If you live in the Middle East there is only one way to enter the state of Israel, through the Kingdom of Jordan. From Amman, one can either fly directly to Tel Aviv or drive to one of the border crossings between Jordan and the West Bank. As many people in the region already know, the first option is not open to most Middle Easterners including most Palestinians. However, it was open to me and my Palestinian friend from East Jerusalem but we opted to take the latter route, the route that most Palestinians have to endure. [photos]
Our journey began the next morning following our arrival in Amman, Jordan. We were up at seven a.m. and on our way in a cab to the main taxi and bus station. From there we shared another cab with two other Palestinians and a baby heading for the Allenby Bridge Crossing at the Jordan and the West Bank border.
A little side note about the West Bank for those who are unfamiliar with the region. West Bank is short for “West Bank of the Jordan river” and it is roughly half the size of Los Angeles County. It has been home to Palestinians for centuries but it was under the control of the British until 1948 and then annexed by the Jordanians in 1950 then taken over by the Israelis in 1967 and to this date it is still technically and legally considered under “Belligerent Occupation” by Israel. That’s a legal term by the way. However, the Israeli government consider themselves liberators of Palestinians. Part of their argument being that the West Bank was under the control of Jordan and since 1967 the Israelis have liberated the Palestinians from Jordanian occupation. And incidentally that is why the Palestinians entering or leaving the West Bank should be grateful to see Israeli flags fluttering in the wind above their border crossing and even more grateful when they have their passports checked by an Israeli and not a Jordanian.
One thing should be noted, Jordan has officially relinquished its control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Liberation Organization since 1988.
Our early morning drive towards the border took us through miles of contrasting yet scenic farmland and desert lands of Jordan. After a forty five minute drive we reached the Jordanian check point where my friend, from now on known as E.J, and I had to separate due to our differing nationalities. He was holding an Israeli travel document issued in East Jerusalem, which has different permissions from a Palestinian travel document issued in say Ramallah, which in turn has different permissions from one issued in Gaza City, more on that later.
I was to enter through the Non-Palestinian entrance where uncertainty quickly led to apprehension and nervousness on my part. However, I was quite relieved to find many tourists like myself from the West entering the passport check room. The Jordanian authorities were surprisingly un-authoritative and friendlier than expected and after several mundane questions and payment of an exit tax we were told to sit and wait for the bus to take us to the Allenby Bridge Crossing. This is the bridge that links the east bank of the Jordan River to its West Bank.
In the passport check room the presence of several young female students from various American states was encouraging. Our conversation revealed that they were studying in Egypt and they were treating themselves to an Easter break holiday trip to Jerusalem. To my relief our half hour waiting period was terminated by a call to board the bus to the West Bank border. In a few minutes the fluttering Israeli flags began to appear in the horizon and as we approached the Allenby Bridge Crossing we encountered the first check point where young Israelis, barely twenty years old dressed in khaki outfits embellished with an assortment of intimidating gadgets and lethal devices, appeared with their security mirror to skim under cars looking for explosives. There were other buses like ours waiting to pass through the initial check point. I assumed them to be the Palestinian-only buses since ours was the foreigner-only bus.
I wasn’t sure of the where about of E.J. and I only hoped that we would eventually meet up somewhere along the route. Once our bus passed the explosives check point we were told to continue towards the border building where there were at least a hundred people standing outside with their baggage waiting to enter the building. After a few minutes we were told to empty the bus. It was a strange sight watching young guards strolling about with their machine guns dangling from their shoulder. A sight one rarely sees except on television. What struck me as even more strange was the absence of any Israeli over the age of twenty five, in the entire border crossing. We got off the bus, picked up our luggage and joined the similarly confused crowd trying to figure out what the next step was. We soon found out that the procedure was to hand in your luggage and passport where each would get a matching number stuck on it and then proceed into the building with your passport only. So we did.
