SCI-Arc graduate Harris Silver has shared his experience passing through the Kalandia Checkpoint during his quest for “an uncanny truth” that would lead him to develop an architecture project in the city of Jerusalem. The Kalandia Checkpoint is an opening in what Israel calls “The Security Fence” and what Palestinians call “The Apartheid Wall”. Regardless of what you call the separation infrastructure, the checkpoint acts a modern gate to the city of Jerusalem. After experiencing Kalendia first hand, I came away realizing that until I personally walked through the checkpoint, I was ignorant of the mechanism and tactics employed to humiliate and dehumanize everyone who passes through it. Which means I was not fully capable of participating in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse. Continue reading for the full Op-Ed.
I travelled to Israel in June 2010 with 11 classmates as part of my graduate studies in architecture at SCI-Arc. Our architecture studio was set up like a thesis, we were asked by our gifted teacher Eric Kahn to develop our own projects and he encouraged us to find one with “an uncanny truth”. The only requirement was that it be in Jerusalem. Because we were working in an ancient city, on sacred land, entrenched in history and biblical reference, I felt a need to comprehend the city beyond the traditional tools that architects use, and developed my own methodology to understand Jerusalem’s urban condition. I drew what can be described as a Psychological Map; the city as seen through the experience of residents interacting with it. I was interested in what types of transportation residents used to move around the city, where they lived, what they thought about where they lived, their sense of security, the things they liked most and least about their city, what they would say to the mayor if they were to meet with him. Ten in depth interviews were conducted with a range of residents; store owners and clerks, a retired professor, a journalist. From their answers an understanding of the city emerged. Residents who had to deal with checkpoints coming into the city were profoundly more negative and pessimistic than those who didn’t. They were visibly tired and seemed frustrated beyond hope. I became curious about the checkpoints from their responses, and decided to visit so that I could observe what the people I interviewed were talking about. I went to Kalandia checkpoint multiple times to conduct research in this specific urban condition, with the goal of finding an architecture project with “an uncanny truth”. As an American Jew pre-disposed to being sympathetic to Israel, I went to Kalandia with the understanding that the checkpoint was a necessary security apparatus to protect residents of Jerusalem from terrorists attacks. After walking through the Kalandia checkpoint, I came away with a different understanding. The checkpoints can be understood as a circulation machine with the need for security and while the term “checkpoint” is militaristic, their function is similar to an airport or border crossing. Someone needs to evaluate your papers and evaluate you before allowing you to pass or refusing you entry. The way the checkpoint at Kalandia works is something else entirely, something totally foreign. The experience of going through it remains beyond easy description or comprehension.
The physical description is straightforward. There are two basic buildings. The first building functions as a waiting area before you allowed into Israel. The second building is the procession into Israel. The waiting area is approximately 72′ x 48′. There is a roof for shade cover and the walls are open like a cage allowing air to circulate. At the far wall there are two bathrooms. When I was there both were locked with big metal chains going through holes where the door knobs used to be. From the looks of it, it seemed that they had been like that for a while, which is probably why the entire place smelled like urine. Between the two bathrooms there was a small space that was filled with garbage, giving the impression that there was not regular maintenance. Towards the back wall there were 4 benches approximately 10′ long for sitting. Near the bathroom there was one long bench and two smaller ones. Facing the front there were 3 circular water fountains. Two of them were not working. On the other side of the wall there was a big box approximately 12′ wide and 16’ long that has 3 windows facing the waiting area. Between the box and the waiting area there was another layer of metal caging. CCTV cameras and speakers are attached to the outside of the box. The box would randomly yell at people in the waiting area; the volume, unnecessarily, jarringly loud. Waiting is a big part of the experience. The first time I was at the checkpoint, I was with 5 classmates and we were forced to wait approximately 45 minutes before we were allowed back into Israel after an evening in Ramallah. This was late at night and the checkpoint was empty. The only real purpose for the wait seemed to be a small punishment, a way to discourage us from visiting the West Bank, because nothing puts a damper on a nice evening out, like a place that feels like a cage, smells like urine and has a box that yells at you. During the day a similar tactic is used. Wait times are unpredictable, which means it’s impossible to keep to a professional schedule when you also have to negotiate checkpoints to get into Israel. People often spend hours getting to Jerusalem when it should take minutes.
You wait until the box yells that the gates are open then enter one of two metal cage-like chutes that are 18″ wide by 30′ long; this begins the process of getting to Jerusalem. The chutes are half the minimum width required by architectural code for a passageway, making the chutes more like something livestock would be required to walk through to be transferred from point “A” to point “B” than a human. At the end of the chute is a revolving door very much like a NYC subway exit door, except it’s smaller, and more constricting. This revolving door is operated electronically and sometimes it would move smoothly. Other times there would be long pauses, preventing people in the chutes from proceeding. Once you pass through the revolving door you enter you enter a wider space and choose one of three hallways (only 1 was open on all my trips) and have to pass through another electronically controlled revolving door. The same tactic is used here to control the door, however as this one is not a single file line, more aggressive people move through the crowd to the front. This felt like it could be dangerous. Once you are past this you deal with the radiological part of your visit. A comparatively simple walk through a metal detector where you put anything you are carrying with you through a scanner. You then turn and face the wall to your left, the stomach of the monster, turns out to be the first place you see its face. It is the face you might see on a travel brochure to Israel, a young Israeli soldier who received Kalandia duty as part of their mandatory army service. Through a speaker system that was set once again on too-loud, you are asked to show your I.D. by slipping it through a slot underneath the glass barrier. Inside the box, other young army soldiers are operating computers. There were biometric readers that I assume people that move through the checkpoint regularly use. If you are approved for entry to Israel you walk down a long corridor. One can assume that on both sides of you there are people watching you through one way glass. When you get to the end you turn right and walk another 50′ and exit a door into Israel. From there you can get back on a bus, or taxi that will take you to wherever you want to go in Jerusalem.
