This week, hundreds of Palestinians attempting to return home using the only crossing point allowed to them, the King Hussein Bridge, found themselves stuck for hours and hours at the bridge.
It appears that Israeli bridge officials were not ready to accept the Palestinians, which included many umra pilgrims.
On Sunday and Monday the bridge was closed at noon, causing travellers who made it before closure nearly 10 hours of delay, while others arriving after that time were asked to come back the following day. Some, choosing to pay as much as $108 per person to cross the bridge using the VIP service, had to wait for at least four hours.
This is not the first time that Palestinians suffer from long delays, which is routine in summer months. Ever since October 2000, the Israelis got rid of the Palestinian police that was stationed at the bridge, reduced bridge hours from the 24 to an 8am-10pm weekday schedule and a much more reduced schedule on Fridays, Saturdays and on Jewish holidays. The Israeli airport and other crossing points are open around the clock, even during Jewish holidays.
Restriction of movement across the bridge is just one of many restrictions that have been imposed by the Israeli army and has not been retracted despite the relative quiet witnessed by the West Bank for years.
Ten years ago, the Bush administration brokered an agreement called roadmap. This multi-phased plan required Palestinians to democratise their government and the Palestinian security to keep the peace.
Israel was asked to freeze settlement activities, dismantle illegal (according to Israel itself) outposts and return the issue of movement of Palestinians to the pre-October 2000 situation.
In addition to the return of the Palestinian police at the bridge, the agreement requires Israel to remove the hundreds of checkpoints restricting internal movement.
Israel was required by the Oslo agreements and other more recent agreements to allow safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Except for a few days, the ability of the Palestinians to move between Gaza and the West Bank is highly restricted.
Palestinians have been seeking for years help on the issue of free movement by using the Gaza airport and by building a West Bank airport north of Jericho. The latter was part of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s statehood plan but has not moved at all because of Israeli restrictions on developing area C, which the Israeli army controls and which covers over 60 per cent of West Bank land.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to avoid any political solution to the 46-year-old occupation.
US Secretary of State John Kerry correctly explained to Netanyahu that what is needed is a political and not an economic peace. Kerry and Netanyahu have agreed to work on both.
International experts and UN institutions have repeatedly pointed out that the Israeli occupation is the main cause of the dire economic situation of the Palestinians.
The World Bank issued a report on the issue on March 19, saying that it “is important to recognise that the continued existence of a system of closures and restrictions is creating lasting damage to economic competitiveness in the Palestinian territories”.
The Palestinian government welcomed the World Bank report, saying that the only way to avert the threat to the economy would be to secure “an end to Israel’s occupation”.
“Israel’s continued military occupation, its system of restrictions and controls, the settlement regime and full control over Area C is an assault on Palestinian national rights to statehood and economic potential,” Palestinian government spokeswoman Nour Odeh said in a statement.
Palestinians, leaders and people, are quite sceptical that a peace agreement is around the corner. Some understand that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has little choice but to give US President Barack Obama’s overtures a chance over the next few months. However, when this period ends, we will be back to pretty much where we are now.
Privately, Abbas told his aides that even if there is no political breakthrough maybe he can gain the release of some prisoners, especially those from the pre-Oslo accords period.
While Abbas should continue to demand a settlement freeze and a demarcation of the borders of Palestine, he might wish to challenge the Israelis to bring back the Palestinian police to King Hussein Bridge as they were before October 2000, to allow free passage between Gaza and the West Bank and to start building the Jericho airport.
Ending the occupation should continue to be the goal of all Palestinians and of those supporting peace in the region. At the same time, free movement of people and goods, a prerequisite for economic development, must be guaranteed immediately.