Inside we encountered another line up where our handbags were to pass through an X-Ray machine and then we had to go through another machine that sprayed you with a mist and took your photograph. Amused and bewildered by the high-tech gadgetry I asked the robot-like operator, “What in the world was that all about?” to which she replied in a mocking tone and a cynical smile, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” Later on I was informed that the mist is sprayed to reveal remnants of bullet powder on your clothes which is revealed to the special camera photographing you. “Right. Welcome to Israel. Big brother is watching you,” I thought to myself.
Next we were ushered into a large sitting room lined with passport control booths. I noticed that all the passport officers inside the passport booths were eighteen year old females. That was quite an ironic scene given Israel’s not-so-angelic image. I chose the queue with the five American students that I had met earlier assuming they would quickly pass through the passport check point. How wrong I was! Contrary to common belief Israel does NOT favor anyone, not even Americans, not even young Christian white females. They had made the mistake of mentioning their contact’s first name and couldn’t supply the last name and so they were delayed until further investigation was done. When you enter Israel as a tourist you should avoid giving anyone’s name as your contact, especially an Arab name. You’ll be bombarded with questions and more checks have to be done resulting in needless delay. After about half an hour the girls were given a form to fill out and to sit and wait to be called.
It was my turn next. I stepped forward and placed my passport on the counter waiting for the dreaded moment to arrive. During those few nervous moments I recalled E.J.’s warning that the Israelis could turn me back because of my birthplace, Tehran, Iran which was printed clearly on my Canadian passport. To calm down, my mind amused itself with the irony in finding the most tightly controlled country in the world being guarded by a bunch of baby faced teenage girls. I was later told that one way for the Israeli women to perform their compulsory military duty is to become passport controllers. “Hmm, interesting concept but what about intimidation? Don’t we need to be intimidated at the border by mean border patrols?” I quietly chuckled to myself.
My train of thought was conveniently halted by the usual border control questions, name, purpose of visit, place of stay. I told the little Israeli pumpkin face that I was visiting Jerusalem and that I was staying in Bethlehem. I added that I wasn’t visiting any relatives nor friends which was somewhat true because my only contact was actually traveling with me, which she didn’t need to know as it would create problems for him. Within the hour, after convincing her that I was harmless and that I was only going to be bumming around Jerusalem and Bethlehem and perhaps Ramallah and that I was not connected to any terrorists inside Israel nor Palestine she asked if she can stamp my passport to which I answered rather innocently, “Sure, why not?” She then proceeded to step out of the booth and told me to sit and wait.
“Right, more waiting,” I mumbled. So far at least an hour or maybe two had gone by since our arrival into the border and still no permission to pass through. I decided to occupy myself with a sandwich and warm up with a hot chocolate. The room was a bit chilly thanks to the air conditioner running full blast. As I sat myself near the American students I noticed my friend, E.J. dashing into the passport hall. I successfully managed to grab his attention in an inconspicuous manner. With a mischievous smile he sat himself conveniently beside me and we decided that we had just met and become friends so as to not jeopardize our entries into the West Bank. Incidentally, you can always gauge the world’s level of stupidity at border crossings.
It wasn’t long before I heard my name being called. I quickly swallowed my last bite of sandwich and hopped over to the middle of the hall where our friendly little Israeli twenty year old boy in his green khaki outfit was trying very hard to look mean. I was trying even harder to hold back any signs of amusement as I was being questioned right then and there. I found it odd to be questioned in this manner and wondered why they didn’t just use a private room. Looking about the large hall it seemed to be the normal procedure to be interrogated in the middle of the hall. It was his turn to ask me about my contacts and where I was staying. After watching him scribble something down on his piece of paper he told me to sit and wait again. I almost forged a smile into his face when I cheerfully remarked, “Hey, if I like the place I might actually come back.”
As I sat waiting again, from afar I exchanged a few glances with E.J. who was waiting at one of the booths. In a few minutes I was called up to another booth where I was questioned again and finally I was asked if I want my passport stamped directly to which I replied, “Sure, on the last page please.” I almost added “Next to my Syrian stamp, if you don’t mind.” But I thought it prudent to omit that last clause. Happily I thanked her, grabbed my passport and turned to leave when I met E.J.’s wink at the next booth. Exchanging smiles I assumed it was all over. Wrong!
