An American at Allenby Bridge Crossing
For my Palestinian friends, the Allenby Bridge border crossing to Jordan is the sole exit and entrance from the West Bank to the rest of the world. For myself, the crossing was a cultural experience, but for my friends, it is a humiliating part of their lives from which there is no escape. If they want to go anywhere, it is Allenby or nothing. The crossing begins in Jericho, where one passes through three borders: Palestine, Israel and Jordan. This process can take anywhere from a few hours to all day long.
The long crossing ensures that every Palestinian must factor an extra day of travel. And because the airport only schedules international flights in the morning, all Palestinians must also spend the night in Amman before beginning their vacation or business trip. For those who want to get out of town over a long weekend, these factors inhibit spontaneity and cut into precious vacation time and finances. And of course, the whole lengthy procedure is repeated upon return.
Remember that West Bank Palestinians are confined to the tiny West Bank; they are only allowed into Israel if they have a pass, and then only to certain locations, and then only at certain times of year. Their movement within the partitioned West Bank is further controlled by numerous internal Israeli military checkpoints, which are connected by a web of roads that Palestinians are not permitted to drive on. For West Bank Palestinians, all movement is more or less controlled by Israel.
As we approached our first border exit, I noticed there were three entrances. The first, for West Bank residents for whom Allenby is the only option. It was the widest door and filled with the longest line of people. The other two doors had no lines at all: one was for East Jerusalem residents and tourists (those who have other exit options into Jordan, as well as the airport in Tel Aviv). I was surprised by the heading over the third door: VIP.
“That’s for people who pay extra,” said my friend Shireen. “If you can afford it, you have the option of paying $150 per person and expediting the entire crossing procedure.”
Then followed a blur of long lines, slips of paper handed out and re-collected, waiting on busses, collecting and re-checking our luggage as we passed from one border to the next. When we finally got to the Jordanian border, all non-Palestinians were shuffled to another building. In our group was a Palestinian-American mother from Chicago and her 5 young adult daughters who wore their hijabs with an air of unstudied coolness that marked them as foreigners. A fellow American asked them the question on everyone’s mind: “What will you do if Trump wins the election?” “Move to Canada,” one replied without smiling or batting an eye.
At the Jordanian desk, I submitted to the retinal scan, paid my fee, found my luggage and entered the hot night air. I took a furtive photo of the building we had just exited; not sure if it was allowed or not. I soon discovered it was not after one of my American friends attempted the same. “No pictures!” screamed a guard, before hauling my friend over for questioning and photo deletion.
“Well, that was good!” exclaimed Shireen. “Only 4 hours—we made good time!”
Returning to Palestine: Jordanian Border
On our return, I took notes.
After crossing through the Jordanian border, we are sent to collect our luggage at an outdoor area with a covered roof. There is a growing mountain of luggage beneath a chute; several sweat-soaked people attempting to dig through it. I join them, looking for my carry-on suitcase. “People try not to use their nice luggage when crossing the border,” says Shireen. “It is often damaged here, or lost. If it gets lost or someone steals something out of your suitcase, too bad.” I attempt to move a few massive suitcases and heavy boxes– but even as I move them, more fall on top of the pile. I struggle to retain my balance and protect my sandaled feet from heavy falling items as I wade through the shifting mountain.
Relief! Suitcase found!
A boy with a deformity that forces his legs wide like a spider clumsily passes us. His deformity makes him quite short; he trips and falls. A impatient mother in a black veil that covers all but her eyes yells and yanks him up by the ear. His face is red; he struggles to blink back tears of shame and pain. Later I see him sitting by his family’s luggage. They are on errand, he is the guard. I introduce myself, but he hides his face in embarrassment. His name is Mohammed. He is 11 years old.
As we travel by bus to the second border, 3 different men come to collect 3 different slips of paper that were given to us at the previous crossing. Outside the window are barren yellow-tan hills and dry river beds, a few acacia and palm trees, the Dead Sea just a few miles south. Fences, razor wire, and a sandbagged Jordanian military post with soldiers manning a giant gun pointed toward oncoming traffic. Deserted cement bunkers, similar to the ones I saw near the Dead Sea on the Palestinian side of the border. We come to a stop, where we are second in a line of three busses waiting to enter the Israeli crossing. There is a cluster of port-a-potties outside and several of us take the opportunity to use them. As I walk back to my bus, I see driver #1 leaning back against a pillow, dozing at his seat. As we wait, we see an occasional VIP car pass us. The sun is low in the sky.
