Terminal of despair
By Gideon Levi - Ha'aretz (July 15, 2004)
With no duty-free shopping, no flight attendants, no "last call for
flight number ...," the Palestinians' summer vacation is off to a bad
start. It's the kind of hardship that only they, apparently, having
already had their fill of checkpoints, can withstand with such
patience. Two or three days on the floor, with the children and the
old people, until the long-awaited turn comes and the Israelis let
them cross the bridge into Jordan on their way to the rest of the
world, via the last remaining escape hatch from their prison on the
West Bank. Two or three days on the floor - until the afternoon hours
in the new, air-conditioned hall built with Japanese donations; it
closes at four and then - until the next morning - they have to wait
outside on the scorching sand, under the margosa trees, on wooden
mats in the waiting area alongside the blazing asphalt road, or in
the cramped hostels of Jericho, for whoever can still afford to pay
NIS 75 per person per night.
Thousands of people are waiting. For two entire days, sometimes
three. They leave their homes in Jenin or Hebron in the middle of the
night, spend hours trying to traverse the roads of the West Bank and
its checkpoints to arrive in Jericho at dawn and get a number that
will only be good two days later, and they wait and wait and wait.
Nobody gets through on the day he arrives. That just doesn't happen.
This week there was no one who waited only one day. The wait was
two days and up for those on the way to a summer visit to relatives
in Jordan, to work in Saudi Arabia or to a new life in California. It
all has to begin here, ever since Israel closed Ben-Gurion airport to
the Palestinians. Just imagine yourself subjected to something like
this on your way to a Club Hotel in Greece. All the rest of the year
these people live under the harsh conditions of the occupation and
now they just want to escape for a moment, to be reunited with family
and to get away from the horrors of life here for a little while.
On Sunday afternoon, the waiting hall for departing travelers - the
istiraha - in the Beit Hanetivot facility in Jericho looks like a
becalmed battlefield: Hundreds of men, women and children are sitting
in remarkable order, faint from the heat and exhausted from waiting.
Some lie prone on the floor, sleeping in midday; some stare blankly
ahead as if dazed with sunstroke. Every so often, the next number is
announced over the loudspeaker - 1,000 or 2,000 numbers before the
numbers on the blue slips held by those who arrived yesterday; 3,000
before the numbers held by those who arrived today - and everyone
waits submissively and obediently. There's nothing to lose, nothing
to look forward to. Every once in a while, a baby starts crying or an
old woman sighs, but most of the time it is astoundingly quiet in
this terminal of despair.
Three pictures of Arafat and three pictures of fallen men adorn the
rusty shipping container that serves as a headquarters for the
security forces in Beit Hanetivot. The fallen are all from Qalqilya,
as are some of the soldiers of the Palestinian unit that guards the
istiraha. There are no Israelis here, which almost gives the place a
semblance of Palestinian sovereignty - which is utterly deceptive,
since only the Israelis decide who will pass through here and when.
The reception area has a tin ceiling and is not air-conditioned. It
is furnished with a bunch of worn-out wooden benches that seem to
absorb the heat. At the entrance to the new departure hall, which was
built by UN development agencies, a marble plaque reads: "Under the
patronage of His Excellency, Yasser Arafat, President of Palestine,
this hall was dedicated on February 27, 2004 thanks to the generous
contribution of the Japanese government."
It's hard to imagine how things looked here before the air-
conditioned, Japanese-funded hall was inaugurated. But last year,
fewer travelers passed through here and they waited less time. About
a dozen years ago, when we visited here once in the middle of the
night, we saw 600 Mercedes taxis waiting for sunrise and their
passengers spread out on the ground in the fields of Jericho,
lighting spectacular bonfires. Only the scenery has changed for the
disheartening waiting here.
