For Palestinians, a bridge too far

Thousands face hardship as Jordan limits entry

July 21, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERICHO, West Bank -- She is 74, frail and alone. Her white head scarf is drenched in sweat. For days, Khadijeh Abdel Halim has paced a hangar-like waiting room in this sun-scorched city, clutching a letter from her doctor in Jordan saying she needs urgent heart surgery.

She is within sight of the border between the West Bank and Jordan, a border she cannot cross.

Halim, like thousands of other Palestinians, is stranded by restrictions imposed by Jordan limiting the number of West Bank residents who can cross the Allenby Bridge into Jordan to 150 a day, a fraction of the 12,000 a day in normal times. She lacks some of the paperwork that is required, including permits from Israel and the Palestinian Authority and a bank guarantee.

"We are dying here," said Halim, who, like most of the people who have reached the customs shed, spent hours driving or riding by taxi through rugged terrain to skirt Israeli army curfews and checkpoints to make it to Jericho. Returning home would be no less difficult.

"We are suffering in the heat and sleeping on the floor," said Halim, holding up a two-page letter that describes her medical condition in dire terms, a letter that was not enough to persuade Jordanian authorities to let her cross. Her appointment was scheduled for days ago.

Jordan announced the rules last month after the Israeli army swept into eight Palestinian cities in the West Bank and clamped a curfew on hundreds of thousands of residents. Jordan feared Israel would deport Palestinians en masse across the bridge, creating a refugee crisis.

Jordanian immigration officials require that each of the 150 Palestinians allowed to enter the country each day hand over a bank guarantee of from $2,000 to $7,000, a check that is returned only upon leaving the country and re-entering the West Bank.

"The Jordanians think we are trying to escape from Palestine," said Hana Herzela, 35, a school administrator for the Palestinian Authority trying to visit a friend in Amman, Jordan's capital. "These regulations are terrible. I don't know all the politics involved, but we're not trying to get out of here permanently."

Gateway to the world

The Allenby Bridge across the slow stream of muddy water that is the Jordan River is the only route out of the West Bank for most Palestinians here, many of whom hold Jordanian passports.

Jordan, which ruled the West Bank from 1948 until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, has 1.7 million Palestinians within its borders, and many have relatives in the West Bank. For Palestinians, Jordan is thus an important destination on its own as well as their only gateway to the rest of the world.

Other borders, with Syria and Lebanon, are closed to everyone. And Palestinian identification card holders are barred from flying out of Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv because of security reasons, making Amman the crucial first stop in Palestinians' travels.

Palestinians trying to travel into Jordan find themselves stuck in Jericho, the only major Palestinian city not occupied by Israeli troops, though they surround it. Travelers find themselves at an old bus terminal without enough benches to accommodate them.

Inside, the lights flicker as the electricity sputters, stopping two small fans that can't keep up with the heat, which soared to 107 degrees last week. The only refreshments come from a stand that sells day-old coffee and water for $2 a bottle.

Palestinian police roam the grounds, breaking up fights and, said many people interviewed, accepting bribes to assure an earlier passage across the bridge. Authorities review paperwork and compile lists that are posted daily with names and bus numbers, with average waits between two and seven days.

A long wait

Most people sleep on the floor or in a nearby field, their bulging suitcases piled high and children spread out on blankets. People clutch their passports and other documents, eager to show them to any visitor to press the urgency of their trip.

Flights out of Amman have been missed, the money spent on tickets wasted. Desperate travelers have drained their bank accounts, some spending $500 to get to Jericho, only to find they need more money to get into Jordan. One woman hawked her wedding ring.

The Palestinian Authority has protested to the Jordanian government and dispatched the minister of local affairs, Jericho resident Saeb Erakat, to Amman to work out a solution. Erekat warned that a crisis is developing in Jericho.

A Jordanian government spokeswoman, who identified herself only as Jihad, said in a telephone interview that the Israeli army crackdown in the West Bank could prompt an exodus on a scale that Jordan would be unable to handle.

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