The new Jordan River Bridge that has been built with Japanese money is impressive in its structure. Towering so high the new bride along with a short stretch of a four-lane highway is scheduled to be completed by March 15th. The contractors seem on time but it is unlikely that any Japanese or Jordanian official will be cutting the ribbon of the new structure any time soon. The bridge built at a level much higher than the existing landscape looks like overkill. The trickle of water that flows underneath clearly give the impression that the major purpose of the bridge is not simply to cross what is left of the waters of the Jordan River but to indicate the Japanese support for the need for heavy usage of people and goods between Palestine in the West of the Jordan River and the Kingdom of Jordan to the East.
No dignitaries will be making the trip to inaugurate the new crossing point because the number of people crossing it has dwindled faster than the trickles of water flowing under the huge bridge.
The bridge has three names/ Israelis refer to it as Allenby Bridge (in reference to the British Officer) who came across it in the beginning of the century thus ending 400 years of Turkish rule and replacing it with British colonial rule. The Hashmite Kingdom of Jordan, which came to being in the middle of 20th century, gave the bridge the name of its longest living ruler King Hussein. The Palestinian Authority which became partially in control of the bridge as a result of the Oslo Agreements calls it the Karameh crossing in reference to the battle between Palestinian fedayeen and the Israeli army which tried to invade their encampment in the east bank in the late 60s.
Regardless of the name, the opening of the bridge for the movement of people back and forth was part of the policy of the then Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Dayan’s open bridge policy was aimed at leaving a release valve for Palestinians so that they will not explode from the pressure cooker of the Israeli occupation.
To be sure the open bridges policy was no picnic. Humiliating Israeli policy, which included strip searches, x-rays of shoes and men’s headdress and going through every piece of clothing, made the short trip (especially in the summer) a hell of an experience. The formerly short 90-minute trip from Amman to Jerusalem became an all day affair. The procedures eased and the strip searches were cancelled once the Palestinian Authority with its flag and police came to be the juniors to the Israelis who continued to have overall control of the crossing point.
For better or worse, the bridge was never closed (except for holidays). Those leaving for a visit, to work abroad or to study always knew they could go and come back. Summer and holiday visitors from Jordan also knew they could visit and return. The bridge stayed open despite wars (1973 & 1982), internal crisis, Intifada, shootings; killings. Never was the bridge closed to the public. Sure political activists were often barred travel, but for every day Palestinians, there was never a time when they couldn’t make the trip, or were afraid that if they crossed from one direction to the other, that they will be trapped.
The recent months have witnessed the most dramatic change on the Jordan River crossing since 1967. First it became difficult to cross because Jericho was a closed area. Taxi drivers found alternative ways to circumvent the Israeli checkposts. So the Israeli army dug trenches around Jericho so that cars couldn’t enter. But people continued finding ways, including traveling by foot to make it to Jericho and from there to the bridge and freedom.
Now came the new regulation, the bridge itself was closed to traffic, except for special cases. Special permits are now needed to make the trip to Jordan. VIP permits to members of the Palestinian Authority have been revoked. Haj Ismael, a taxi driver who has been working the bridge route on the Jordanian side, confirms that never in 34 years has the situation been this bad. There is a drop of more than 80% of passengers, he said to me Monday.
The result, not only has reduced the number of travelers but it has even affected business in Jordan. Business people interviewed on the new internet radio Ammannet (www. ammannet.net) blamed the major drop in the business over the Id Al Adha holiday to the absence of the visitors who normally come to see relatives over the holidays.
Moshe Dayan’s open bridges policy was aimed at delaying the inevitable by giving Palestinians a release valve. The present closed bridges policy means either that the Israeli leadership is willing to take its chances with a major explosion, or they expect a radical solution soon in which they will forever give up control over the Jordan River crossing even despite the eight million dollars the Japanese laid out to make it a major crossing for people and goods. Let us hope and pray that the latter is the case, otherwise, may God help all of us once the explosion takes place.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.