Returning to Palestine: Israeli Border
We finally enter the Israeli border where we collect our suitcases and get in line for a new luggage tag. After receiving our tags, we enter an outdoor line where we wait to show our passports. Once we enter the building, we join a new line to go through security and check our luggage. This room is air conditioned! “Hamdillah!” exclaims a chubby man in pajama-looking pants. His t-shirt is circled with large sweat rings. He has removed his white religious hat and his bald head is beaded with sweat. His long, very curly black beard comes down to his chest, which is covered with very curly black hair.
A mother struggles with her blind son, who is flailing and wailing. A group of sisters try to help their harried mother. I greet the blind boy when my part of the line doubles up next to him, and he grabs my hand with fervent strength. We pass each other. I exchange a smile with the exhausted mother. A young girl leads an older blind man by the hand; he is wearing traditional Arab robes. Two cute girls in matching cotton jumpers and side ponytails pass us. We smile and giggle each time our lines bend and allow us to face each other. Finally, we come to security. We emerge on the other side and buy a bottle of cold water. We enter another room where we join one of the wide lines waiting to face Israeli officials who sit behind large glass windows. It appears that every other booth is empty. We double and triple up in line.
The mother with the flailing blind boy enters the room, and Shireen has had enough. She walks over to a standing Israeli guard. “Are you in charge here?” she asks in English. He responds affirmatively. “Then why aren’t you doing anything to help this mother?” She gestures at the blind boy. “Can’t you see this woman needs help? You should take her to the front of the line!” “Well, no one told me to do that,” he replied. “I’m telling you!’ said Shireen. The man obediently walks with Shireen over to the mother. There is fear in her eyes as they approach. Is she in trouble? She is hesitant to give information. She keeps her gaze down. A few moments later, she and her brood of children are escorted to the front of the line, her face bewildered.
When it is finally my turn, there is a question about my one-year volunteer Visa, through which I am allowed to stay in the West Bank. I knew that by going to Jordan, I would lose my Visa, which is why I saved this trip to the end. I am now in need of a new tourist Visa. The lady makes some phone calls, punches information into her computer. Our line is stalled. “We need to look into this,” she says. “Go sit over there.” She keeps my passport. I am thankful that one of my American friends decides to stay with me. After 10 minutes we are approached by a soldier. We follow him to a small office where we are told to wait.
As we wait, I watch the crowds move from line to line; old men and women, little children releasing pent-up energy and playing tag. A young woman moves slowly with two hand crutches. Her legs are uneven. About an hour later, my passport is returned and we get in line to pass through a final Israeli security check. A woman approaches us, holding the hand of her teenage daughter. The girl has bandages over her nose and cheeks. Her face is swollen and she leans into her mother. Technically, the back of the line is way behind us, but we allow her to cut in front of us. “She broke her nose and we had to go to Jordan for surgery,” the mother explains. “She is in great pain.” And then she grows angry. “Do you know how long we had to wait at the Israeli border? 4 hours! 4 hours, just sitting there in the bus!” Her daughter doesn’t say anything. Tears are pooled in the corners of each eye.
I am beginning to think it would be a ministry in itself, if it were possible, just to spend all day going back and forth through the border crossings, delivering water and food to people and helping them along the way.
When we finally come out on the other side of the Israeli crossing, it is dark. We find one of our friends waiting for us, God bless him! He had sent the rest of the group ahead. They are probably close to Bethlehem by now.
Returning to Palestine: Palestinian Border
As we enter the last bus which will take us to the Palestinian border, we are greeted by a chorus of crying babies and small children whose bedtime has long passed. A young woman with a beautiful smile is sitting across from me. She just gave birth in Jordan and is carrying her newborn son back home to Nablus. She has an older boy on a leash and is accompanied by a host of family members.
The Palestinian border is a breeze compared to the other two; a token gesture of control and order. We navigate quickly and I break into laughter as I enter the large waiting room with its rows of old movie theater style seats. They are well-worn and stained. But they are beautiful because they are in Palestine, and after 7 hours we are finally home.
We quickly find a taxi and drive through downtown Jericho which is lit by a neon crescent moon and outdoor string lights that shine over the central plaza where people stroll in the pleasant night air. Jericho is the “moon city,” said to be the longest continually-inhabited city in the world. Today, it is known for its famous dates and the cable carriage that one can ride to the ancient monastery at the top of the Mount of Temptation. We pass from Area A, under Palestinian control, to Area C, under Israeli control; the transition is marked by a large red sign behind us, warning Israelis that to enter Jericho is illegal under Israeli law and a danger to their lives.
I settle back into my seat as we begin our upward climb from below sea level to 2,500 feet. It is quiet; as quiet as all deserts are at night, and we will be in Bethlehem soon.