Asymmetries in Globalised Space: The Road Network in Palestine-Israel
On the border between Jordan and Palestine-Israel, August 2002
By the time we get to Amman, in Jordan, it’s the middle of the night. Illuminated signs revolve in the desert blackness, randomly lighting up the parched land along the road leading from the airport to the house where we’ll be spending the night. The glittering lights of exclusive nightclubs shine in the distance. We wake up early in the morning. A hard day of waiting and sun lies before us.
In order to come to Palestine with my wife Sandi and her parents, Anwar and Monira (all three with Palestinian passports), instead of taking the easy route via Tel Aviv which is barred to Palestinians, I decided to cross the border with them over what Jordanians call the King Hussein Bridge and the Israelis, the Allenby Bridge.
There are three border crossings between Jordan and Palestine: the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge is the closest one to Jerusalem. It’s built on the lowest ground in the area, at the same level as the Dead Sea. During the trip, the heat rises and the air pressure drops; ears pop and sweat runs down as our bodies attempt to compensate. The taxi that has ventured into this inhospitable land is an old Mercedes with a dozen seats, dilapidated on any terrain.
Here we are now, on the Jordanian side of the border. In silence, we get out of the vehicle. Sandi and her parents walk off a few yards toward the entry point reserved to Palestinians.
Left on my own, my defenses naturally go up and my attention is more on the alert. A young man takes the luggage from me and I automatically follow him. I wouldn’t know where else to go and there aren’t any signs with information written in a language I can decipher. The boy, around eighteen years old, takes me in front of a baggage track and sets the suitcases down on the rollers. He turns around, looks at me, and then leaves. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that my next stop is some seats set in the shade, out of the merciless August sun. A few minutes later I hear a voice behind me. I follow it and find myself at passport control. Everything’s in order.
After five minutes, I’m already in the no-man’s land. A ribbon of asphalt, fenced along the edges, with signs warning of landmine fields. Up ahead, there’s the Israeli checkpoint. Two young men with rifles dressed in camouflage make us get out of the bus to inspect it from top to bottom. A short time later they make us get on the bus again, but we only drive a few yards. Another checkpoint.
The Israeli flag flutters on top of the only hill rising out of the dry plateau. We’re stopped for another half hour. I don’t know why or what we’re waiting for. All of a sudden, a barrier lifts up and we’re free to pass over the Israeli border. A surreal expanse of green spreads out in front of our eyes: palm trees and flower beds. Welcome to Israel.
The border is not a line. It is a space with depth to it. The materials it’s made out of are the same as the ones in cities, but used differently. Here, for example, a retaining wall made out of reinforced concrete serves as a barricade.
Inside the border, the rules are few but essential. All flows are strictly monitored and controlled. The border is a machine which tears apart everything that crosses it into separate, classifiable elements, only to put them back again together somehow or another when they exit. This applies to people, too, not just objects.
When I get off the bus, I’m greeted by some young soldiers who look like American teenagers, with low-hung pants and baggy t-shirts. A female soldier comes up to me and asks me where I’m heading. “To Bethlehem,” I answer. “Follow me, please,” she says.
They take me out of the ‘normal’ line. I sit down and wait for the security staff. Another female soldier starts questioning me: where am I headed? Whose house am I going to? When will I be coming back? Where’s my luggage? The same questions asked in different ways for half an hour.
When the interrogation finishes, another soldier shows me into a dressing room. Very courteously, he asks me to undress. He checks every single piece of my clothing, then goes out, taking my shoes with him. I find myself back where I started from, only shoeless. Two hours have already gone by since we got to the border and I wonder just how long we are going to have to stay here.
They take me into another room and ask me to open up the suitcases that are arranged on steel tables, like meat in a butcher’s shop, easy to clean. Seated, I wait for every single thing I own to be inspected.
Truth be told, I was prepared for this treatment so I take it calmly, even when they tell me that my personal belongings may now be repacked after their vivisection: it’s the same feeling you get when you come home to find a burglar has dropped by in your absence. You feel violated: your dirty laundry, your agenda lying open, everything that’s been touched by other hands, the hands of complete strangers. I try not to lose my humanity, and with great calm and dignity I fold everything as if I am about to take my leave from a Grand Hotel. I will my gestures into slow motion, trying to be as refined as possible in spite of the vivisection lab I’ve wandered into.
This particular procedure is reserved to Palestinians and to anyone who has contact with them.
My clothes are now back in my suitcase. I think I’ve finally finished, but where’s my passport? They tell me I have to pick it up in an office near the exit: this is where I’m told to fill in yet another form, and I’m asked the same questions.
Four hours to cross the border. The border is not a line: you can’t cross it by stepping over it.
Once I’m over the border, the heat clutches at my throat and the light is blinding. We bargain with a taxi driver over the fare for the trip. The discussion goes on longer than expected because there are problems reaching Bethlehem. To get there, you first have to pass through Jerusalem. That would be the easiest route in theory, but Palestinians are not authorised to go there. The taxi driver doesn’t want to risk any of the rural routes because there might be roadblocks on them. We agree on a relay arrangement: the first taxi will take us as far as the outskirts of Jerusalem, and from there we’ll have to get ourselves another ride.