There is enviable order and patience here - after 37 years of
occupation, the Palestinians have been well-trained. There is no
aggravation, no anger, no one loses it. They sit quietly and wait for
two days. Azmi Daoud, a Saudi English teacher, is also sitting
quietly on the floor. He's been sitting there for over 12 hours now,
along with his five children, and he's considered a newcomer here.
Just half a day. He used to come here once a year to visit family in
the village where he was born - Beit Lid, between Tul Karm and
Nablus. But he hadn't been here to see his parents in two years and
hadn't brought his children here in six years, to see their
grandparents and cousins, because of the hardships of the
journey and the dangers lurking at every turn. The announcer comes
over the loudspeaker: "The drivers from Bethlehem are asked to leave
the hall immediately. Yalla - drivers outside now."
Azmi Daoud is on his way back to Saudi Arabia. He left his family's
home in Beit Lid at two in the morning. At five, he reached the
Jericho checkpoint just as it was opening. At six, he arrived here.
Number 5,000 and about 3,000 people ahead of him in line. With a bit
of luck, he'll make it out of here tomorrow; if not, then it will be
the day after that.
The Israelis have just found a suspicious object on the bridge and
for the last hour no one has been allowed to cross. You never know
how many people will get through here on any given day. There are
days when 30 buses are allowed to pass, and days when only five are.
Daoud spent three weeks in his village and now he just wants to get
out of here. He won't come back next year. "I don't like to
sit here like this on the floor. I'm not used to sitting on the
floor. My children have never slept on the floor. We waited an hour
at the Jericho checkpoint. There was also another checkpoint on the
way. We left the village at night on rocky roads and I was terrified.
It was never like this before. This was the first time I was riding
in a car at night among the olive trees and I was very frightened.
Maybe a helicopter would see us and shoot at us? Maybe a tank?" He
drove 22 hours from Riyadh to Amman, the gas cost him the equivalent
of about NIS 400, and he left the car in Amman. Leaving here, he'll
pay NIS 135 shekels, like every traveler. It's one of the country's
most profitable enterprises.
The announcer: "Numbers 2,400-2,420 may pass through now."
Three older women are lying on the floor in the corner of the hall.
Hadra Abdel Aziz left her home in Hawara at 3:30 in the morning. She
arrived here at 8 A.M. About a month ago, she brought her 17-year-old
son to her family in Jordan, to get him away from all the mess here
for a little while, and now she's going to bring him back; she won't
let him try to get through the trip alone. Her other two sons are
also on their way to Amman from their homes in the U.S. and then
they'll all come back together for a visit. Hadra is number 4,807.
Number 2,420 was just called. She has no chance of getting out of
here today, and tomorrow isn't looking much better. Inshallah, she'll
be on her way two days from now. The trip to Amman will cost her NIS
420 and she has nothing left to pay for a hotel in Jericho or to go
back and forth between here and her village to sleep. She'll wait
here and sleep outside.
Her neighbor on the floor, Hadiya Hassan from Anin, is also going to
Jordan. She arrived here yesterday morning and holds number 3,053.
She's praying to make it out of here today; there are another
thousand numbers before her. Last night she slept on a bench outside.
The announcer: "Everyone please step back from the counters."
"Help me," whispers the old woman from Anin. "I have high blood
pressure." Her daughter lives in Amman and she is going to visit her.
She brought with her enough food for one day and now it has run out.
Dalal al-Halaq, an attractive young woman originally from Rihiya near
Hebron, is sitting here too. She left her home at 3:30 in the morning
and holds number 3,416. Her three children, ages six, three and one
and a half, are lying on the floor beside her, fast asleep. She
married a Jordanian and came with her children to visit her family in
the village. She speaks softly, almost in a whisper, her face showing
all the exhaustion of the summer vacation that is about to come to an
end, after another day or two on the floor with the three little
ones. She hadn't been to visit her parents in five years and she
probably won't come back for another five. Meanwhile, she uses her
son's cap to shoo flies away from his face. The announcer again asks
everyone to move back from the counters. "There are another seven
buses today. There's nothing to worry about."
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