Saturday, December 1, 2012

Checkpoint Guide: Getting in and out of Ramallah

Ramallah possibly breaks a record for being the hardest accessible seat of government city in the world. Not true, I guess Thimphu, the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan might be even harder to access.

Below you find an overview of the points where the Palestinian road network meets the Israeli road network around Ramallah. Each of these points have their own particularities, which are rarely documented, so my motivation for this blog post is to make this mess easier for newcomers in Ramallah. This post is divided in two sections, one relevant for those who use public transportation, and the other one if you go by car.

But first, let's get an overview of where the Palestinian road network meets the Israeli road network. To avoid confusion: None of these points are actually located in Israel. But they link the road network of Ramallah with the road network of Jerusalem and the road network designed for Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Those settler roads connect the urban islands under Palestinian administration together, and connect with Israel through hassle-free settler-checkpoints.

As a resident of Ramallah, it is not a comforting thought that Israel could at any moment close down these 10 points, and cut Ramallah off from the rest of the world.


(click map to enlarge)


1: Qalandia checkpoint: The main crossing towards Jerusalem. Tight controls, often traffic, Friday afternoons often clashes with stone throwing and tear gas. 
2: Jaba junction: An alternative to Qalandia leading through Hizme checkpoint into Jerusalem
3: DCO /Bet El checkpoint: Only for authorized persons, avoids Qalandia traffic on the way to Jerusalem
4: Ein Yabroud onramp onto Route 60 near Ofra settlement. For most northbound traffic e.g. Nablus.
5: Atara checkpoint, leading to Rawabi or other northbound destinations
6: Road from Deir Ibzi to Route 463. Best option for Westbound travel (e.g. Tel Aviv)
7: Exit only from Route 443 coming from Modiin, to go through Beitunia to Ramallah
8: Checkpoint for diplomat cars or Palestinian cars only. Quick way from Beitunia towards Tel Aviv.
9: Beitunia commercial crossing: For trucks only.
10: El Jeb checkpoint: For diplomatic cars only.


Public Transportation

Most Palestinian towns can easily be reached from Ramallah with the yellow minibuses ("servees"), however it gets tricky when your starting point and destination is not on the same side of the wall.

From Jerusalem, Damascus Gate/near Jerusalem Hotel, bus line 18 leads to central Ramallah through Qalandia checkpoint (1). This bus goes frequently until 8pm, and if you are lucky you find a bus as late as 10pm. Most buses go all the way through from Jerusalem to Ramallah bus station, without stopping at the checkpoint. Some buses will end at the checkpoint, and you will have to take a servees for a few shekel to central Ramallah. On the way back, when you come from Ramallah going to Jerusalem, you will need to get off the bus at the checkpoint, and walk through a cage with passport and baggage control. The queue tends to be messy and the procedure unpleasant, especially if you carry baggage.
Bring enough time, as the entire commute can easily take 2-3 hours -- if you are lucky it is just 45 minutes.

Especially if the line of pedestrians is long, and if you travel with baggage, you might want to consider a not-so-official alternative. On the large parking area on the Ramallah side of Qalandia checkpoint, you will find white mini buses with yellow number plates that take you through Jaba junction and Hizme checkpoint to Damascus Gate, Jerusalem for 10 shekel. This way you can avoid the Qalandia procedure.

If you feel venturesome enough, and are not overly worried about political correctness, you may want to try to take buses by Egged company designed for Israeli settlers. Egged has a schedule on their website. To Jerusalem, you will need someone to drop you on Road 60 at Ofra settlement (point 4 on the map). Many servees buses with destination Nablus or Taybeh could do the job for a few shekels, and you'd have to walk the remaining meters to Ofra bus station. Alternatively, a friend who is authorized to drive through DCO checkpoint could drop you at Bet El bus station.
When venturing westbound (e.g. Modiin, Tel Aviv, Airport), you will need to start with a servees aimed towards Ras Karkar. As the servees goes down the steep road from Deir Ibzi, and goes onto settler road 463 (point 6 on the map) you get off, and walk a few hundred meters to the right to the settler bus station near Dolev.
The advantage of these bus lines designed for settlers is that you will usually not go through the hassle of passport control and baggage check when exiting the Westbank into Israel. 


Going by Car

A short intro in case you are not familiar... Palestinian cars (green plate) can not exit the West Bank. Israeli cars (yellow plate) can drive on both sides of the wall (however some of them are not insured for accidents inside West Bank towns). Diplomat cars (white plates) give you the greatest mobility, as they can go anywhere including special checkpoints (8 and 10 in the map).

You will find not a single navigation system or software that can guide you between Ramallah and other places. Still, a navigation system or an app on your smartphone can be helpful as it shows you a map and shows you where you are. For your smartphone I recommend Waze, Google Maps, or Open GPS Tracker which can use the detailed maps of openstreetmaps.org. As soon as you are on the Israeli road system, including settler roads, navigation software can guide you reliably.

To Jerusalem

Qalandia checkpoint is the shortest connection by distance -- however I would recommend it only between midnight and 4am. Avoid after Friday afternoon prayer -- there are regular clashes with stone throwing, tires burning, and teargas or rubber bullets in the air.
If you ever come close to teargas, act quickly and set your air blower to circulation:

Generally you may want to keep your doors locked around Qalandia checkpoint as the kids from the refugee camp sometimes open doors in an attempt to sell their merchandise.

From Jerusalem into Ramallah through Qalandia is usually less of an issue, because there are no checks. Traffic is smooth usually between 9am and 1pm and after 9pm.

You will want to avoid Qalandia checkpoint from Ramallah to Jerusalem if you carry Palestinians with West Bank ID in your car -- because they need to get off the car and go through the pedestrian check, which sometimes can be extremely crowded and cause unpredictable delays.

