The ordeal of Palestinians crossing into Jordan
RAMALLAH - Summertime means vacation and travel time for many West Bank Palestinians, when children are on a break from school and families yearn to be with fellow Arabs or with relatives in the West, away from the hardships they face under Israel’s military occupation.
Their only viable link with the outside world is via Jordan through a border post known as Karama (Arabic for “dignity”), a total paradox compared to an arduous journey for Palestinians out of the West Bank.
At Karama, there is a lone span, known as Allenby Bridge, across the Jordan Valley. There, Palestinians are stopped multiple times for stringent checks by Israeli and Jordanian security. They hop-on, hop-off the bus in rides of short distances under scorching heat, when average temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius.
Previously, Palestinians were allowed to drive private cars to Jordan but the procedure was stopped for security reasons. So, what used to be a 2-hour drive from the West Bank town of Jericho to the Jordanian border now takes at least half a day, or longer, depending on Israeli and Jordanian handling of passengers and luggage.
The presence of Palestinian police and immigration officials on Allenby was revoked in 2002 after the outbreak of the second intifada. It was a joint presence with the Israelis that was supposed to lead the Palestinians to take command at the border post after the 1993 Oslo Accords that gave them self-rule.
However, the agreements gave Israel final say when it comes to security arrangements and the decision as to who leaves and enters the Palestinian territories.
Now, Palestinian travellers embark on their journey from a Jericho station, where buses specifically designated for the bridge service leave in small convoys to the Israeli side of the bridge, then on to the Jordanian border.
On the bridge, Palestinians speak of horrible mistreatment, long waits aboard buses with no access to facilities, such as drinking water and restrooms. Often, bus air conditioning is off.
“We want to travel with moderate security checks with the least stops and not undergo that stress and suffering”, said Fatima Abdul Karim, a volunteer with Karama, an international campaign advocating free Palestinian movement.
“There are unjustified security points and they are just tools of humiliation” for Palestinian passengers, Abdul Karim told The Arab Weekly.
She is among activists, legal workers and university professors, among others, who started in 2008 to lobby in the international arena to end Palestinian travails at the bridge, partly by restoring the Palestinian security presence there.
Munir Salameh, head of the presidential committee in charge of the Allenby Bridge, said Palestinian hardships on the bridge will remain as long as Israel is there.
“What we’re doing now is trying to alleviate the suffering,” Salameh said.
“After the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, Israel tightened its grip on the Palestinian-Jordanian border and all the security devices and services there,” Salameh noted. Israel increased restrictions on Palestinian movement after the intifada, or uprising, that began when Israeli politician Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Temple Mount on which the al-Aqsa mosque is built, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews.
The bridge’s operating hours create another stress to travellers, who must cross between 8am and 11pm in the summer and by 10pm in winter. Palestinians in transit through Jordan with onward travel plans must arrive in Jordan a day early, incurring the extra cost of accommodation, to arrive to the airport in time for their flight.
Despite that, most people travel on the weekend when the bridge operates only six hours on Fridays and Saturdays, respectively, the Muslim weekend and Jewish Sabbath.
“This is the only border crossing that has opening and closing times,” Abdul Karim said. “We don’t see an airport closing down unless there’s an emergency. “But in our case, we live in an emergency situation.”
Activists are lobbying for 24/7 bridge working hours. Israeli authorities opened the bridge for 24 hours at one point but shortly thereafter said expenses were too high and limited the operating hours.
The cost of the trip adds more than strain on Palestinians; many of them consider it expensive. Between bus rides and bridge fees, West Bankers pay around 150 Israeli shekels (about $40).
Palestinian police said that 18,722 travellers crossed the bridge leaving the West Bank in the last week of May, whereas 14,674 crossed into the Palestinian territories.
Abdul Karim said people usually complain about the Jordanian part of the bridge.
“The Jordanians levy 10 Jordanian dinars ($14) in fees for each Palestinian, every time a passenger crosses the bridge,” Abdul Karim said. “People also complain that their luggage gets stolen and that services in general could be better.”
After the difficult trip, public transportation on the Jordanian side of the bridge is chaotic and hectic, with no clear schedules, wait times or even sometimes no buses waiting for passengers, who end up sitting on their luggage under a broiling sun.
“It can be organised in a better way. The services should improve to make the journey easier for Palestinians,” said Hanna Burbar, a 53-year-old mother who recently made a trip to Jordan to visit her daughter in Germany.
“The bridge is an exhausting trip.”