Past the booths we entered the other side of the hall which looked almost chaotic. I joined the long line up wondering what to expect next. E.J. joined me and we tried not to seem too friendly as I was told that there were security cameras monitoring everyone. I looked up at the ceiling where a large pinkish lamp kept turning on and off every few minutes. The hall was divided by a metal barrier which separated us from a set of electronic gadgets and machinery operated by young girls again. I could see another room behind them where everyone’s luggage was being checked thoroughly. I soon realized we were going through another check point and I could still be turned back. Some people were asked to cross the divider and then questioned and body searched. There were many families with young children, obviously Palestinian, and it was quite a pathetic scene as they were being body searched and interrogated in public.
The queue kept moving until it was my turn to pass the divider. Luckily I wasn’t body searched and only ushered to a booth where another young woman took my passport and started clicking on her keyboard. After turning the pages a few times and looking confused she called up one of the officers and handed him my passport. I thought, “Good grief, what now?” Meanwhile E.J. had also been turned back for further interrogation. Everyone watched on while I stood there looking confused watching khaki outfits zooming around the hall looking even more confused than me. Finally a plain clothed young man came up to me and introduced himself as the senior security officer of the post, Lieutenant something or other, and told me to wait longer until a certain other officer would meet with me.
A few minutes later the other officer turned out to be a five foot little munchkin who seemed to have spent a lot time at shopping malls. She looked at the passport and brought me back to sit on a set of seats on the other side of the divider and she asked me “So this is not your first time here?” My brain didn’t register the question as being negative since I assumed it was obvious that it was my first time. So I answered, “Yes” and immediately realized it was the wrong answer. So I corrected myself then realized the error they had made. They had stamped my passport and a piece of paper that they usually stamp if you don’t want your passport to be stamped. Either they hadn’t bothered looking at the dates which were identical or they were just being annoying. Regardless, she started her usual theatre of interrogation in public. As she stood by the barrier twisting and turning her chubby little figure like a twelve year old I had to explain in detail what I did in Dubai and what I was going to do in Israel.
Meanwhile as I’m answering I see from the corner of my eye a nosy Arab sitting behind me leaning closer to hear us better. The whole scene was so comical that it still makes me laugh every time I think about it. I felt like telling her, “Listen little girl, stop twisting and playing with the barrier when I’m answering you!” She kept asking whether anyone was going to pick me up and I answered, “No.” Then she asked how I was going to get to Jerusalem and I replied, “I’m just going to take the bus or a taxi.” We were on the verge of an argument about that as she found it hard to believe. Her last question was, “Are you carrying any weapons?” This time I couldn’t hold back a grin as I thought of saying, “No, but I wish I had one to shoot you and this nosy guy listening to us.” But I decided to give the boring and obvious answer to an absurd question. So finally when she was convinced that I wasn’t a suicide bomber or that I wasn’t planning to murder them she let me get off the seat and pass the barrier again. As I took back my passport I asked her “Is this how it’s going be next I come?” to which she didn’t reply and walked away indifferently. Great hospitality.
I joined another line somewhat flustered and tried to look for E.J. who was nowhere in sight. At the last booth a stamped ticket in the passport was taken and I was finally released from the mayhem. Grabbing my backpack and passing through the exit doors was by far the easiest step of the day. [photos]
Outside I managed to find E.J. with whom I took a sigh of relief and proceeded to board a minibus to Jerusalem. It must have been a 45 minute ride which flew by rapidly as we exchanged notes about the border experience until we reached a checkpoint along the way. We were being driven through the West Bank and so check points were the norm. Our first encounter with a checkpoint was most striking when a real Barbie- faced blonde with pudgy cheeks entered the minivan fully equipped with all sorts of weapons dangling off her shoulder. I wasn’t convinced that she enjoyed the responsibility imposed onto her as she was glancing at our passports. After a few minutes she disembarked and we drove on. At the time I didn’t realize that this journey was a prelude to more such paradoxes inside the state of Israel. Shortly after I was let off at the gates of the Old Jerusalem>>> PART 2: Old Jerusalem and beyond