On January 26 2012 our study tour of the Middle East crossed from Jordan into the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Following is my account of that journey.
I’m at the Jordanian end of the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, the first stage of the journey from Jordan into the Occpupied Palestinian Territories.
It’s a little box with dirty cream walls; a holding cell.
A sunbrunt elderly Arab man wearing a red and white keffiyeh is in charge of the baggage. Everything goes through a little hole in the wall on a conveyor belt, popping out the other side.
We walk through a metal detector. It goes off, but there’s no one there to actually care.
I walk to a window to a window, fill out a small paper form and hand over my passport.
It feels like a ramshackle operation, really only the basic modicum of process with a couple of money making enterprises thrown in. I get the feeling the Jordanians don’t really care who is leaving the country.
And really, why should they when the Israeli’s at the end of the bus ride care very much indeed who enters what they regard as their country?
We wait until enough people arrive at the dirty cream box to justify the bus running us to the next stage of our journey.
The bus is an old coach. Over successive journey’s people have carved or written grafitti into the beat of the seats. It reminds me of the buses that I used to take on the long-haul from Sydney to the Gold Coast to see my grandparents and other family there.
The bus drives across the last miles of Jordan. The landscape is dry, desolate and quite beautiful.
The majority of farmers between Jordan and the West Bank are Palestian. A large number of Palestinians are also in the Jordanian army.
This bleak landscape is where exiled Palestinian live and where they will die if war ever breaks out between Israel and Jordan.
There’s a checkpoint about eight minutes drive from the Jordanian side. A soldier stands on the back of a jeep gripping the large mounted machine gun. We’re told to keep our cameras in our bags. I do.
A guy gets on the bus and takes the white piece of paper that we filled out at the first stage of the journey.
We set off again, and two minutes later we cross a ramshackle bridge which spans the near-dry Jordan river.
We’re in Palestine, technically.
Now for the Israeli-controlled checkpoint into the West Bank: a marked contrast from the Jordanian beaurocracy we just passed through.
Israeli soldiers are well-outfitted and alert where their Jordanian equivalents were not. They sweep under the bus for bombs.
The Israel-controlled checkpoint is housed inside a building around the size of a small aircraft hanger or a suburban Bunnings.
Outside the main door is an Israeli solider in chinos, a light blue shirt and a baseball cap. His assault rifle – looking like something out of an XBox game – rests against his torso, attached to a comfortable-looking shoulder and waist strap.
Good Occupational Health and Safety practice, I think.
I’m off the bus and rendezvouing with my group. I habitually pat my pockets, checking for my passport. It’s not in there, nor in the front compartments of my bag.
I walk back to the bus and get on, walk up the aisle to my seat. My passport’s sitting on it, thank the gods.
When I get back off the bus the chino wearing Israeli soldier is standing right by the door. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a real assault rifle. I smile at him and wave my passport at his impassively bearded face.
Inside the aircraft hanger is crowded. Everyone from the bus is being funnelled through the first of what will be a few stations.
People are milling everywhere, in a very un-British fashion. Israeli soliders walk up and down the queue, selecting people to grill with a degree of discrimination. It’s quite nerve-wracking.
Not for the last time the Israeli checkpoint infrastructure makes me feel like an animal in a factory farm.
I’m at the first desk and an Israeli solider comes up on the other side of me and says something to me in a language I don’t understand. The third time I say huh? he changes to broken English to ask if I speak Arabic.
I say no – must have been the beard.
One of the guys in our group is pulled out of the queue and asked a bunch of questions. He doesn’t have a beard, but he is in his early twenties, has an Arabic name, and looks it.
He tells me later they asked him questions like ‘Do you have any weapeons?’ and ‘did anyone give him anything to take to Israel?’
I wonder if anyone has ever replied ‘does this double-barell shotgun count as a weapon?’ to one of these ludicrous questions.
The whole group is through the first stage and now we’re at passport control. We’ve been separated from the vast majority of people passing through – who I assume are residents of the West Bank.
Our tour leader gives us three pieces of advice:
RULE 1: Ask to not have you passport stamped by the Israelis if we want to travel to other Arabic countries. They’re not big fans of Israel, it seems.
RULE 2: The people working passport control, and the guards in general, do not speak English very well, so we should keep our answers simple and short.
RULE 3: Over the course of the coming weeks we may be tempted to ask ‘why?’ in relation to something that the Israeli’s do to us, or to Palestinians – there is only ever one answer to this question – because they can.
About half of my group have gone up to the desk before I get there and generally people have been ignoring RULE 2. This leads to confused faces and waving arms and more questions.
The upshot is, by the time I get up there, the guy is sick of asking questions. The only one I get is ‘can I stamp your passport?’ I say no, he tells me to sit down and wait and my turn at the desk is over.
The young guy with an Arabic background in our group has to fill out a separate form – a Tourist Visitor Information Form. Our tour leader says she had to fill one of these in when she came through in August 2010 and they never asked for it back.
Then there is the sitting around and waiting part.
We play cards, read books, write in diaries, buy Arabic coffee – someone asks our tour leader why the Israeli’s are making us sit around for so long. She rolls her eyes and says ‘because they can.’
The best bit of entertainment is when when one of our group asks her husband what she cooks best. As she reaches across to touch him she instead slaps him across his forehead so hard the slap reverberates across the room.
Five hours and twenty minutes after the last of us went to the desk they start calling our names. We think we’re finally through and start jumping up and grabbing our passports – most of which now have a slip of white paper with the stamp to enter ‘Israel’ on it.
Our tour leader tells us that we’ve all been cleared to go through except her – they’re trying to tell her that her mobile number isn’t her mobile number.
But then her name gets called and we’re all energised, chatting happily, our bags all ready to move through to stage three. Then we realise that there’s one of the names they haven’t called out – the young guy with an Arabic name.
We slowly start to congregate back on the hard iron seats. The deck of cards resurfaces as we figure we’re in for another hour’s wait.
About twenty seconds after the last of us sits down, they call out the young guy’s name. The passport controller guy has a smug look on his face. He’s enjoyed dicking us around for the afternoon.
The next stage is back into the chaos of the cattle shed, converging lines of Palestinians and foreigners all herded towards one gate, with an opening about a metre and a half wide, two guards checking our entry permits.
An old woman in a hijab with a big tundle case is told by one of the guards to go back, she doesn’t have the right paperwork. She points back towards the checkpoint she’s just come through, where the Israeli guard checked her paperwork and gave it back to her.
The new guard is unperturbed. He impassively makes her turn around and push her way back through the durging throng to get her correct paper work done.
In a couple of minutes we’re outside, our bus turns up and we start getting our bags on board.
It’s been a gruelling seven hours from start to finish, the final leg having taken us six hours to travel less than 100 metres.
Everyone’s muttering about what a bunch of arseholes the guards were. A couple of people still haven’t swalled RULE 3 and and asking a series of questions about why we were treated like we were, and why Palestinians get treated the way they do.
“Because they can,” is all she says.
We drive towards Jerusalem.