Out of Jordan: Bridge of division takes on new perspective

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The Independent Online
AMMAN - On the West Bank it is known as the Allenby Bridge. In Jordan it is known as the King Hussein Bridge. But to most it is just known as 'the bridge'. For almost 25 years, this 30-yard span of wooden slats has been almost the only link between Palestinians on both sides, and a symbol of their arbitrary division. The rituals of the bridge, however, are about to change.

To cross the bridge from either side it is best to rise early, for it can take time. First you have to get 'the permission'. Then there are the long goodbyes. With 2 million Palestinians living in Jordan, and more than 1 million in the West Bank, any traveller is a 'go-between'.

'Remember me to my friends on the Mount of Olives,' says the receptionist at the Hisham Hotel in Amman, owned by Mohammed Hisham. He, like most Palestinians in Jordan, is a refugee from the other side, having fled the village of Ya'abed in 1967 when Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan. He then found that Israel had barred him from returning, except, if he was lucky, for a visit over the bridge.

The paper-seller chimes in: 'You know Nablus? My sister is in Nablus. Let me give you the address. They will give you a big dinner.' And Mohammed, the porter asks: 'You know my house in the Old City perhaps? How are they in Jerusalem? What do they think of the peace? Are they happy? What does Jerusalem look like now? Is it like Amman?'

Mohammed does not know because he has not been there since he fled. He, like most, has a dread of the bridge - of its 'permissions' and checks, and of the ritual humiliations of control imposed by Israeli security. 'Would they let me in you think? Will we be allowed back if there is peace? Do they say we might be one country? We are all the same. All Palestinians, East Bank and West.'

At last we are rolling out of Amman. In the rear-view mirror the contours of the driver's face appear familiar. 'Ah you know my brother probably, we are very alike. He is a driver at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. Say Mustapha says hello,' he says, turning off the narrow road on to a brand-new highway.

'You see the King must have known the peace was coming. He started building this road last year,' continues Mustapha. 'It will go to the bridge then on to Tel Aviv. Then there will have to be a new bridge.'

He points out Jericho, just beyond the fertile strip of green which marks out the Jordan river, loosely the boundary which has separated the banks since the war. 'You think Arafat will be back there soon? Will he want us back? What do they feel towards us in Jordan over there?

'Maybe I will go to work over there one day. When we have the peace we will go everywhere. But over there the Israelis are always stopping my brother, asking questions and coming in the night. At the bridge they keep me for hours. They ask me questions. They open the luggage and spoil my things. They make many problems. But not for you, you are not Palestinian.'

We turn into the East Bank terminal. 'Tourist tourist,' he shouts to the Jordanian soldiers, heading for the special tourist waiting-room. Everywhere permissions are being inspected and papers being waved. A tour operator is waiting for three Spaniards who were barred from entry because of an Israeli stamp in their passport.

The tourists giggle at the brown sliver of a river, and the sad little bridge they have been waiting to cross. 'Is that it?'

We pass the giant hangar where Palestinians are processed and climb into another taxi. Ahmed winds his way slowly up through the Israeli checkpoints, towards Jerusalem. 'What are they saying over there in Amman? My brother works there and his family. I visited him in 1985. Do they want to come? Will Israel let them? What do they say?' Passing by Jericho he points to a new house. 'That is the home of Arafat. He is coming back in January. What do they think of the peace in Amman?'