia. Unlike in a non-place, the experience of passing through a checkpoint or being stuck at one is not at all banal for the thousands of Palestinians who need to get somewhere, for whatever reason. Nor are they trivial for the millions who may not need to pass but are impacted nonetheless, as checkpoints impede/stop the flow of all kinds of essential goods and people from teachers and doctors to newspapers and vegetables.

In the non-spaces of highways, airports or airplanes, the traveler is absolved of the need to stop or look at the villages; the landscape keeps it distance. In checkpoints this un-attachment is forced – un-attachment from one’s landscape, one’s village, or surrounding Palestinian areas. What checkpoints reinforce is Palestinians’ loss of orderly space-time, of the missing foundation of their existence, the lost ground of their origin, the broken link with their land and their past.33 In many cases the land around the checkpoint is physically altered by the IDF, or made ‘invisible’ behind a concrete wall. At Qalandia houses and hilltops have been razed, the land itself flattened, a wall erected along the checkpoint’s Western flank, a barbed wire fence, and later a trailer followed by a concrete building along its Eastern side. For he who passed through what was an intersection of two roads in 1996, he would not recognize it in 2006. Similarly, along the coast in the Gaza Strip, as one man explains, the IDF “built a mountain in the middle of the beach”: splitting the shore in two, establishing a vertical look-out point for the soldiers, altering the landscape to suit military needs. The same is true of countless other checkpoints from Bethlehem to Jenin.

When stuck at a checkpoint, travelers already in-line are not willing, or are forbidden, to ‘exit’ lest they lose their place. Some checkpoints have multiple ‘stops’ along the path to meet the soldier: one must enter through a turnstile into a waiting zone and wait for a signal before proceeding through another set of turnstiles. It is not infrequent that a checkpoint suddenly shuts down, leaving those in the waiting area or inside the turnstiles with no way out. At some checkpoints each individual is separated through such mechanisms from those in front and behind him/her, rendering him/ her utterly alone. The checkpoint ‘traveler’ is not allowed to maintain their proximity with that which is around them – a person, a family, a town, the nation. The separation is enforced both for the individual attempting to pass through as well as onto the landscape which segregates Palestinian territory into zones with no contact with one another. Thus solitude and fragmentation is experienced on the individual and ‘national’ level, on the corporeal and the geographic level, reaffirming that “the story of Palestine cannot be told smoothly.” 34

 Additionally, while checkpoints can be seen as transient spaces equated with a part of the lived experience of (a superficial) globalization 35checkpoints actually exclude Palestinians from the process of globalization. In fragmenting Palestinians and their land, checkpoints serve to hinder economic transactions on a national scale, hermetically sealing Palestinians and their economy into smaller and smaller spaces by slowing down or altogether forbidding the movement of people, goods and capital. Checkpoints, unlike airports, are spaces that enforce localization, statis and sedentariness. Since it is motion and flow and not statis that characterizes the (globalized) world in which we live and inform our conception of modernity36 checkpoints are ‘un-modernizing’ spaces. Checkpoints are not a fleeting space and transient time during travel but a confining and asphyxiating experience during one’s regular routine which necessarily has repercussions on the collective level. Their presence therefore prevents Palestinians from questioning their ‘fixed’ national culture, prevents associations with the outside and with each other. Checkpoints serve to further split, and erase, the Palestinian ‘nation.’ To twist Appadurai’s famous phrase, this is not a world of flows.

Qalandia checkpoint functions as a border and a gate – that limits, channels, regulates, or stops movement (or anticipated movement in some cases), sometimes simultaneously, sometimes at intervals, sometimes for the same person or different groups of people. One person may be let through, the person behind him not. Sometimes a family is parceled: the father must stay behind, the mother and children are allowed through. I’ve seen it often at Qalandia that children are allowed to pass without their parents – usually with the result that the entire family turns back together. Checkpoints interrupt and obtrude, and demarcate where and when Palestinian life is allowed to flourish or squeeze through. They are real no-man’s lands, liminal, interstitial, intervening Palestinian space-time flows with definite political, economic, social and geographic impact – often negative.

Mobilities and Moorings

A non-place is a putatively anonymous zone that takes on a texture and resolution of its own, and against the intentions of its designers acquires a unique and indelible character. Certainly against the intentions of the Israeli military some checkpoints, like Qalandia, have burgeoned into social centers and ‘micro-economic zones’ of commerce and trade – until they are dismantled or the soldiers kick the merchants out. In the ways described above, checkpoints function similarly to non-places. But in other ways, checkpoints are the dialectical counterpart to non-places.

Checkpoints are unique anthropological spaces with their own conventions and routines, where economic and social relations occur, where Palestinian time does flow, where connections are made, where movement and crossing over is possible (even if only sometimes, and even if only with permission of the occupying power). In channeling and gathering masses of people, checkpoints function as both sites of dispersal and gathering, of mobility and immobility, for as Neil Brenner (2004) appropriately suggests, mobilities and moorings occur dialectically . Mobility – which “encompasses both the large-scale movements of people, objects, capital and information across the world, as well as the more local processes of daily transportation, movement through public space and the travel of material things within everyday life.”37– cannot be described without due attention to its counterpart.