With them, you better proceed via Jaba Junction to Hizme checkpoint. That route passes by besides Qalandia checkpoint, where it is affected by the heavy traffic especially during peak hours around 8am and 4pm.

In peak hours, Al Jeb checkpoint (point 10 on map) is best, but only for diplomats, second best is DCO checkpoint (point 3 on map), but that is only for authorized people (working for international organizations or Palestinian VIPs). Without VIP status, you can still reach Jerusalem most quickly through Ein Yabroud, via Route 60 that you enter next to Ofra settlement. That takes 45 minutes including a 15km detour, but in peak hours still faster than the traffic mess of Qalandia. See route below.

(click map to enlarge)


To North (Nablus, Jenin)

The same route as depicted above is best to reach northern destinations along Route 60 such as Nablus and Jenin.


To West (Tel Aviv, Jaffa)

Drive from Ramallah towards Beitunia until you hit the big roundabout with the fruits and water fountain, from which you take the first exit. Continue that road for a while through three Palestinian villages. Last village is called Deir Ibzi. You will see a gas station on your right, drive past some olive trees and a mosque on your left, shortly after, you see a car dealer on your left. Take the next turn right (roadsign towards Ras Karkar), which leads a steep road winding down the hill. At the bottom you reach settler road number 463. Turn left and follow signs towards Tel Aviv. 

(click map to enlarge)

On the way back from the West to Ramallah, you can save 10 minutes with an alternative route through Bet Ghur Al Tahta. Warning: It seems this route is recently closed most of the time (as of May 2014). So for the time being, the safe option is above route past Modiin Ilit/Talmon/Ein Arik. If you still want to try (some are lucky), you will have to stay on route 443 coming from Modiin towards Jerusalem, and approximately 5 minutes after Modiin, you take a small exit labeled as "last exit to Ramallah", after the highway makes a right bend. This will get you very quickly into Beitunia. 


(click map to enlarge)


Sometimes they close the exit from 443 in the late night hours, but in those cases don't worry you can stay on the highway, exit towards Atarot industrial zone, and pass through Qalandia checkpoint, which is no hassle in late night.


Checkpoint policies

(as of November 2013)

Currently, none of the checkpoints check cars going out of Israel into the West Bank. Only occasionally cars are stopped late night at Qalandia and you will be checked whether your ID has an Israel permit that includes night hours. Open your iPhone app Waze if you want to be warned from such checks.

From West Bank into Israel, the following checkpoint policies are currently enforced:
  • Qalandia checkpoint stops every car, checks for IDs and trunk content. West Bank ID holders have to get off the car and walk through the pedestrian gate. International passport holders are checked for their visa vouchers, and often asked for whom they work. Passports might be registered in the system, so the border authorities will know about your stay in a Palestinian town, and might give you a hard time upon your next immigration at the airport. So if you are one of those many NGO workers that depend on Israeli tourist visa (the State of Palestine cannot issue any visa), you probably want to avoid Qalandia checkpoint.
  • Hizme checkpoint is used mostly by settlers, and therefore, if you look Jewish enough, you will typically not be stopped. Having non-veiled female company further reduces the chance of being stopped. A Jewish Israeli radio station and a smile on your face further helps. Some go as far as to hang a car air freshener in the shape of an Israel flag into their front window, or to wear Jewish headgear in order to pass the checkpoint without hassle. In any case you should be able to speak some "checkpoint-Hebrew" (shalom, manesh ma, kol bseder, yom tov, in that order).
  • Hashmonaim or Nilin checkpoint used to have a similar policy as Hizme, but got more strict recently. Most cars are stopped and asked for IDs. If you are not fluent in Hebrew, and lack a Jewish name on your ID, your car will be searched and you will be interrogated. Your passport might be scanned for the immigration database. But the whole procedure is a matter of 5 minutes, as there is usually no traffic. There is an alternative westbound checkpoint near the village of Rantees, on road 465, which leads directly to the airport.
  • Rantees checkpoint (road 465) stops most cars for a visual glimpse, and some "shalom, maneshma" conversation, but typically waves you through without further inspection, unless you raise suspicion of being not Jewish.

Hints for Israeli Citizen visiting Ramallah

By Israeli law, Israeli citizen are prohibited to visit A-Areas of the West Bank, i.e. Palestinian towns. Exceptions only upon special permit, or for military staff. Palestinians with Israeli Passport are usually tolerated though. But for Jewish Israelis, who go to Ramallah to visit friends or to participate in human rights or political activities, it is a bit more tricky.

Getting into Ramallah is no problem. When getting out, to avoid confrontation with Israeli law enforcement, you have make sure to get out of Ramallah into a C-Area unnoticed, and from there you can easily go through a checkpoint into Israel as if you were a settler.

Points 2,4 and 6 in the map above are the easiest transitions from A-Area into C-Area, and are usually checkpoint-free, although number 2 occasionally hosts a temporary checkpoint.

But even if you get stopped in number 2, or even if you decide to go through Qalandia (1), you are on the right side of the law. You just need to explain to the soldiers that you have legally visited Al Ram or Kufr Aqab for shopping or car repair -- these areas are part of C-Area and/or Jerusalem, so you didn't break any law as long as you didn't enter the actual city of Ramallah from there. Still it is not advisable to get into contact with the Israeli authorities, because it might get you into interrogation or future surveillance, given the suspicion you raise by visiting Arab areas as an Israeli Jew.

In case of dual citizenship, your US passport will help only as long as you have used it upon immigration, and accordingly have a valid blue visa coupon. They will ask about your visa especially at Qalandia checkpoint.


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