Bureaucracy proves tougher than barbed wire

AMMAN - The Jordanian official at the King Hussein Bridge was afraid yesterday to give his views on the cause of the chaos and squalor outside his door, writes Sarah Helm. 'They are our enemy,' he said of his Israeli counterparts on the West Bank at the other side of the 30m bridge. 'I am afraid they will do something worse, something more to make the people here suffer.

'They have said they will take 3,000 Palestinians daily. Last Friday they took 500 only. Saturday they take none. Today at 8am they said they would take only 2,000. We do not have enough water, and many people have been taken to hospital; but they still hope to get across to see their families, whom many have not seen for three years.'

It was 40C outside the immigration terminal, and one little girl, dressed in a stiff nylon bridesmaid's dress, sat slumped in her mother's arms. Boys were clustered round a standpipe. A lone bus stood idle, its roof piled with luggage. Plastic fans were wafting the flies back and forth as mothers and babies sat patiently, clutching forms that they thrust at passing officials. Many had been waiting for several days, some for weeks.

On the Jordanian side of the bridge, bureaucratic hell has been let loose, stopping up to 100,000 Palestinians, many of whom work abroad, from returning home for summer visits to the West Bank and Gaza.

Unprecedented numbers have arrived at the bridge this year. Israel demands that all Palestinians working abroad must return to renew residency rights every three years; many postponed visits during the Gulf crisis, and this therefore is their last chance.

But thousands have made the journey in vain, their route across the bridge barred by Israeli immigration quotas. Of the estimated 100,000 who have been waiting, 40,000 remain, the rest having wasted their holiday leave and given up. Israeli officials on the West Bank claim ignorance of the crisis. They say they are letting in more visitors this year than before: that Palestinians are crossing at the rate of 3,500 a day. They say that Israeli soldiers, who check each crease in a child's frock, each seam in a shirt for explosives, cannot be expected to work longer hours. And they say that the rise in 'visitors' is a sign that Palestinians want to come back now that the peace process is going well and life is improving.

The scenes on the East Bank, however, show these claims to be a hideous distortion. The Jordanian officials can only scoff. 'They just want to force people to turn back. It is a good way to do it. It is voluntary transfer.'

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