Despite its central place on any map of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Qalandiya crossing doesn't look like much.
Set on a dusty plateau on the main road between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the West Bank's busiest checkpoint is a makeshift collection of low cement barriers, creaky turnstiles and a corrugated-metal shed patched with scraps of plastic tarp. On a recent afternoon, the flow through Qalandiya was light. Far fewer Palestinians are permitted into Israel since the uprising began nearly five years ago.
But on an adjacent patch of land, backhoes kicked up clouds of chalky dust. Work crews poured cement foundations near rows of covered waiting halls, bathrooms, air-conditioned offices and bulletproof guard booths. A modern terminal will soon replace the old Qalandiya checkpoint, one of 20 multimillion-dollar crossings planned along the route of a barrier designed to separate Israel from the Palestinian population of the West Bank.
"This is a revolution in this area," said Lt. Col. Shaul Peretz, the Israeli officer in charge of civilian affairs in the East Jerusalem region.
Trudging toward the crossing, Fayez Khatib, a Palestinian villager, had a different interpretation. "All of the land you see here is our land," said Khatib, 62. "And all of this development is in their interest, not ours."
While much of Israel focuses on the imminent withdrawal from Jewish settlements in Gaza, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is moving swiftly to fortify the separation barrier. The new terminals are a next step in Israel's gradual disengagement from the Palestinians, a population seen by many Israelis as a threat to Israel's security and to the viability of its Jewish majority. Palestinians said the new terminals provide further evidence that Israel intends the separation barrier to mark its eastern border, along a route that is not being negotiated with them.
Earlier this month, the cabinet voted to accelerate construction of the barrier's Jerusalem section, now scheduled to be complete Sept. 1. There are 250,000 Palestinians who hold Israeli residency documents in the East Jerusalem area. The barrier's route will leave 140,000 of them on the West Bank side of the wall, including 55,000 Palestinians who live in neighborhoods that Israel annexed following the 1967 war, according to Israeli military officials.
Many of those destined to be on the West Bank side of the barrier will need to pass through the new terminals, for work and family visits, among other things. Israeli officials said the terminals, along with the barrier itself, could still be dismantled if a peace agreement is ever reached with the Palestinians.
"We have decided to take the initiative and shape our future positively," Eyval Giladi, Sharon's director of strategic planning, said during a meeting with journalists last month. "We didn't think of a border between two societies. That has totally changed. There is going to be a fence -- we will be on one side, they will be on the other."
Studies by Israel's military have found that some Palestinians wait an average of four hours a day at the crossing points, an often humiliating experience that Israeli officers have said inspires animosity toward the government. Israeli officials said the $333 million project, calling for 14 terminals and six cargo hubs to be built along the 400-mile barrier, will simplify the crossing process. The U.S. Agency for International Development is contributing $50 million to the project.
"Violence creates walls, peace creates bridges," Shimon Peres, the deputy prime minister, said in a recent interview. "The upgrading of these passages is necessary to improve the economic situation on the West Bank, which had been improving in recent months with the reduction of the flames of violence."
Last year, the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that the barrier's route, which cuts deeply into the West Bank, is illegal. Israeli officials said the non-binding decision ignored the sharp reduction in suicide bombings inside Israel that has come with the barrier's construction.
Hana Masharqa, 39, will soon be separated from her city by the barrier that in her East Jerusalem neighborhood will be a 24-foot-high wall. Each day she travels to work from her home in Kafr Aqab, where she lives with her husband and four children, to her job as a pharmacist in the neighborhood of Dahiyat el-Salam. She said the trip takes about an hour each way.
At Qalandiya, Masharqa leaves her bus and walks more than a mile to another bus waiting on the southern side of the checkpoint. The new terminal will include a bypass road to allow traffic within the West Bank to avoid the checkpoint, a step Masharqa said will simplify her commute. But she worries that the wall and the new terminal are only steps toward shutting her out of the city altogether.
"I will lose all my rights," said Masharqa, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf. "In the future, we think they expect us to be part of the West Bank."
Behind thick glass windows, rows of Palestinians waited in folding chairs one recent evening at the Israeli civil administration offices for the northern West Bank in the town of Salem. Israeli soldiers typed personal and permit information into computers, data that will be contained on magnetic swipe cards.
Those issued the cards will receive eye scans to protect against fraud. Once the card is swiped and retinas checked, soldiers manning computer terminals in bulletproof booths will give the holder a red or green light. Bags will be scanned by machines.
"Everything is planned so that there won't be any physical contact between the soldiers and the Palestinians," said Lt. Col. Fuad Halhal, the Israeli civil affairs liaison in Salem.
A terminal east of Salem, at Jalame, which will also handle cargo, poses little concern to human rights groups opposed to the barrier's route. It lies on the 1949 armistice line that marked Israel's boundary with the West Bank until the 1967 war. The Palestine Liberation Organization said the boundary, known as the Green Line, should serve as the border for a future Palestinian state.
But the terminal at Qalandiya lies four miles inside territory occupied by Israel nearly four decades ago. Israeli officials say a major checkpoint now inside Jerusalem will disappear once the wall, now approaching Qalandiya from two sides, is complete and the terminal opens.
"This will be the entrance to Israel," said Lt. Adam Avidan, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces district coordination office responsible for civil affairs in the occupied territories.
As a traveling pharmaceutical salesman, Mouhanad Abu Assab, 30, drives the West Bank roads and navigates Qalandiya and other checkpoints nearly everyday. His own home in Beit Hanina will remain inside the barrier.
Soon he will probably be using the Qalandiya terminal every day, along with an estimated 70,000 other Palestinians, as a number of smaller alternative crossings are closed.
"The whole idea behind this is to separate Jerusalem from its Arab population," Abu Assab said. "In a few years, they will close the gate to everyone. That's the next step."