Guest Columnist: The Palestinian Travel Experience

Every day, the IDF makes decisions that affect thousands of people's travel needs, often without apparent rhyme or reason.

By DAOUD KUTTAB
February 11, 2011 14:28
4 minute read.
roadblock check post near Modi'in

roadblock check point 521. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Several days before Tuesday January 18, someone in the IDF made a decision that affected thousands of people, Israelis, Palestinians and others. Hundreds of decisions like this are made on a daily basis in the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters. That day, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev was visiting Jericho, and so the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge was to close from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government were not consulted and were apparently in the dark about it until the last minute. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and those outside wishing to travel, as well as foreigners planning to cross in either direction, found out only when attempting to access the bridge.

While foreigners can use other land crossing points or even Ben-Gurion Airport, the bridge is the only route for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

For the IDF, there is a security justification. After all, the person traveling was very important and the area of the bridge is a closed military area. The actual time that Medvedev took to cross the bridge that morning and again later that afternoon was probably not more than a few minutes, compared to the hours it usually takes the locals.

Muhammad Khatib, the spokesman of the Jordanian police, whose office usually issues reports about such decisions, had no information as late as noon the day before. Gen. Jamal Badour of the Jordanian police, the director of the bridge, confirmed to reporters Monday afternoon that the Israelis were planning to close the bridge because of Medvedev’s visit.

He stated that while Jordan’s side was always open, if the Israelis close their side, the bridge would be, in effect, closed.

An official announcement was made later informing the public not to use the bridge during those hours. It was published on the official news service, Petra. A similar statement was made by the Palestinian news agency WAFA. The following day, the warning appeared in newspapers. According to the protocols between Israel and Jordan, the bridge is to be open all year except for Yom Kippur and Id al-Adha.

Palestinians from the West Bank wishing to travel anywhere or return from anywhere have no choice but to use this crossing. People often make plans months in advance, and if, for example, they have an afternoon flight, they have to leave their homes that morning, the earlier the better. Those returning can often cross the same day they arrive. Many, for example, arrive at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman early in the morning and take a taxi to the bridge to make it home that day. Hopefully.

DECISIONS LIKE the closing the bridge affect both the Palestinian collective and individuals. Checkpoints that restrict movement in Palestinian areas can be closed for hours for much less significant reasons without the local population receiving any warning or explanation. But when a checkpoint in the occupied territories is used by settlers, the rules of the game are so obviously different. On any day of the year, a driver in a car with Israeli license plates will face totally different treatment if the checkpoint is exclusively for Palestinians or if settlers use it as well.

Try crossing into Jerusalem at the Kalandiya crossing and your car will be stopped every time. You have to get out and open the trunk. No non-direct relatives can ride with you. Have the exact same car use the nearby Pisgat Ze’ev checkpoint and you will not be stopped nine times out of 10. If the relaxed 18- year-old soldier chooses to stop your car, he or she will open your trunk.

It’s the same scenario at the Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint, compared with the Gilo Tunnel one.

On the individual level, Palestinian travel horror stories are experienced daily. Take Rima, who wanted to come from Jordan to see her aging, sick mother for years and was denied for no obvious reason. A last-minute attempt to see her dying mother failed several weeks ago. Two weeks ago she was finally able to make it – after her mother died – thanks to the intervention of MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad).

Palestinians asking to see relatives in Israel, Jerusalem or Gaza are often told they have to get a special humanitarian pass if there is a death of an immediate relative. The idea of seeing him or her alive, even if they are terminally ill, doesn’t qualify.




Governments accountable to their people regularly balance different elements when making decisions. Even security decisions are balanced with a country’s other essential needs. Had the Russian president or any other official wanted to visit Lod, Ben-Gurion Airport would not have been closed for 12 hours. If a visiting dignitary wanted to dedicate a location near Haifa Port, no one in Israel would think of closing the port.

A civilian government would never think to ban all travel. The problem is when the population is ruled by a military power.

The last-minute decision by the IDF to close the King Hussein Bridge for 12 hours on January 18 might appear insignificant. But such a decision is yet another reminder that Israel’s military occupation is a problem. Medvedev, whose presence caused further suffering to Palestinians (without his knowledge), should insist – along with his partners in the Quartet – that Israel end its occupation.

The writer, a Palestinian journalist, is the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. info@daoudkuttab.com


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