AMMAN: Once again the summer heat is upon us. And once again, people’s anguish, and appeals at the overcrowded King Hussein Bridge are melting as quickly as an ice cream cone in the Jordan Valley’s high temperatures.
The King Hussein Bridge is the only crossing point available to the 3.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank. It is officially open from 8 am till midnight, but in reality the last bus leaves at 10 pm and people are often turned back on the Jordanian side after 9 pm because of the summer congestion. More people are leaving the West Bank than visiting it, according to statistics issued by the Palestinian side. The Palestinian Authority reported that the traffic was moderate in first week of June. It saw the departure of 17,473 people from Jericho and the entry of 9,411 into the West Bank. This doesn’t include East Jerusalemites who cross the bridge directly without going to the Jericho crossing. Estimates of Jerusalemites who end up at the same terminal on the Jordanian side are about 3,500 a week. No published statistics have been issued by the Jordanian authorities.
Since those statistics were released, the number of Palestinians leaving (for visits, work or travel) has increased considerably, forcing many Palestinian families to spend the night at the border.
Pilgrims seeking to perform Umra (the lesser pilgrimage) are adding to the swollen numbers at the already overstretched terminals on Sundays and Wednesdays, causing even further chaos and delays. Even after one’s turn to get on the bus is secured, hours of delay have been reported, often up to 4-6 hours just to cross the three kilometers from one side to the other. Few or no facilities are available as people wait under the blazing Jordan Valley sun. Buses are air-conditioned, but no water or basic facilities are available.
Some measures have been introduced to ease the problem such as providing numbers to those waiting like in bank or supermarket queues. The air-conditioning on the Jordanian side was not fully functional for a few weeks, leaving passengers and terminal staff drowned in perspiration.
Travelers are not allowed to use their own cars and need to change buses three times to make the crossing. Their luggage, which is thrown around rather carelessly, is separated from them upon departure or entry to the Israeli controlled terminal.
Except for individuals and families who suffer at the bridge, the issue is rarely discussed in any official capacity. The Palestinian president’s entourage drives through without any trouble, and senior Palestinian Authority officials use taxpayer money to pay the exorbitant fees for the VIP service. This is a monopoly given to a Jordanian and an Israeli company and each charges $46 for transporting a passenger. Senior businessmen also have their companies pay the fee. Foreigners and international staff use another terminal and are often unaware of the troubles and hours of waiting that the “locals” have to endure.
Little is being done to try and solve the short-term summer problem or the long-term one. Jordan would like to build a new terminal, but lacks the funding. Without a political solution, The Kingdom still considers this a temporary crossing point and not an international one. While Jordan has no objection to keeping the bridge open around the clock, the Israelis object. No one is talking, or thinking, of creating a second or even a third crossing point.
One effort to respond to the needs of the travelers crossing the bridge has been the Karama International Campaign for the Movement of Palestinians; a Facebook group for the movement has gathered 1,490 members.
Karama, which in Arabic means dignity, attempts to find ways to allow people to cross the bridge with dignity. Set up a year ago, the organization has made some progress on the Palestinian side (merging exit points), but has achieved no major breakthroughs or reduction in waiting periods. Karama’s founder Hazem Kawasmeh, who held a press conference last month describing his organization’s accomplishments, revealed that members of his movement met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Ramallah and handed her a request for intervention to ease the suffering at the crossing.
It is natural for Palestinians from the occupied territories to spearhead this effort. But it is high time that regional and international players are involved in this daily human catastrophe. Jordan, which has signed a peace treaty with Israel, needs to give this issue a much higher profile. Israel also must be aware of the suffering that happens on its watch. Agreeing to a 24 hour round the clock opening of the bridge could do wonders in alleviating the suffering.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. It was first published by The Huffington Post, www.huffingtonpost.com.