american in palestine

Saturday, July 08, 2006

crossing the jordan river with a paralyzed palestinian

here is the story of me (an american) and my fiance (palestinian - t6 para) crossing the jordan river:

a little while back, my visa for israel reached an expiration, and the interior ministry said i had to leave the country and then come back to get a new visa. so my fiance (a paralyzed palestinian) and i decided to make a short vacation out of it - go to jordan, visit his aunt and uncle, spend a few days, and come back again.

but all that is much easier said than done. the only place palestinians are allowed to cross into jordan is an israeli-controlled border crossing (well, every inch of the border is controlled by israel) called 'allenby bridge'.

i just read a blog entry by an american traveller who recently crossed the allenby and said "By the time we got through customs, the entire process from the taxi drop-off till then was less than two hours - amazing, for one of the most notorious border crossings in the world, I thought." (see: http://www.andycarvin.com/archives/1995/11/crossing_the_allenby.html ). but he wasn't travelling with a palestinian (let alone a palestinian in a wheelchair).

the israeli border authority states very clearly in their policy:
"The border terminals were planned to be accessible to passengers with disabilities, taking into consideration and providing solutions for the unique needs of assisted travelers, so as to enable them to receive services in person and independently. As part of the service, passengers may apply to the terminal’s personnel for assistance and help. Passage through the terminal, both on departure and on arrival, is uncomplicated, accessible to the disabled and unimpeded in all directions."
-http://www.iaa.gov.il/Rashat/en-US/Borders/Alenbi/UsefulTerminalInfo/Accessibility

again, while this may all be true for tourists, it doesn't apply to palestinians. soo......in planning our trip, we anticipated a lack of accessibility, and called the allenby bridge management office to see what we could do to make it easier. after the usual bureaucratic run-around, i managed to piece together that we had three options:
1. get permission from the local Israeli military authority to go by taxi (known as the "District Coordination Office" - located in an Israeli military base, alongside an Israeli settlement, a half-hour drive away from the Palestinian district it serves -- this is the place Palestinians must go for any type of permission, permits, licenses, or to present evidence on charges made against them - there is no court available to palestinians)

2. get permission from the Israelis (same way) to go by ambulance.

3. go the same way able-bodied palestinians go - with three bus transfers, no access to his wheelchair, and long hours of waiting in the hot sun.

we decided to try option #1 - since my fiance is handicapped, NOT sick, there is no reason for him to take an ambulance (and no hospital would give the required permission for him to go by ambulance anyway, due to the fact that he's not sick), and taking a taxi across would bypass the non-accessible buses. the only other time he crossed the border, in 1998, he was allowed to go by taxi due to his being in a wheelchair.

so, we figured, since the Israeli authorities are so insistent that their facilities are handicap-friendly, surely they will give permission for him to go by taxi. we drove down to the DCO (District Coordination Office), waited for an hour outside the gate of the military base with a number of other palestinians waiting for various permissions, were told that the commander we needed to see was busy eating, and we would have to wait a bit longer, and finally he came to the gate and took the papers, explaining to him that we needed to cross the bridge by taxi, as the normal method (by buses) is not handicap-accessible. he said he would call us with the answer that night.

when a day went by with no reply, we tried calling the commander ourselves. after several hours of busy tones and no reply, we managed to get through, and he said "Taxi service is only for VIPs. You're not a VIP, so you have to go by bus", (!) as if he hadn't understood our WHOLE REASON for applying for permission to go by taxi! when I told him that, yes, there was a problem to go by bus, because the buses are not handicap-accessible, he said 'this conversation is over', and hung up the phone. and of course we couldn't reach him again.

we looked into going by ambulance, but the hospitals told us that this was only possible if my fiance were going to jordan for specialized treatment at a hospital there -- but since he is handicapped, NOT SICK, and the trip to Jordan was for vacation, not treatment, they couldn't arrange for an ambulance for him.

