The religious men and women patiently clutching their water jugs on July 10, waiting in line at the Israeli border crossing looked like the average Palestinian. They had been to Mecca for Umra, the lesser pilgrimage to the Muslim holy places.
What was different in this group of Palestinians was that they were holding Israeli passports. The individuals, mostly from the Naqab area, looked tired and exhausted. They had arrived the day before at about 9:00pm, but were denied entry by the Israelis.
The bridge, which is officially open till midnight on weekdays, usually accepts buses from the Jordanian side no later than 10:00pm. With the overcrowding because of the summer visitors, the Israelis refused entry to at least 100 Israeli citizens.
Israeli bridge officials confirm they denied entry to Israeli citizens, but put the blame on the Hajj and Umra Association for logistic details.
The group in question was supposed to arrive two days later but when the bridge officials were informed of their early arrival they could not accommodate them and suggested that they sleep in the Madinat Al Hajjaj (pilgrims’ city). This so-called pilgrims’ city is nothing more than a bus parking lot where buses sit for hours, and often nights, waiting for permission to enter.
Salim Salata, director of the coordinating committee confirmed the Israeli claims and put the blame on local organisers who wanted to return a few days earlier and possibly bribed the drivers to bring them back without coordinating with anyone. He said that his is a voluntary organisation that tries to help coordinate between individuals and groupings of Palestinian Muslim citizens of Israel and the Jordanian waqf authorities and the Israeli bridge officials. He said Muslims from the Galilee area should use the northern bridge crossing, but that is a political issue between countries.
For years, Israeli citizens who wished to travel to the Saudi holy places made arrangements with the Jordanian waqf authorities in East Jerusalem; they are permitted through the King Hussein Bridge based on lists approved by both Saudi and Jordanian authorities.
The situation at the King Hussein Bridge is chronic, despite various cosmetic attempts to reduce the long delays and inhuman waiting conditions.
Added to the problems of the Umra pilgrims are the difficulties facing Palestinians and their families wishing to travel in both directions during the summer school holidays.
On January 1, 2011, the Israel Airport Authority took charge of civilian issues at the King Hussein Bridge. While that has slightly improved passport control and communication (the IAA clerks speak English) very little has improved regarding general conditions, especially during the summer months when the number of travellers grows. According to the website of the Israel Airport Authority (iaa.gov.il), more than 1.6 million travellers, mostly Palestinians, crossed the bridge in 2010.
Passengers are ushered in through winding lines which help organise the waiting. But despite the presence of a second, well-equipped terminal, the bridge authorities continue to use one terminal, with security personnel clearly unable to handle the high number of travellers. Working hours were extended last year till 10:00pm (the IAA site says wrongly that the terminal is open till 8:00pm).
In addition to the general problems and delays facing Palestinians, the cost of travel across the bridge is extremely high for East Jerusalem residents. Left in a legal limbo between Jordan, Israel and the PA, East Jerusalemites are only allowed to travel across the bridge by the Jordanians if they use a permit issued by the Israeli ministry of interior. The permit costs 215 shekels a person.
Adding to that a high exit tax (176 shekels, which is supposed to take into consideration the fees to be given to the PA), the total sum for Palestinians from Jerusalem crossing the bridge is 391 shekels ($115).
King Hussein Bridge is the only terminal connecting the West Bank with the outside world. Israel agreed, in the Oslo accords, to allow the PA to be present at the bridge, and for the bridge to be open 24 hours. Jordan has and continues to support keeping the bridge open round-the-clock.
After the 2000 Aqsa Intifada, the Israelis kicked out the Palestinian police and have not allowed their return despite many pleas and public requests as part of the roadmap which called on Israel to allow the situation on the ground to return to the pre-October 2000 situation. Instead, the situation is chaotic, both at humanitarian and financial level, for the average Palestinian.
A VIP company has been granted monopoly to bring passengers across without having to wait long hours in line, for an exorbitant fee. A person travelling the short 3-kilometre distance between the Jordanian and Israeli terminals has to pay $94.
No serious attempt has been made to resolve the inhuman and financial difficulties facing Palestinians especially during the hot summer months. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations interested in the well-being of Palestinians need to give this issue some serious thought and work on making some strategic changes to improve the conditions facing travellers at this Israeli-controlled crossing point.