King Hussein / Allenby Bridge border crossing
Located just north of the Dead Sea, this is the only border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan. Israeli regulations prevent Palestinians residing in the West Bank from using Ben Gurion airport, Israel’s main hub, therefore requiring them to use this crossing in order to travel from Amman’s Queen Alia airport.
This means that even on relatively quiet days the border is rammed full of West Bank residents in transit to see family, often long emigrated to places such as North America and Europe; or indeed members of the growing Palestinian diaspora themselves who brave the long-winded and chaotic process of crossing the River Jordan to visit home.
This process begins at the Jordanian terminal. Reopened in 1994 shortly after the Wadi Araba peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, the current bridge was constructed with financial aid from Japan.
Travellers are given a small exit slip to fill in which is then stamped, leaving your passport with no evidence of having used the crossing – good news perhaps for those reluctant to bear evidence of a visit to the occupied territories on their travel documents.
In fact this custom, it is said, symbolises Jordan’s belief that the passenger is not leaving the country but is merely entering into its ‘West Bank’ territory (Jordan controlled the West Bank until 1967).
What follows is a 10-minute bus ride across no man’s land and over the bridge whose name changes according to who you are talking to.
The Jordanians call it King Hussein bridge after the third King of Jordan (father of reigning King Abdullah II). Many Palestinians refer to it as the Bridge of Al-Karameh, a Jordanian border-town not far from the crossing which happened to serve as the political and military headquarters of the Fatah movement let by Yasser Arafat. The town was also the site of the Battle of Al-Karameh in March 1968. Within Israel the bridge assumes the name of the British general Edmund Allenby who in 1918, during the British Mandate for Palestine, built the first bridge over the remnants of a much older bridge dating back to the Ottoman occupation.
Just a few years ago, crossing the bridge you would be able to catch a glimpse of the mighty River Jordan out of the window.
Beginning its journey high up in the Golan Heights, it drops quickly to Lake Hula in northern Israel, continuing down into the Sea of Galilee and finally pouring into the Dead Sea, some 422 meters below sea level. Little wonder then that its name is derived from the semitic root ‘ye-re-da’, meaning ‘to descend’.
A far cry from its Biblical heyday, today it is reduced to a mere trickle, barely visible underneath vegetation. Environmentalists blame its three host countries, Syria, Jordan and Israel which have been building dams and diverting water from its tributaries for domestic use since the 1960’s. This naturally causes a massive water shortage in the lower stages of the river, in turn depriving the Dead Sea of its main water source.
Between 1970 and 2006 it is estimated that the level of the Dead Sea dropped some 22 metres, and continues to shrink by 1 metre each year; a phenomenon which some refer to as an ecological disaster.
Continuing along, the bus weaves closer towards the arrival terminal, passing Israeli border guards wearing bullet-proof vests and soldiers laden with heavy machine guns. Israeli flags are visible from a long way off, proudly hoisted above the valley. Seeing them I couldn’t escape the feeling that these flags serve, at least in part, to provoke.
After a short wait we were let off the bus and joined the thronging crowd already waiting to be let through. Looking around, I saw mainly families, each with at least 3 large suitcases precariously balancing on luggage trolleys, doting luggage tags from as far-flung airports as Chicago, New York and Amsterdam.
Here we are at the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, and already at 8.30 am the heat is unbearable. Tempers are on tenterhooks as trolleys are aggressively pushed into the back of other people’s legs. Everyone wishes the queue would move faster. Large industrial fans spraying water over us are probably the only thing preventing full-blown arguments from breaking out (as we had just witnessed between our bus driver and his colleague).
Finally, I put my luggage through for inspection and present myself at the first passport inspection. I am asked all the usual questions, “what is the purpose of your visit?”,“where are you going in Israel?”, “Do you know anyone here?”, then I am allowed to pass.
After joining another long queue divided into ‘Palestinian Authority’, ‘East Jerusalem’ and ‘Foreign Passports’, I am ushered straight to a relatively empty line. In front of me a Palestinian woman and her four teenage children are waiting.
Despite holding Dutch passports they are still subjected to an array of personal questions about where they were born, why and whom they are visiting and the like. They are asked to present proof of a return flight from Amman to Amsterdam, which causes some confusion. At one point the mother responds to a question with the Dutch ‘nee’ (‘no’), which makes the border guard somewhat irate and despite clearly understanding, says in her aggressive and awkward English, “‘Nee’?! What is ‘Nee’? I don’t understand ‘Nee’. That is neither Hebrew, English or Arabic.” The mother retains a calm, solemn and almost proud expression. She is clearly well-versed in the etiquette of these border officials.
Now, my turn. I give the same answers to questions repeated from earlier, except this time I am required to writing down names and numbers of people I know.
As has happened in the previous three times when I’ve crossed into Israel, the Syrian and Lebanese stamps in my passport trigger more questions. I am asked to sit in the waiting area and fill out another A4 sheet detailing my plans and motives for my visit. Then a friendly, smiling woman with freckles and long, ginger hair dressed in civilian clothing comes to ask me more questions.
The same questions are asked again.
I am often puzzled at why they want to know certain things about my life, and actually many things I am unable to give a decent answer to. For instance, this lady wanted to know why my University in the UK sent me to the French Institute and not the American University in Cairo to study Arabic.
The conversation then took on a more friendly tone: she wanted me to tell her about the different dialects in Arabic and whether Egyptian was harder than other dialects. I’d like to believe that her apparent interest in what I was saying wasn’t purely feigned to lull me into a false sense of security.
Then, on my three-month gap-year stint in Syria:
Her: “Did you ever get into any kind of trouble with the Mukhabaraat (secret service)?”
Her: “Did they ever do anything to you, or follow you?”
Me: “No, I don’t know.”
Her: “So you were never taken to a police station there and questioned?”
Her: “Have you ever participated in any demonstrations in Israel or the Middle East?”
Me: “No.” (Does she think I’m stupid?!)
Her: “Have you ever been interrogated in the Middle East?”
Me: “Only here!!”
Judging from the small slither of a smile she gave I think she had a sense of humour. I was told to go and wait in another waiting area where my name would be called out.
As I waited I looked on at the Palestinian mother and her children I was behind earlier. Every time a guard came to call someone they hastily got up from their seats, only to hear someone else’s name called, barely audible, heavily hebraicized. As they sat down again, dejected, I wondered how long they would be kept here in this stuffy hall.
Thinking about the trouble they have to go through, passing through various airports and checkpoints, I began to feel guilty for berating the 1.5 hours it takes me to get to Heathrow. Another 20 or so minutes passed and I was given my passport.
I was stamped and ready to go.