Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Blue and white lights – the colours of the Israeli flag – and half-crescent moon decorations adorned the Qalandia checkpoint near Ramallah last week, in recognition of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Located between the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, the checkpoint is used daily by tens of thousands of permit-holding Palestinians who work in Israel. During Ramadan, Israel issued more travel permits for Palestinians to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, leading to extra foot traffic at the crossing.
For years, workers would routinely spend up to three hours crossing checkpoints including Qalandia across the occupied West Bank, arriving in the pre-dawn hours in order to make it to work on time. The crowded conditions would sometimes lead to people fainting or sustaining injuries.
But in recent months, Israel has renovated Qalandia and Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, creating more lanes and introducing automatic gates in which Palestinians tap biometric entry permits to pass.
Workers and analysts told Al Jazeera that despite the easing of conditions, they believe the new policies are part of an Israeli propaganda campaign aimed at enhancing its own image in the rest of the world and pacifying the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank.
“Before four months, it took more than one or two hours to pass the checkpoint, but now it just takes about 10 minutes,” said Rauf Akram, 55, who works in construction in Israel.
“It’s a new building with new facilities, so it’s more comfortable for people, especially the elderly,” he said, adding that Palestinian workers are able to leave their homes for work later.
Nevertheless, “it’s still all political,” he said. “We are under a military occupation, so all these shows of respect mean nothing.”
‘Welcome to Qalandia’
Both Qalandia and Checkpoint 300 were built more than a decade ago as part of Israel’s separation barrier, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004.
The barrier, which is planned to run to a length of 712km upon completion, consists of electronic and barbed wire fencing, ditches and a 70km-long concrete wall, dividing families, communities, and decimating the West Bank’s economy.
At the walk-in entrance to Qalandia, Palestinian crossers pass through steel turnstiles, one by one, to the sound of music softly flowing from speakers. At times the songs of famous Arabic artists, like the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz, are played.
A large television screen hangs from the wall near the entrance and an on-screen Israeli official directs Palestinians on each step of the journey ahead to Jerusalem.
Ramadan decorations bedeck the walls, while a voice wishes Palestinians a blessed Ramadan over a loudspeaker.
A spokesperson for Coordination of the Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a branch of the Israeli Defence Ministry that implements policies towards civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories, told Al Jazeera that the renovations and technological upgrades are part of a project aimed at easing congestion and were meant to assist the Palestinian economy and enhance Israeli security.
“It helps with the economic situation because the salaries that you get in Israel are much higher than what you get under the Palestinian Authority (PA),” the spokesperson said. “This is also helpful for security.”
Palestinian workers interviewed by Al Jazeera were aware of these policies, with one worker who did not want to be identified saying: “The main interest for Israel is to relieve some of the pressure on Palestinians. They are interested in giving us an easier life solely so that we don’t explode.”
Mushtaq, a 35 year-old who works in construction in Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera that he believes these renovations and policies at the checkpoint are meant to “reflect a nice image to the world.”
“It helps the workers, but it’s clear they [Israel] doesn’t actually care. They just want to show a better image to the world,” he said. “It’s all propaganda.”
When asked about the Ramadan greetings and decorations, Mushtaq became agitated. “Israel is using our religious celebrations for their own political interests,” he said. “Even our religion is not safe from Israeli propaganda.”
Saleh Abd al-Jawad, a professor of history and political science at Birzeit University, told Al Jazeera the new policies reflect Israel’s “carrot and stick” approach to governing Palestinians.
“If you are quiet and submissive then you can have more. And if you resist we will make your life more difficult,” Jawad explained, highlighting Israel’s differing policies in the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, where Israel has enforced harsh, punitive measures on the population.
“In exchange for peace, you [Palestinians] must be quiet and behaved, and then we [Israel] can offer you a better economy,” he added.
‘Capturing the Arab mind’
Jawad suspects the new policies are connected to US President Donald Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century”, the full details of which have not been made public. The long-awaited plan, headed by Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, is expected to include an economic component which would encourage investment from regional powers in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Shir Hever, an independent researcher and journalist told Al Jazeera that “Israeli generals are afraid that the PA may collapse” and are also introducing policies that can further disconnect the experiences of Palestinians in the West Bank from those in Gaza, as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy long practiced by Israel.
These policies, however, are not just targeting Palestinians, but the larger Arab world, Jawad said.
“It’s part of this campaign of capturing the Arab mind. Today Israel is not only looking at Palestinians. The big cake is in the Arab Gulf,” he said, referring to Israeli attempts to establish formal ties with some Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Oman, based on a mutual interest in containing Iranian influence.
Israel’s use of the Arabic language and culture to influence opinions and narratives is not new, according to Jawad. Israel’s Arabic-language propaganda, which has more recently manifested itself on social media, is a continuation of decades of Israeli policies, he said.
A woman, who did not want to give her name, told Al Jazeera on her way through Qalandia that “this is all about Israel forcing itself onto the Arabic world.”
“They [Israel] are working [through the Arabic language and Ramadan greetings] to force their image into the minds of the Arabs.”
“They want us to normalise the idea of Israel,” she said, before quickly passing through a new and polished electronic turnstile.