Crisis looms as thousands wait to cross Jordan border

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Only A large metal awning protects them from the scorching heat of the sun. Scores of travelers gather beneath it, their days and nights spent sprawled on the hot earth, waiting for respite. And even as some Palestinians have waited for days to cross into Jordan from the Jericho Rest Area, more travelers arrive.

“For three days me and my three children have been in the rest area. My children are growing impatient and are constantly asking if we will arrive in time for their uncle’s wedding, which is two days from now,” says Um Rami, 42, from Jerusalem.

She and her children have been sleeping at the Jericho crossing, along with hundreds of others. To try to ease the wait, Um Rami has spread a straw mat underneath an awning for Rami, Mohammed, and Omar, all under the age of eight.

It is estimated that thousands of Palestinians flooded Jericho after Jordan announced last week that it was to ease restrictions on Palestinian travelers. But when they arrived, the travelers were met by a new daily quota. While previously, 3,000 people were allowed to cross the Allenby Bridge into Jordan every day, now only several hundred are allowed to pass. The situation has resulted in price gouging of the well-off and a long wait for the less fortunate.

“What is happening to us now is the worse kind of humiliation in the world,” says Um Rami. “Isn’t it enough that we can’t move from Jerusalem to the West Bank without waiting at an Israeli checkpoint every few kilometers? This is just to add to our sufferings – having to wait out here in the open in this weather just to get to Jordan.”

The situation has stirred humanitarian and political concerns. Jordan, already 80 percent Palestinian, has been accused of closing its borders in an attempt to regulate its Palestinian population.

“What is taking place at the Allenby Bridge – the lifeline of Palestinian travel – is something that must be looked into long and hard and dealt with quickly,” writes Daoud Kuttab, journalist and head of the Egyptian Media Center at Al Quds University. In his writing, he describes his own trip to Jordan two weeks ago and recounts a conversation he had with a Jordanian bridge officer.

“I asked the officer about these measures and he told me that the Palestinian president personally requested them from the Jordanian government.” Kuttab writes that when he told the officer of the suffering and delays caused by understaffing on the Jordanian side, he seemed unconcerned. “This is the current situation and these are our orders. We cannot change them,” the officer replied.

Now, however, Jordan is blaming Israel for the problem. One source in the Jordanian interior ministry says that there are no obstacles to open borders on the Jordanian side and that the suffering endured by Palestinians is all the fault of the Israelis.

While previous delays had originated from the Jordanian side, these were ostensibly fixed. On June 30, Jordanian interior minister Qaftan Al Majali dissolved the Jordanian security committee working at the bridge that had been inspecting the papers and records of those entering Jordan. The security measures had created a bottleneck for travelers. At one point, only tens of people were able to cross the border in one day.

Responding to the outcry after the media broadcast photos of elderly and sick Palestinians biding their time in Jericho, Jordanian minister for political affairs Mohammed Udwan said that Jordan has always pursued an open policy at the bridge. He called this a “national strategy” aimed at “supporting the steadfastness of their Palestinian brethren on their national homeland.”

The minister denied that the Jordanian government has limited the number of Palestinians allowed entry into Jordan at 150 to 350 a day, saying that the actual number is much higher and almost equal to the number of those exiting Jordan.

Palestinian Minister for Civil Affairs Jamil Tarifi has met repeatedly with Jordanian officials over the last 10 days in order to find a solution for the border crisis. According to Tarifi, the meetings were positive and resulted in the changing of the Jordanian security committee at Allenby Bridge.

But a few days later, Tarifi says he was surprised to learn that the number of travelers allowed entry into Jordan had been restricted, even after those changes. The Palestinians at the border had dramatically increased with the announcements that travel would no longer be delayed. Their numbers were also high because in recent months, Israeli authorities have often closed the crossing entirely.

The result, Tarifi explains, has been a dire crisis. Over a 1,000 people arrive at the crossing daily, while no more than 500 are able to cross. “Here the real suffering begins,” he says. “These Palestinians cannot even return to their homes in the West Bank because of the deteriorating security situation and the curfew imposed on most West Bank cities.” So they wait in the open air for days for their names to be called. Those with money can pay exorbitant fees for priority slots.

Tarifi is currently in Jordan to find ways of solving this crisis. He says he wants to further illustrate to the Jordanians the suffering that Palestinian citizens are enduring at the Allenby Bridge.

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