(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The suffering of Palestinians crossing the King Hussein Bridge, the only exit and entry point between the West Bank and Jordan, continues without any serious attempt at relief. While there is no doubt that the real remedy is the end of the occupation, genuine efforts should be exerted now to ease passage for individuals and families.
Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians can work together at finding practical solutions. All the sides, plus the Americans, talk about the need to improve the daily lives of Palestinians. Yet little serious effort is done to ease the flow through the Palestinians' only artery available to the outside world, a situation made more severe since the Second Intifada, when Israelis banned Palestinians from flying out of Ben-Gurion Airport.
George Mitchell, Tony Blair and others who have been devoting effort to this part of the world should focus on the issue.
OVER THE PAST year, some improvements have taken place, mostly on the Jordanian side. There, a numbered ticket is given to each passenger, so they can sit on comfortable seats in a smoke-free, air-conditioned hall while waiting to get papers processed and for Israelis to handle the traveling procedures. On the Israel side of the hall, however, people still must stand in line.
In any case, passengers spend hours in buses as they wait to make the crossing. Ironically, the bridge is open only during the hottest time of the day, which is especially wearing during the summer. The greatest traffic, including families with young babies, takes place during these same summer months, when schools are on vacation.
Crossing hours were agreed upon by both the Israelis and the Jordanians; but it would be logical to extend them into the evening and night, reducing congestion during the hot midday. Jordanian officials have confirmed more than once that they have no reservations about extending the crossing hours; so the problem lies on the Israeli end.
UNDER THE OSLO Agreement, the bridge remained open until 10 p.m. Palestinian Authority police were also stationed on the Palestinian side to help resolve any problem. But crossing hours were reduced after the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the expulsion of the PA police from the bridge. It is high time the police were allowed to return to their agreed-upon location.
The return to the pre-October 2000 situation, as stipulated in the Road Map, would guarantee the return of the police and, therefore, the extension of the bridge hours for the public at large. At present, the bridge is open until 8 p.m. for diplomats, while it is closed to the average West Banker as early as 3 p.m. Palestinians with special permits and Jerusalemites are allowed over until around 3:45 p.m.
An extension of crossing hours should be implemented regardless of any agreement on the return of the Palestinian police. Ironically, the Israelis still collect a large exit fee for all travelers, under the pretext that half of the collected amount is earmarked for the Palestinian police. At the very least, this 50-percent portion should not be collected until the police are allowed to return to their posts.
THE COST OF the crossing as a whole must be reviewed. In addition to the exorbitant exit tax that the Israelis charge (about $35 per person), West Bank passengers need to take two different buses just to get to the Jordanian side - and vice versa. Add to that a relatively new tax of 10 dinars that Jordanians charge for every passport holder, including those who have departing tickets (which include a Jordanian exit tax fee).
Even the taxi service from the bridge to Amman is chaotic and unsupervised, allowing private taxis to take advantage of people as they literally buy and sell dazed travelers, some arriving in Jordan for the first time.
Travelers can cross by only one of two ways. The first is through large buses that accommodate 50 passengers and more, where the fare for each passenger is one dinar and sixty piasters (about $2). The other is the so-called VIP van service, where the fare is $94 per person (even if a family of five uses the same van, the price is per person).
The fee is divided 50-50 between the Jordanian company (which has an unregulated monopoly) and the Israeli one. While many amenities are thrown in, the real reason people lay out such large amount of money for the service is to avoid the long queues (some six to 10 hours) they would otherwise have to suffer through.
In the summer months, delays using the bus can take many hours, with passengers leaving Amman in the early morning hours and not arriving at their final West Bank destinations until after sunset.
Palestinians entering Jordan en route to another destination may face yet another problem. Security officials there often demand a visit to the intelligence offices.
Sometimes individuals are not allowed to enter even though they might have a valid visa to another country; since King Hussein Bridge is the only route out, the West Bank then turns into a huge prison for them.
Jordan should be able to provide transit travelers with valid visas a secured bus to take them to the airport - or they can be given 48-hour visas in Jordan, much as Dubai and Doha provide for those with plans to travel on.
YET ANOTHER expensive charge is that of the Israeli permit for the residents of east Jerusalem, which costs every Jerusalem citizen about 35 Jordanian dinars over and above the exit Israeli visa. This becomes burdensome for those who continually travel through the King Hussein bridge and don't have an expense account from their organization. It would be much easier if, for example, the Jordanians allowed Jerusalemites to travel using a laisser passer travel document.
Jordanian officials have insisted for 42 years that the only document that they will honor for Palestinian Jerusalemites crossing the bridge is the Israeli permit (tasreeh). They feel it guarantees that Jerusalemites won't lose their Jerusalem residency status. This is partly true: Those who don't use the permit and spend years away do risk losing their residency.
But for regular travelers who come over once a week or so, the risk doesn't exist. The same applies to the Jerusalem inhabitant who puts his residence permit on a foreign passport where the return visa is stamped on the passport. Using the laisser passer or the return visa would be much much cheaper than having to pay for the permit every time one travels.
While Israelis allow Jerusalemites to use the Sheikh Hussein bridge even with their cars, the Jordanian authorities don't allow them entry - though they do allow it to Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
While the creation of an independent state is the only real solution to the suffering at the border crossings, much can be done in the meantime to alleviate the physical and mental pain - as well as the great expense - of what should be at most a two-hour journey.
The author travels regularly on the King Hussein Bridge.