Logjam at Border Traps Palestinians
Under the hot sun, the wait to enter Israeli-occupied territories stretches on
ALLENBY BRIDGE, JORDAN/OCCUPIED WEST BANK
IBRAHIM ALI will remember his summer vacation this year, but only with anger and resentment.
A Palestinian engineer working in Abu Dhabi, Mr. Ali had hoped to spend his three-week vacation with his family at home in the Gaza Strip. Instead, he has spent 10 days milling about with thousands of fellow Palestinians at the Jordanian border, waiting for his turn to cross the Allenby Bridge into the occupied territories.
Behind him, seeking what little shade there is from the scorching sun, families crowd onto mats laid on the dusty ground, brushing away flies as they sit where they have slept night after night, waiting to cross the bridge.
As many as 50,000 Palestinians are currently stuck in Jordan, according to the Jordanian authorities, because Israel is unable - many would-be vacationers say unwilling - to process the flood of Palestinians wanting to visit their homes this summer.
Those applying this week for a bridge pass have been told by the Jordanian authorities they will not be able to cross until Oct. 20, so Ali and others stand little chance of getting home this year. But he still waits, he says, "to show people how much we suffer, so that maybe someone will help us."
On the Israeli side of the rattling iron bridge that spans the narrow Jordan River, officials say they are swamped by travelers, many of them Palestinians working in the Gulf countries returning for the first time since the Gulf war, and that nothing more can be done to speed their passage. Security limits processing
"We have our limitations and restrictions," says Maj. Elise Shazar, spokeswoman for the Israeli Civil Administration in the occupied territories. "There is no way we can process more than the 3,500 people a day we are handling now" because of security reasons, she adds.
The commander of the Jordanian bridge terminal, police Lt. Col. Abdelsalaam al-Jaafi, says there is nothing he can do either, beyond trying to alleviate the overcrowded and insanitary conditions in the open-air compound where travelers fight for a place on one of the shuttle buses to the bridge.
Those conditions, he admits, are "very very miserable. It's very hot, the children cannot take it, we don't have enough water for everyone, and every day I send people to hospital."
The system has broken down this year because of the unusually large number of Palestinians wanting to visit their homes, officials on both sides agree.
Last year, when a wave of anti-Palestinian feeling swept the Persian Gulf in the wake of the war, many Palestinians working there decided against going on vacation, for fear they would not be allowed to return to their jobs.
In June of last year, for example, 19,889 people crossed from Jordan into the occupied territories, according to Jordanian figures. This June, 36,400 made the journey. The July figures rose from 25,942 in 1991 to 55,575 this year.
The problem has been compounded by the Israeli closure last December of the Adam Bridge further north, on the grounds that its facilities were too run down.
Major Shazar insists that the Israeli authorities are processing more travelers this summer on the Allenby Bridge than they did last year at both bridges, and that they have increased their intake as the pressure has grown. Meetings halfway
Israeli and Jordanian officials, at informal meetings in the middle of the planking and iron-girder bridge, agreed in June that 1,750 travelers would cross each day, Shazar says. That number has since risen to 3,500.
But not all of those always cross, according to Colonel Jaafi. On Sunday morning, for example, the Israelis informed him that due to a staff shortage they could take only 2,000 people that day, he says.
"This kind of short notice does not allow us to plan," he complains.
The Israelis say their limitations are technical, and that for security reasons they cannot extend the bridge opening hours beyond dusk. But many on the Jordanian side see a political motive behind the human logjam.
"I think they do this to make the people turn back," says one senior Jordanian official. "The effect is a transfer" of Palestinians from their homes in the occupied territories.
Many thousands of Palestinians have indeed given up trying to get home this summer, but many others cannot afford to, since they must return to the occupied territories every three years to renew their residency papers. Without the documents they have no right to return.
When they do finally make it to the Israeli side, they are subjected to minute searches. In a vast hangar, dozens of Israeli soldiers wearing plastic gloves pick through every item of clothing and other luggage, piece by piece, while travelers pad around barefoot waiting for their shoes to be X-rayed. Strip searches and confiscations
Some of them are also strip-searched, and anything that cannot be taken apart, such as a tube of toothpaste, is confiscated, according to Shazar.
Palestinians undergoing these procedures describe them as demeaning. "I feel humiliated," said Maalek Abdulhadi, as she and her two children waited to be searched on Sunday. "I feel it is not fair. I am a human being, and I am not treated like one. I don't come home so often because the process is so humiliating."
Nonetheless, she was among the lucky ones who had at least managed to cross the bridge at all. Raeed Mohammed, still broiling in the sun on the Jordanian side, the days of his vacation from his job in the Gulf rolling by as his family waited for him in Gaza, did not know what to do.
"I am caught between two pressures," he said, "work and family. Either I wait so that I can go to see my wife, or I go back to Abu Dhabi, so that I don't lose my job."