Aug 25 2000

Blue is the color of travel

Published by at 2:46 am under Articles,Travel Blues

Travel in the Middle East is one of the best reflections of the politics of the area. What happens at airports, bridges and other ground crossing points is so indicative of the low level of respect that governments have for human beings. There are VIP tracks for politicians and businesspeople with connections to senior politicians. Special service is made for holders of foreign passports (a US passport is great so long as it doesn’t say in it born in Jerusalem). Tourists travelling in groups also have special services. When crossing the Erez checkpoint (called Beit Hanoun crossing by Palestinians or the Allenby Bridge (called King Hussein Bridge by Jordanians and Al Karam crossing by Palestinians) Jerusalem residents have special services — which is slightly better than that of Palestinians from the West Bank. Palestinians from Gaza get the worst deal. 

Travelling by air requires special permits and includes extra special (not so pleasant) treatment. All air travellers (except Israeli Jews) may be quizzed (not to say interrogated) upon leaving and Palestinian travellers (including those with foreign passports) get an extra bonus of being frisked and sometimes body searched upon leaving and they also have the privilege of being the only national group that is quizzed upon arriving.

Palestinians travelling in Arab countries also face problems. To enter Syria or Lebanon you need to have a passport that has not been stamped by Israel or issued in Jerusalem. Palestinians with Jordanian passports but without Jordanian citizenship are said to be banned entry into Lebanon and Syria.

But these travel blues don’t apply only at national and international border crossings. The road system in and around Jerusalem is one of the best political guideposts. Roads are well paved in Jewish Israeli populated areas and are full of pot holes when you get to the Palestinian neighborhoods. The same applies to pavements, street lighting and other basic infrastructure issues. Bypass roads to Israeli settlements in the West Bank are well taken care of.

The streets in major Palestinian cities have improved tremendously in recent years. Locals and visitors quickly notice a tangible change travelling the main roads in Gaza, Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem.

One area that has yet to see any improvements are roads that are in what is being popularly referred to as no man’s zone. Perhaps the best example of such roads is the main road connecting Jerusalem with Ramallah especially in the area between Al Ram and the entrance of Al Bireh. While this road is in a built up Palestinian area, it is officially considered by Israel as part of Jerusalem. The road is not even listed in terms of the Oslo agreement’s A, B & C classifications. So while from the Israeli point of view this road is part of Israel, the Israelis pay little attention to it ever since they built the Ramallah bypass road.

A few months ago a boy was run over near the Qalandia refugee camp. Local residents unable to get drivers to slow down decided on their own to dig two small trenches in the road forcing speedy cars to slow down. The trenches caused major delays (as well as many more accidents and car breakdowns).

While the road continues to be bad, this week the hole was filled and new bumps were created instead. While driving past the Qalandia refugee camp, I also noticed that the entrance to the camp, which had been closed for years, as collective punishment to the residents for stoning Israeli cars, was now open. A news item on Israel radio the day before had said that the Israelis had arrested a group of Palestinians who had recently burnt three Israeli buses as they passed Qalandia. The news report noted that the arrest came as a result of cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces.

So the moral of the story at least as far as those in power want us to believe seems clear. The people of the Middle East will not be able to travel freely until the various competing security forces in the region cooperate and coordinate their efforts. Meanwhile the simple citizen of the Middle East will have to suffer as he or she travels within his own country or as they cross borders and pass through airports

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