Of course the checkpoint is made up of an immobile mass – even if it changes and grows over time: turnstiles, concrete blocks, buildings, computers, lamp -posts, surveillance cameras, and the like. But the checkpoint also functions very much as a space in which mobility is stopped, or slowed down. In other words it functions as a barrier, not just a gateway. As Brown (2004) argues the ‘immobile mass’ at the checkpoint refers to the Palestinian people, to which one could add goods. In the words of one scholar, while materials and technologies such as checkpoints allow for a range of mobilities, they also act as barriers: “material socio-technical processes that render other bodies and materials (in this case Palestinian) less mobile (irrespective of the mobility they enable).”38 The Palestinian ‘nation,’ as the Palestinian experience – whether in the Diaspora, in exile, in the Territories or within Israel – is defined and transformed by im/mobility and the unequal relationship Palestinians have with that resource.

Mobility and control over mobility both reflect and reinforce relations of power. Cresswell suggests that the term ‘mobilities’ describes movements shot through with relations of power/knowledge, to be understood as simultaneously corporeal practices that are experienced and representations that (re-)iterate meaning(s).39 As such, the relative immobilities that checkpoints enforce (especially if taken together with other mechanisms such as by-pass roads, walls, settlements, etc.), must be seen in relation to the relative mobilities that they create for Israeli settlers living (illegally) on Palestinian land. The issue is not simply to juxtapose Israeli/settler mobility with Palestinian immobility, but in recognizing that living with and through im/mobility is a crucial and historically long-standing issue for all Palestinians, no matter their physical location.40 Being Palestinian is having to live with, (re)negotiate, challenge, and resist various mechanisms and power-struggles over movement and sedentariness – checkpoints, refugee camps and the more abstract ‘spaces’ of occupation, diaspora and exile, of laissez-passer documents rather than ‘real’ passports, of travel permits, and so on. Dealing with various time-space processes that weave disparity, disconnection, fragmentation, and un-synchronization – determined by another state – into the fabric of life is an experience shared by all Palestinians. Our job as scholars is to recognize that and to simultaneously understand how the dialectics of space-time are also (re) defined by Palestinians.

To go back to airports with a more complicated lens: new theories on airports suggest that they are not simply sedentary places, but spaces with specific interactions and expressions themselves41 Airports “are a new kind of space that provides portals to the realms of both place and placelessness’42 thus can be viewed as constituting simultaneously places and non-places. Checkpoints are the same: both specific spaces and non-places; deeply unique and anthropological, but also non-descript no-(wo)man’s-lands. They are spaces of mobility and immobility, of dispersal and gathering. They fragment and centralize, serving as gateways and barriers. They mute Palestinians and stultify national unity; and as economic, social and transportation hubs they are part of Palestinian struggle against this silencing. In reshaping these spaces and being active subjects within them – even within limitations and under constant surveillance – Palestinians have turned the Israeli-created landscape of checkpoints into a battlefield where everyday life continues to exist, albeit redefined by the occupation, and where, sometimes, subversive and direct resistance confront military power and state control. The praxis that has resulted from Palestinian renegotiation of checkpoints has internalized within it the contradictions of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, of the uneven relationship between the two ‘states’ and the dialectics of occupation and resistance. On the one hand checkpoints have contributed to the detriment and demise of the Palestinian economy as a whole, by preventing, or at best limiting, the flow of people, labor, goods and trade. On the other hand, checkpoints have provided new spaces for Palestinian commerce to flourish in the creation of small and marginal ‘checkpoint economies.’ In the ever-unfolding dialectic of checkpoints, the contradictions continue: the IDF builds them, Palestinians transform them into social and economic centers; the IDF erects a terminal and forces the merchants and taxi drivers away in an on-going attempt to literally ‘concretize’ bureaucratic aspects and control and separation; Palestinians devise other means of transforming them into unique spaces – even the ever changing graffiti around Qalandia can be interpreted as a process of making it ‘unique.’As a result, not only are checkpoints continually re-negotiated, but also function as contradictory spaces: borders and territories, gateways and barriers, corridors and outlets, spaces of gathering and dispersal, of mobility and immobility. As a point which centralizes and fragments, Qalandia is akin to a ‘non-place;’ but as a site of commerce and meeting, complete with its own routines and sets of behaviors – that have almost nothing to do with the IDF – it is also a lived, social space. Checkpoints have a simultaneous, although ever-shifting, specificity and ‘generic-ness,’ as such, they challenge neat dichotomies.