so we were stuck with option #3 - to go with the rest of the people by bus. we left the house at 6 am and arrived into Jericho at 8. There were already several buses full of people waiting for their turn to cross. But we had called ahead to the Palestinian guards there and they let us go in front, which saved about two hours of waiting. But this was still on the Palestinian side.....our journey across the border had not yet even begun.

we had to leave our bags, the guards insisted that the Israelis would not allow us to have ANYTHING with us (even my fiance's wheelchair and his medicine -- ie. things needed for him to catheterize and use the toilet - which he needs to do every three hours), and they loaded the bags onto a truck along with everyone else's. we arrived to the first checkpoint and they wheeled out a chair for him.

he transferred from the taxi into their chair, and we entered the checkpoint. as we got to the desk, an israeli soldier checked our passports, then said, "You can't go by bus. You have to get permission to go by ambulance." I explained to her that the Commander at the District Coordination Office had said that we couldn't have permission to go by taxi, that we would have to go by bus. She insisted that we couldn't go by bus, and that we'd have to go back to the District Coordination Office and get permission to go by ambulance. A male soldier, much more aggressive and agitated than the woman (or shall I say, girl -- all of them looked to be about 18 years old), then literally pushed us back across the gate where we had come in, saying we couldn't stay in the checkpoint, we had to go back.

Sitting in the hot sun outside the gate, I called the Administration office of the Allenby Bridge Border Crossing and told them the situation - that I was with a palestinian in a wheelchair at the Jericho checkpoint, and we needed to cross to Jordan. The person I spoke to must have been unaware of what the soldiers at the checkpoint had told us, because he said, "Okay, I will send a car over to fetch you right now." Well, he must have then checked with someone, who must have told him not to do that, because an hour later, no car had arrived, and we were still waiting in the hot sun outside the gate to the checkpoint. So I called again, and spoke to someone who was familiar with our situation already, and she said, "I thought you had said it was impossible for him to go by bus"....I answered, "no, not impossible, just extremely difficult." I guess she then called someone, because the next thing I knew, the first soldier, who had told us we couldn't go by bus, was opening the gate and motioning us to enter the checkpoint. As we arrived at the desk where she was standing, she said quietly, "OK, you can go by bus". And the soldier who had aggressively pushed us out of the checkpoint was nowhere to be seen.

This was now 10:00, four hours since my fiance had used the toilet - our luggage (his toilet necessities) was nowhere to be seen, probably it had crossed the border already without us - and we were just making it through the first checkpoint! With the help of an Israeli soldier with a gun on his shoulder, I managed to lift my fiance into the empty bus (basically like a greyhound bus, with several steep steps to enter). When the next busload of Palestinians arrived, they all had to pile in through the back door because he was sitting in a front seat that was blocking the door - but none of them seemed to mind, they were all very friendly, just thirsty and hot (the Israelis won't even allow people to carry food and water during the many hours of waiting, and you can guess the children were feeling antsy and the old people were moaning of thirst).

Three checkpoints later (with a delay at each one), we were entering the terminal! Some of the guys on the bus helped carry my fiance out of the bus and set him on a tree planter full of gravel until a porter came out wheeling the most sorry excuse for a wheelchair I think I've ever seen. The backrest, made of mesh, was coming off, and was torn off halfway already. One footrest was gone, the other bent down, dragging along the ground as it wheeled. The wheels were screwy, not wheeling straight, and loose, and the thin mesh seat was caved in.

Well, we got him into the wheelchair and were promptly separated -- in keeping with the apartheid system in place in the rest of Israel, there are two separate terminals - one for Palestinians, one for Israelis and internationals. I was brought to the Israeli/international side, and my fiance was wheeled into the Palestinian side. Distraught at being separated, we were told, "Don't worry, it's only for fifteen minutes."

