Heading into Israel: Allenby Border Control

Culture Shock got a new name today. It’s called Allenby Border Control, sometimes more affectionately referred to as Allenby Bridge. It’s Israel’s busiest land border, connecting the country of Jordan with the West Bank. Busy could actually be an understatement – as Palestinians are not allowed to use Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport, the only way for any of them to leave the country is to travel to Jordan and use Amman as the regional hub.

Heading down from Amman into the Jordan Rift Valley, Jordan’s border with Israel.

In addition, Jordan has the largest amount of Palestinian refugees. A grand total of one and a half million Palestinians were living inside Jordan refugee camps on UN travel documents. Half of Jordanians are in fact Palestinians, but many of them did receive Jordanian citizenship. This naturally entails a lot of cross-border traffic to visit family.

The Culture Shock I referred to is mainly related to the military display of prowess on both ends. Where on the Jordanian and Syrian borders, officers are generally somewhat older people from a military pedigree who are looking for a quiet place to settle down, Israel has a completely opposite approach. While passing through the various checkpoints (which include a metal detector, an explosives “sniffer” and a long, long immigration line), you generally only see 18 year old soldiers, all armed with M16 rifles. The vast majority of them are female, another sharp contrast to the surrounding Islamic countries.

One issue that this creates is a thorough lack of respect between both parties. Natural, ingrained respect for elders is replaced by fortified, nurtured respect for weapons. While the western world has a false perspective of the Middle East as a violent region, people there are generally unaccustomed to the unnecessary use of weapons and feel quite uncomfortable being confronted with them continuously.

Another issue that 18 year olds generally are not the most moderate soldiers around. This is by no means intended as criticism, but moderation is created by experience, something an 18 year old will just not possess when he starts border duty. While this doesn’t appear to translate into violent conduct by the border officers, it does clearly result in a lack of cultural sensitivity, and lack of understanding of specific situations which are uncommon in Israel (to give you an idea, the average number of children in a Palestinian household is about 6, whereas Israeli Jews have only about 3).

The shock of moving from Jordan into the West Bank makes it impossible for Arab communities to like the way they are being treated. Due to the large families involved and the numerous checks, immigration tends to take a long, long time. An extended family of eight just in front of me had their documents taken from them and verified for about 40 minutes. During the checks, suddenly the border control officer stood up, and started taking pictures of the immigration hall with her cell phone. This in a location where photography was clearly prohibited by explicit signs. It was a tell-tale story: a busy day at the border, and one kid trying to impress another by the volume of traffic to deal with. Completely understandable, for an 18 year old, but less so for someone who is the first respectable sign of entry into a country.

While these observations proved interesting, I was in it for the long haul. Having arrived at the Jordanian end of the border, I would not be accepted into the country until 18h30 in the evening. This was quite unusual, as it was the shabbath – the border in fact closed at 14h30 in the afternoon.

I have to admit that I didn’t make it particularly easy on immigration: I had come from Syria (a big no-no if you’re trying to enter Israel, as both countries are still technically at war), did not have a hotel reservation, did not have any Israel money on me and did not have a print-out of my departure flight. Above all, I was staying in East Jerusalem, a predominantly Arab neighborhood where my tourist sheckles were unlikely to flow into Jewish owned shops.

After 10 hours of waiting, I was hushed into a small office where I met a senior border officer. After a brief chat, he had one real question of interest: which country proved most interesting and enjoyable along the path that had gotten me to this office. There was an easy answer and a difficult one. I’ll leave it up to your imagination what the answer was and how the conversation worked out. Otherwise, buy me a beer one day and I’ll give you the full story.

At six-fourty-five I was surprised to see that the small bunch of fellow “special cases” whom I had spent the afternoon with waiting for immigration to progress, had actually waited for me at a servees, or local service taxi, and all of us left together to East Jerusalem, destination Damascus Gate.

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