That was a physical description. This is a description of how the monster behaves. On my last trip through the checkpoint I was with a colleague who has a pacemaker. He is not allowed to walk through medical detectors on doctors orders. We walked to a gate that was labeled “Disabled” and pushed the call button. There was no response. We pushed again. Again no response. I walked to the head of the monster and politely, in almost good enough Hebrew explained the situation. We waited and waited and waited. Finally, we went through, two kids were in the stomach of the monster. One was asleep sprawled over 3 chairs, another wearing a kippah. He pretended not to speak English. I explain the situation in my crappy Hebrew. He tells us to go through. I ask to speak to his supervisor. He picks up the phone, puts it down and says, “He said to go through” I ask, “Are you a doctor?” He says, “No.” I ask, “Is the person you spoke with who said it’s ok to go through a doctor?” He says, “No”. I point to my classmate and say, “His doctor said he can’t pass through metal detectors. It’s a medical issue.” The Army kid with the kippah says, “Take a taxi to another checkpoint.” We head back to the head of the machine. Again we explain the situation. A female voice barks, “Go to gate Z”. We go to the gate. We wait. We push the button. No response. We wait some more. We ﬁnally go through. I explain to a soldier that my classmate has a pacemaker and on doctor’s orders can’t go through a metal detector and asked that he be searched by hand. We are told, “No.” We ask to speak to a supervisor, a captain. “No Captain. No supervisor,” we are told. Not sure what to do, we call the ambulance service. The operator asks where we are. We tell her, “Kalandia checkpoint”. She says “There is nothing I can do. I can’t tell the military do to anything. This is a police matter. I am sorry.” We approach the box again and are told, “Take a taxi to another checkpoint.” This is an answer? After 1.5 hours of trying to talk to someone to have him hand searched we were turned back. There was no medical accommodation for him to pass through the checkpoint. The entrance to the city of Jerusalem was closed to him even though his hotel and his belongings were in Jerusalem, he had an American passport, and unlike Israeli citizens a legal right to be there. An Arab woman approaches us and lets us know that Americans are allowed to ride on the bus through the checkpoint. We exit the humiliation machine and instead of taking a taxi to the next checkpoint, we enter a bus by flashing our American passports. The bus is then boarded by two heavily armed guards. A guy and a girl. The machine works better when humans have to face each other. The interaction is civil. We take the bus back to Jerusalem and I shower to cleanse myself from the experience.
On others trips I observed women with babies, children, school kids, elderly and infirm people passing through, all subject to humiliation. A mother holding an infant is not a terrorist, kids going to school are not terrorists, but the humiliation machine doesn’t discriminate. It enrages all who interact with it; a dumb machine designed to de-spirit humans in the guise of performing border security. If people are going to be let into Jerusalem through a security apparatus, it doesn’t make sense to create an apparatus that is so onerous and upsetting that it leads to less security not more security. I believe the radicalization of stake holders can be read as a signal of larger systemic issues with the checkpoint system that is dangerous to Israeli society. There are some very simple short-term programmatic, functional and behavioral adjustments that can immediately improve conditions for Palestinians and start to make Israel safer as well. There is no security reason not to implement them immediately. All IDF soldiers that work at checkpoints should speak Arabic. The time it takes to pass through the checkpoints should be reduced from hours to minutes. Israel citizens and media should be allowed to visit Kalandia. Israeli ambulances should be able to operate at Kalandia. The pedestrian and automobile conflicts outside of the checkpoints should be removed so that entering the checkpoint on foot is safe. Standardized architectural code should be adhered to. All the signs should be clear and readable in Arabic, Hebrew and English. There should be accommodations and express entry for people with medical issues, elderly, infants and young children. Any space that sees thousands of people every day needs functioning bathrooms and working water fountains. There needs to be daily maintenance to clean floors, remove garbage and maintain bathrooms. These buildings are temporary structures which means they are almost as easy to take down as they are to put up. What this also means is that their temporary nature can be used in an attempt to control memory of place. This is a very dangerous and short sighted policy that the Israeli government is engaging in. Because even though it’s inevitable that this humiliation machine will transform over time, become more humanized and start to function more like a border crossing, the memory of the people who experienced it is not going to go away and that memory will become indexed as a collective memory within the Palestinian culture, which will then be connected to Jewish rule of Jerusalem. No consideration in their operation is given to the understanding of the historical consequences of their operation. Literally the short term view does not have a long term perspective. I had found an “uncanny truth” now I had to go make a project. About the Author: Harris Silver received his Masters in Architecture from SCI-Arc in 2011. Prior to pursuing his architectural training, Harris was the President of Think Tank 3, an award winning branding and advertising agency based in NYC with Fortune 100 and high profile non-profit clients. Always interested in the urban environment, he founded Citystreets an idea-based transportation non-profit that successfully advocated for change in the urban tectonic from cars to people through policy, infrastructure and technology interventions. This interest in urban issues, transportation and how the built environment effects our lives led Harris to pursue his Masters In Architecture at SCI-Arc where he has also participated in the Sci-Fi (SCI-Arc’s Urban Studies Program). While at SCI-Arc his entry in the Urban Infrastructure competition titled A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions for LA/2009 was selected for exhibition as well as publication in a book about the competition published by the SCI-Arc press.