Four hours, three searches, and a long interrogation later, I was beginning to lose my patience. Instead of simply stamping my passport, the Israeli officials (should I say 'officials'? They were all under 20 years old) took my passport, made me wait and wait, and move to another building, searched me, searched me again, searched me a third time, made me wait, and then took me to a little room. I was taken into the office of a bespectacled, bald man who looked at me with suspicion and began to question me. He seemed to be the only 'official' over 20 years old in the whole place! He asked me lots of questions about who I knew, what work I did, what languages I knew, what Arab countries I had been to, whether I had ever been to a protest, if I was a member of any organizations, and typed everything into a computer as I answered. At one point during the interrogation, he said to me, "Arabs don't like foreigners in their immediate surroundings - so, they've been talking to us about you." I thought this statement was extremely racist, and obviously not true - I think he was just trying to gauge my reaction. I was questioned and questioned, and then made to wait some more. When I asked to call the American Consulate, I was told, "No", but five minutes later, I was told I was "finished", and brought back to where my poor fiance was waiting for me, still sitting in that horrible broken chair, having gone ten hours without using the toilet. I was given my passport back, stamped, and told I could proceed to the Jordanian side.

So we recruited a couple of young Palestinian guys who helped lift my fiance out of that awful chair and onto the second bus, which was like a city bus, which brought us out of the Israeli terminal and to an outdoor bus depot where bags and luggage were strewn everywhere on the street and sidewalk, and told to get out of the bus and retrieve our luggage. Luckily it was all there, and my fiance was able to use the toilet - filthy, basic, unsanitary, but when you gotta go (after 10 hours of waiting), well, ya gotta go.



We then lifted him into the third bus and made it across the Jordan river to the Jordanian terminal, where the people were friendly and helpful, and he was allowed to sit in his own wheelchair. Fifteen minutes later, we were in a taxi on our way to Amman.

What to do? Well, one thing to do would be to contact the ombudsman of the Israel Airports Authority, the government department that controls the borders, and complain about the lack of accomodation for handicapped Palestinians crossing the border at Allenby Bridge, and asking that people who are confined to wheelchairs be allowed to go by car instead of by bus, and sit in their own wheelchairs while crossing through the terminal.
email: telmas@iaa.gov.il, aviaa@iaa.gov.il
The Director-General of the Israel Airports Authority is Gabi Ophir (former chief of the Home Front Command in the Israeli Army). I haven't been able to find any contact information for him, but it might be worth emailing the Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Aharon Abramovitch, at:
mankal@mfa.gov.il

And as for the interrogation I was subjected to, I guess it is for the 'horrible crime' of being engaged to a Palestinian.

Journalists have also complained of the long, invasive interrogations at borders and airports.
see: https://lists.resist.ca/pipermail/project-x/2003-July/004147.html
and: http://www.fpa.org.il/?categoryId=422

And 'Arab-Israelis' (that is, Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship and constitute 20% of the Israeli population, and are no longer considered to be Palestinians) have complained of the 'racial profiling' that they are constantly subjected to throughout Israel, but especially upon entry and exit from the country:
see: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3238101,00.html

sigh. so now i am back in the prison called palestine. stay tuned for my next entry in this exciting saga, in which an entire population is punished for the taking of an israeli soldier two weeks ago in a military ambush that would be considered perfectly legitimate in normal warfare but in this case, because it was carried out by palestinians, is considered 'kidnapping' by 'terrorist cells', and 1.2 million palestinians living in Gaza are being punished for the deed. electricity cut, water contaminated, surrounded on all sides by thousands of israeli tanks, airplanes, war ships, 500 shells a night, over 40 killed this week - families killed in their homes, kids shot down, run over by tanks in the street......and the hope for peace that was extended by hamas in their recognizing israel for the first time last week, making a concession in order to move toward peace, has been dashed......palestinian kids in gaza are picking up their slingshots, and the few rusty kalashnikov rifles from russia left over from the 67 war, and preparing to take on the fourth-largest army in the world (israel) that is once again invading (what's left of) their land.

4 Comments:

  • Thanks for quoting from my blog. One correction, though - I didn't cross the border recently. That blog entry is from November 1995, the morning of Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. I would imagine the border process would be much slower now.

    By Blogger Andy Carvin, at 8:04 AM  

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    By Blogger AnJaka, at 10:26 AM  

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