The announcement has been long awaited. The Israeli Airport Authority announced that starting August 4, the King Hussein Bridge (sometimes referred to as Allenby Bridge) will be open daily till midnight on a 60-day experimental basis.
Ever since the outbreak of Al Aqsa Intifada, the Palestinian police that were stationed at the bridge as part of the Oslo Accords, were sent packing to Jericho and bridge hours were reduced to 8:00am till 4:00pm for most passengers, while diplomats were allowed to use the crossing till 8:00pm.
As the only crossing point allowed for the 2.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and their visiting relatives, the bridge has become a focal point of anguish as families with young children and older grandparents have to sweat it out for hours in the hot Jordan Valley sun during daytime hours. The problem is greater during the summer because Palestinians working in the Gulf and other regions come to spend the break with their family and relatives. With the Gazan shore closed off to vacationing Palestinians the bridge is the only route to any summer holiday destination either in Sharm El Sheikh or just a visit to relatives in Jordan and beyond. Add to the normal passenger traffic, the fact that Palestinians from the West Bank and those who are Israeli citizens also make the Umra pilgrimage to Mecca. One day in July over 12,000 passengers made the crossing and had to wait for hours in buses.
Repeated demands to expand the opening hours of the bridge have been made for years with little response. This reporter made such appeals in Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian papers. The hope, of course, was that as part of its obligations in the roadmap the Israeli government would allow the return of the Palestinian police and rescind the truncation of the hours to the pre-October 2000 schedules.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing pressures from the US and the international community regarding the suspension of settlement activities (including natural growth and building in East Jerusalem), made a surprise visit to the bridge on Tuesday to announce the extension of opening hours. The announcement made no reference to the return of the Palestinian police to their regular location inside the bridge terminal as stipulated in the roadmap. The visit and the announcement coincided with a barrage of visits by top US officials including Defence Secretary Robert Gates, peace envoy George Mitchell, National Security Adviser James Jones and White House Adviser Dennis Ross.
Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, who are the two other parties involved in the crossing issue, have repeatedly said that they are in favour of a 24-hour opening of the crossing point to facilitate passenger travel. In fact, Jordanian officials insist that the bridge is open on their side for 24 hours anyway, and therefore the only party who was blocking such travel was the Israeli occupiers.
An occupying power has so many levers of control over the population it occupies. After denying a people certain basic rights for so many years, the attainment of some procedures easing travel seems like a major accomplishment. It is not logical for an occupying power to take away rights and then return some of them at their leisure and expect the world community to congratulate them for such benevolence.
Although long overdue, the extension of bridge hours will no doubt be welcomed by Palestinian travellers who have suffered quietly for years. It will probably not be welcomed by some war-rich individuals and companies who have benefited from the long lines by offering expensive queue-cutting services under the title of "VIP Services".
While passengers will be able to travel faster and with less suffering after August 4, it is clear that we understand that the real solution to the conflict cannot be accomplished by piecemeal decisions but by an end to the occupation, which is the major cause of suffering and violation of Palestinians’ basic rights.