Jun 26 2009

Three governments, two companies and one fleet of vans ensure continue suffering and dubious money making

Published by at 4:25 pm under Blogs

By Daoud Kuttab

This is a story about one fleet of vans, two companies and three governments. The van is a 9 seat hundai which travels a three kilometer route joining the passport terminal on both sides of the King Hussein Bridge. The companies are a Jordanian one and an Israeli. The Jordanian company: the Golden Arrow is a company officially registered in the name of Abu Khaled Hanania but it is known by many that there is a certain amount of investment in this company by one of Jordan’s security branches. The Israeli company is called Laufer Aviation it recently won a concession from the Israeli Airport Authority replacing Qumran VIP. The three relevant governments are the Israelis (which includes here both the civilian and military) the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian

These three governments and the two companies are involved, directly or indirectly, with the van that transports people from one side of the bridge to the other. The workings of these companies, how they are setup, how the rate is calculated, who regulates them are all nearly a state secret. But one thing is clear, the result of this regulation (or lack thereof) causes direct suffering (mostly financial) to hundreds of Palestinian families.

It is not that totally strange that a border crossing would provide a special service for senior public officials, diplomats and business people. But on the King Hussein bridge the entire situation is completely unnatural. With the exception of senior officials (people like Palestinian president Abbas, very senior diplomats and heads of Christian religious churches) no one is allowed to use their own means of transport. This means that tens of thousands of persons trying to make the journey from Jerusalem and the West Bank to Jordan and vis a versa have no choice but to use public transport. The Israelis forbid vehicles with Palestinian (West Bank) license plates to travel across the river using their own cars. Israel allows vehicles with Israeli plates to leave but the Jordanians refuse to allow such vehicles to enter saying that they would have to go to the northern Jordan river crossing between Israel and Jordan. Israel is not equipped to allow transport vehicles with Jordanian plates to enter using this bridge.

As a result travelers have to be taken to the terminal of one side or the other and then take another means of transportation to connect between the two terminals (a distance of about three kilometers which is totally a military zone for either side. Palestinians from the West Bank (Gazans are not allowed to cross here) constitute the extreme majority of travelers. They are followed by East Jerusalemites and then foreign travelers.

The Jordanian Jet bus company has won the concession to bus people from one side to the other after their travel documents are approved and their bags are checked. A Palestinian company (Abdo) provides the service to the Jordanian side. Ironically the Jordanians run every bag through a metal detector while the Israelis don’t bother to make any such security checks for those leaving it. This has caused many to say that the Jordanians are making an extra preventative security service for the Israelis which is over and beyond the careful methodological checks that every item entering gets.

The buses making the crossing have totally unpredictable schedules. In the winter months when the number of travelers is modest, the huge 50 passenger bus might take an hour or two to fill up. During the summer months when families on school holidays want to be with relatives on either side of the bridge, the number of travelers is so high that passengers spends hours and hours waiting to complete the crossing. The resulting troubles became an opportunity for commercial companies wanting to make money on the back of people’s suffering and needs.

Initially the service was conducted from the terminal to the physical bridge. Passengers would then cross the bridge by foot and take another similar transport to the other side. The trip for both sides was about $10 irrespective of the number of passengers. The service was then upgraded so you didn’t have to disembark on either side of the (then) wooden bridge but went from terminal to terminal. The price was jacked up to JD10 (about $15) per van. The price quickly shifted to be per person and the van often had more than one passenger. Within a couple of years the service quickly grew. A professional company (with close ties and possible equity share) took over the project in Jordan a VIP company was found in Israel to handle the Israeli side. In addition to the transport these companies provided an escort who would help passengers through passport control, allow them to bypass security queue. They had a separate room with comfortable seats. Cold water and coffee (on the Jordanian side) were also provided to travelers. The price rose quickly to become JD35 per person ($50) and then was jacked up to $84 per person. Officially the cost was shared by the two companies. Passengers were supposed to have a choice to use the service on either side or both sides, but in reality the choice was not allowed. Anyone wanting to use the service on one side or the other were not allowed to use it.

As the number of passengers during the summer months increased, this special VIP service became more attractive. Travelers with large families or those traveling after the last bus has left (and before the bridge officially closed) became prime bait for the operators of this monopoly travel service. By the ends of the 90s a third company, a Palestinian one helping travelers bypass the dreaded waiting line in Jericho (even before reaching the terminal) Wasel was created but was short lived after rumors of corruption between some PA officials and the company owners became known.

The outbreak of Al Aqsa Intifada in October 2000 resulted in the Israelis kicking out the Palestinian police from the terminal west of the river. With the departure of the police, the Palestinian travelers crossing the bridge were no longer allowed to use the Israeli side of the VIP service.

For the most part this VIP service is mostly used by individuals not wanting to put up with the hours of wait in big busses until the bottle necks at the bridge are eased. The working hours of the bridge agreed upon based on the demands of the Israeli army which has military control of the terminal area are from 8am till 4pm. With these hours passengers wanting to cross on the same day, have to leave their homes before sunrise in order to get a head start. Even for those leaving at such early hours, crossing the three kilometers can easily take three to four hours at minimum and up to eight hours. If pilgrims are involved or if a contingent of the Palestinian police that trains in Jordan is going or returning, the wait can be as long as eight to ten hours.

Palestinians from the West Bank are allowed to take the VIP shuttle which drops them off at the Israeli terminal and they have to continue the rest of the procedure alone which is fine by most since the biggest problem is bypassing the queue of busses. This service costs passengers $46 per person.

For east Jerusalem Palestinians, this service is not allowed. They are forced to pay the double payment $94 per person. Repeated requests to use the service on one side, like the rest of the Palestinians has been generally denied. This writer attempted such service but was denied by the Jordanians and was forced to pay $94 in advance. Attempts to demand the right by the Israelis to use part of the service, like other Palestinians was refused on the Jordanian side. The Israeli side had two alternatives, either you pay $46 in return for the service of getting your passport stamped and then take the bus and wait in line (the idea suggested by Mair of Lufer Aviation company) or that the passenger is dropped exactly at the bridge crossing where they can continue the trip by local bus (this idea was suggested by Barouch the Israeli deputy manager of the bridge).

Travel across the river Jordan especially in the summer months is a major calamity for Palestinians, especially those traveling along with their children. Politicians and officials can’t continue to ignore the problems that have been created by the calamity of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. People do suffer physically and their finances are depleted while others with dubious government connections are raking it tens of thousands every month. Unregulated and unsupervised monopolies taking advantage of travelers should be put to an immediate stop. Clear guidelines, reasonable prices and supervised work must replace the current chaotic system.

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