Conclusion: Palestinian Icons

Checkpoints are part of the larger practice of physically and symbolically altering the Palestinian (and Israeli) landscape and people’s experiences thereof. They are part of Israeli strategies of separation, seclusion, fragmentation and control; part of the voyeuristic, panoptic production of Israeli presence in Palestinian spaces. As sites of contest over borders, of control over land, and of surveillance over people, they have come to embody the imbalance of power between Palestinians and Israel; one of the (growing) mechanisms of Israeli colonialism used to isolate, atomize and humiliate Palestinians. In their physical manifestation and expansion, checkpoints are often built on top of what were once Palestinian homes and lands. They prevent Palestinians from traveling from one place to another, and interfere with and alter everyday routines. They serve to confine, control and mute a population already imprisoned into shrinking ‘Bantustans.’As such, checkpoints symbolize much of the main features of Palestinian existence – inside the Territories and across the Diaspora. They force Palestinians to jut, literally, against the loss of control over their own land, over their own movement and time, over their flows of bodies, goods and capital. They are spaces where Palestinian ‘official identity’ and mobility are controlled and determined by Israeli policies, operating as contemporary legacies of the Nakba (the events of 1948 that Palestinians label a ‘catastrophe’) and Israeli occupation.

As lived spaces, checkpoints are also microcosms of Palestinian society, not merely reflections of an uneven relationship. They have been earmarked, challenged and restructured with new functions and new forms. In their obviously contradictory function, they are symbolic of existential issues at the heart of Palestinian experience. In the words of Said, Palestinians’ “truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another. We are migrants and perhaps hybrids in, but not of, any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move.” 43

When the Qalandia checkpoint first emerged, many Palestinians – whether with or without permits – circumvented it by walking through the stone quarry on its eastern side. When the IDF put up a barbed wire fence or made sweeps through the quarry to gather those passing through (and lined them up for hours on end, like misbehaving school children for everyone to see), taxi drivers devised the ‘Tora Bora’ route: driving circuitously around the hills to get to the other side. As one cab driver said to me while the wall was still being built, “when you come back in two years and they would have finished the wall, I’m sure we would have thought of a way to deal with it.” Israeli mechanisms of control, surveillance, fragmentation and erasure will likely remain and fortify in the foreseeable future, but it is also clear that Palestinians will continue to traverse whatever may be erected in front of them, and continue to (cross-)navigate the new landscape.

Given their ubiquity, their increasing centrality in Palestinian social and economic life, their symbolic significance, and their manifestations of Israeli power over Palestinian time-space, checkpoints ought to be adopted as the new Palestinian icon. For the better part of contemporary history, Palestinians have had to linger in nondescript places, neither here nor there, in spaces of exile, refugee camps and current Bantustan-like conditions in the Territories. Palestinians live in a world where nothing is fixed; where spaces constantly move and multiply; where borders and territories are furtive; where a continued sense of temporariness (and its partner, arbitrariness) is meant to displace and disorganize; where the bureaucratic stultifies and paralyzes; where identity, belonging, nationalism, resistance, and freedom are put into question. This has been constant in Palestinian life since 1948.

Helga Tawil-Souri is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. New York University. Helga often considers supplementing her academic career with running an all women’s taxi service at Qalandia.


1 Awwad 2008, 59.

2 Said 1985, 20.

3 Said 1995; Segal and Weizman 2003; Graham 2003; Franke, 2003; Hammami, 2004; Misselwitz & Rieniets 2006; Weizman 2007.

4 Said 1985: 19-20.

5 Hass 2002: 18, original emphasis.

6 Levy 2005.

7 Eldar 2005.

8 Kotef and Amir 2007, 1982.

9 Machsom Watch, 2004, 8.

10 ibid, 8.

11 Machsomwatch and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, 2004: 5.

12 Hanafi 2009.

13 On apartheid see Davis 1989; Farsakh 2003; Peteet 2009.

14 Bowman 2004; Usher 2005; Misselwitz & Rieniets 2006.

15 Franke 2003; Misselwitz & Rieniets 2006

16 Hass 2002.

17 Abu-Zahra 2008; Tawil-Souri, 2010.

18 Khamaisi 1995.

19 c.f. Hannam et al. 2006; Cresswell 2006; Bergmann & Sager 2008; Hammami 2010.

20 Massey 1994.

21 See Hammami 2004, Tawil-Souri 2009 for ethnographic details of such economic activity.

22 Gottdiener 2001.

23 Cresswell 2006, 220.

24 Lyon 2003, 14.

25 Braidotti 1994, 18

26 Kellerman 2008, 162.

27 Augé 2000, 103.

28 Gottdiener 2001, 10.

29 Khalidi 1997, 1-2.

30 Agamben 1995.

31 Agamben 2005.

32 Weizman 2007.

33 Said 1985, 26.

34 Said 1985, 30.

35 Tomlinson 1999.

36 Malkki 1992; Appadurai 1996.

37 Hannam et al. 2006, 1. 

38 Harker 2009, 16.

39 Cresswell 2006, 2-4.

40 See Harker 2009 on the West Bank; Said 1985, 1995; and Khalidi 1997 more generally.

41 Gottdiener 2001; Cresswell 2006.

42 Gottdiener 2001, 61.

43 Said 1985, 164.



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