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Qalandia: The Potential to Transform Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance

[Demonstration in support of the Palestinian UN bid, Qalandia checkpoint. Image from Activestills.] [Demonstration in support of the Palestinian UN bid, Qalandia checkpoint. Image from Activestills.]

In the past year or so, the infamous Qalandia checkpoint located on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah—indeed, separating ‘Jerusalem’ from ‘Ramallah’—has become a focal point of protest. I believe this has tremendous transformative potential to create the critical mass of nonviolent resistance necessary to end Israel’s occupation.  In the event of a truly mass protest movement in Israel/Palestine—the kind we have seen in Tunisia, Syria and Egypt—Palestinians will need their own version of Tahrir Square, and Qalandia has that potential.     

But before explaining why Qalandia is so critical, let us back up a bit and recount a few of the major Qalandia protests of the past year. The largest protest, organized by the 15 March Youth Movement, took place on Nakba Day last May 2011. Over one thousand protestors marched, one hundred of whom were injured. This included twenty individuals forced into a Ramallah hospital for treatment, including one minor who was shot in the face with a rubber coated bullet.  

About one month later a much smaller march from Qalandia to Jerusalem was organized. This one again met with a heavy-handed response by the Israeli army. As one protestor recalled shortly after the protest had gotten underway, “Popping sounds filled the air: sound bombs, rubber bullets, and tear gas started flying. Occupation forces were shooting, already, and people were running.” When Palestinians sought full membership in the United Nations last September 2011, hundreds of Palestinians descended upon Qalandia yet again, many of them members of Palestine 194, the diplomatic campaign led by the Palestine National Authority for this purpose.  

In the past few weeks Qalandia has become a renewed site of clashes, some of them fatal.  Last month, a twenty-five-year-old Palestinian, Tala'th Ramaya, died from Israeli gunshot wounds during a riot near Qalandia. And just this past week, in honor of International Women’s Day, some two hundred women gathered at Qalandia in solidarity with Hana Shalabi, who has been engaged in an open hunger strike while in administrative detention for at least twenty-five days. In this video, a nonviolent woman calling for an end to the occupation is met with violence as she is slammed to the ground by an Israeli army water cannon.

So, what is so special about the Qalandia checkpoint?  First, it is gaining momentum as an important site for current resistance, as we have discussed above. Thus far, however, protests have been disconnected from one other—Qalandia serving as an almost incidental location rather than the object of protest itself. What is needed, I believe, is a sustained, weekly demonstration at Qalandia: one that counts in its ranks the full gamut of nonviolent Palestinian resistance tactics against Israeli policies of violence and control. 

Second, Qalandia has a unique geographically central location. It lies at the center of the massive urban landscape of North Jerusalem, which is easily accessible to Palestinians from ‘East Jerusalem’, as well as Ramallah, al-Bira, and al-Ram. Also a bit further away, although not prohibitively, are two major Palestinian urban centers in the West Bank: Bethlehem and Nablus. Many other locales that have become sites of mass protest offer less geo-significance. Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, for instance, is totally inaccessible to West Bank Palestinians. Additionally, places like Bil’in, Nil’in, and Nabi Saleh among others in the West Bank are further remote and harder for Palestinians and Israelis inside Israel to access. Just imagine, for instance, activists descending on Qalandia from all corners of Palestine to protest an end to the occupation.     

Indeed, the fact that hundreds of merchants and taxi drivers base themselves at the Qalandia checkpoint has already created some of the features that would prove necessary for it to become the “Palestinian Tahrir Square”, including the ability to support the sustained presence of tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. 

Third, and perhaps most important, the Qalandia checkpoint has major symbolic importance as it represents many of the Israeli occupation’s harshest realities: the arbitrary division of Palestinian communities, the prohibition of Palestinian movement, the separation barrier and part of the “ voyeuristic, panoptic production of Israeli presence in Palestinian spaces” as Helga Tawli Souri argues.  Indeed, the checkpoint lies at the center of a massive, concrete wall (ostensibly meant to divide Jews from Palestinians)—which, instead, divides Palestinians from Palestinians in all imaginable directions. 

Qalandia also represents Israel’s attempt to create facts on ground—that is, its attempt to create the “border” that is putatively meant to be the outcome of a “negotiated” settlement. Qalandia reinforces the transience of the Palestinian experience. “I saw in it,” Souri writes, “the universal predicament of Palestine and Palestinians: a microcosm of the conflict, a peculiar place of tension over spatiality and mobility.”    

Qalandia creates the kind of suppressed hatred and anxiety that has further become quintessential to the Palestinian experience.  As one woman explains to Souri, “It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been through here [Qalandia], 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.”

For all of these reasons then, Qalandia is the scariest site for an Israel bent on policies of divide, conquer, and separation. To target this innermost vertebra of the separation policy at Qalandia is to target the occupation at its weakest, and therefore, its most vulnerable link.

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