Is this Jericho or Hell?

One of the many Israeli-controlled border crossing points between Jordan and Palestine where many are forced to wait for hours and possibly even turned back to Jordan barred from entering Palestine. (EI Image)

13 August 2007

We’re in. After more than a year we have been allowed back in to Palestine. It has been a long journey — I was refused entry last year along with several thousand others, and we have been working since then to try to arrange this visit. So many emails later, and after 11 hours at the border, here we are

My husband and I left Amman at dawn with our three-month-old-son, and arrived at the Jordanian border control just after 8am. From there its a few minutes’ drive to the Israeli section of the border, then three-and-a-half hours of sitting in a sweltering hot bus waiting at the entrance to the border compound. It was 40 degrees celsius outside, and the stationary bus was like a greenhouse.

Inside the compound, Israeli officers took me to one side as I was going through the x-ray. What followed was seven hours of waiting and wondering. My husband Said and I were both searched and questioned separately and told not to move from where we were sitting. We spent the whole seven hours swatting flies away from the baby and our faces. All our bags had been taken away including our hand luggage, the snacks, water and the baby’s diaper bag. We had to ask five or six times to get a small glass of water. When Adam’s diaper needed changing it took a bit of negotiating just to be allowed one diaper, cotton ball and Vaseline.

We were questioned a few times by different people, but most of the time we just sat and waited. A lot of the time it felt like we had been forgotten. We kept asking border officials if they knew where our passports were, or why we were waiting. We were told, “I don’t have your passport,” “it’s not in my office,” “maybe someone else has it,” “you are not my problem,” “just shut up and sit over there,” “you do what we tell you — you don’t ask any questions here,” “you are waiting for security reasons so you are not allowed to know about it,” and many times someone said, “I’ll go and find out” but never came back, or just shrugged when they saw us again.

Some things about the day were frustrating, like seeing a group of 20-year-olds holding our passports looking over at us and talking, and ordering us to stay where we were when we began to approach them. Or watching police open every item of our carefully packed bags, dump everything in boxes and take it away for “checking.” And I mean everything. They opened new, sealed tubes of toothpaste and moisturizer. They opened every single diaper, including the dirty ones, and dumped them in with the clean clothes. And we realized today that all of Said’s socks disappeared, so I guess they are still in Jericho stinking up the x-ray room.

Some things were humiliating. I removed my hijab when asked to in an examination cubicle. And then the young officer pulled back the curtain in front of a queue of 50 or 60 people, and shouted over to a colleague and lots of people turned to look at us to see what the shouting was about. And, after removing my shoes and hair band so she could check my scalp and the soles of my stockinged feet, I was scrabbling my hair back into a ponytail. The young woman ordered me to pass her my shoes. They were on the floor right in front of her, but she didn’t want to bend down to pick them up. I said, “just a second while I tie my hair back” and then was shouted at — apparently I should do what I am told without delay.

We had organized this trip months in advance. I was refused entry last year, along with so many others. The Right to Enter campaign was set up in response to the recent Israeli denial of entry to most foreigners married to Palestinians and Palestinians with foreign passports. The Right to Enter group has worked tirelessly over the past year to address this apparently systematic silent deportation of articulate Palestinian moderates, and denial of family unification.

I followed the new recommendations issued by COGAT, the Israeli Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories, and arranged my visit in advance through the British Embassy and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had an email from them saying we should have no problems at the border, and if we did encounter any problems we should call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Situations Room. I had a Palestinian SIM card and a Jordanian one, but neither had any reception in the border compound, so about 5pm I started asking officials if I could use a phone to call the situations room. I was told “I’ll find out,” “I don’t think so,” and finally, “There is no problem; you don’t need to call anyone.” So we carried on waiting — what else was there to do?

When we finally got through I could hardly believe that we were going to be allowed in to Palestine. We had spent so long in the border compound that I’d convinced myself I was going to be sent back again. We left the Israeli compound at 7:30. We were bussed to the Palestinian border control and arranged a shared taxi from there to my husband’s family house. The Jordan-Palestine border has three control points — Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian. I am not asking for entry to Israel, I want to visit family in Nablus, but the Israeli border police control entry to the West Bank.

It could have been worse — when we left there were people still waiting in that Kafkaesque fly-ridden purgatory, waiting to hear what had happened to their passports and whether they would be allowed entry. Many had been there since the morning like us. There was a woman on the bus with us who had been there for 12 hours, with her two young children and her three-week-old baby — imagine dealing with that just three weeks after giving birth.

The saddest thing is that this whole frustrating journey is just normal everyday stuff for Palestinian people living in the West Bank, who face much tougher restrictions on movement and far more humiliating treatment on a daily basis. Said’s brother works in the next town, and has to commute three-and-a-half hours to work — one hour driving and two-and-a-half hours waiting at the checkpoint. One of his sisters lives in Amman. To visit her parents she has to leave the house at 4am, with her three young children, to face the same border crossing we have just negotiated. Her husband, Jordanian, is not allowed to visit Palestine. And Said’s family have not seen another of his sisters for seven years now. She lives in Gaza — the other part of Palestine — and there is no way to travel between the two areas. My mother in law has grandchildren she has never met and fears she will probably never meet, unless the draconian travel restrictions are abolished.

Xen is Scottish and lives in Manchester, England. She works for the Manchester based Olive Cooperative organizing study tours of Palestine and Israel.