CROSSING ISRAELI CHECKPOINT
As a seasoned traveller, and having been to Israel several hundred times, I have encountered many different approaches at the borders. To enter Israel is pretty easy - no visa is required, and I have always a 'welcome to Israel' and I'm on my way within minutes. Leaving is a different matter. Every single time since 1987, I have experienced the deluge of questions to exit.
This week, I was invited to meet an old schoolfriend, who is an expat living in Amman. Currently in Israel, it was so close I couldn't refuse the offer. Being in possession of a British passport, I decided to cross through the King Hussein Border or what is commonly known as the Allenby Bridge.
I travelled to Jericho, and first had to cross the Palestinian border. The tax payable was around 200 shekels. I had arranged a visa the same day which only took an hour, at a cost of 360 shekels. Once through, I boarded a bus and we travelled to the next checkpoint, which is the Israeli one. Smooth sailing - no questions like at Ben Gurion. But I was delayed when passing through the x ray machine. I had to pay another tax before passing through.
Back on the bus and into the Jordanian control. They certainly like the British, and I was treated like a VIP. I was taken to the right passport control, and treated like royalty.
After a wonderful day in Amman, and a fabulous meal, it was time to return to Israel. As a European I am accustomed to travelling on day trips from the UK to Europe, at very cheap prices, and an open lifestyle. I was not expecting any difficulties in returning.
First stop Jordan border. There I had to pay an exit task of around 60 shekels. It took a little time, and I was told to wait for the tourist bus to drive us to the Israeli checkpoint. But, there were none! After waiting for an hour, given tea and great hospitality, it was decided I would be driven alone on the small coach. They told me I was getting real VIP treatment!
It is a very short drive - only a couple of kilometres. Along the road is a small checkpoint where the bus is checked and passports handed over. Of course there was just me, and there was a small delay whilst the security officer debated with the driver. We were allowed to pass. A few minutes later we reached a barrier. The driver was told to reverse and wait. We got out of the bus, and took a selfie together. I took a few pictures of the sun setting, and the empty coach. After 10 minutes, we were able to pass. A few metres more, and another barrier, another discussion and some surprise there was only one passenger.
As soon as I left the coach a security guy came to me. There were queues of people waiting to go through passport control outside. He asked me immediately for my phone, and questioned me regarding every single photo I had taken. He decided which ones I could keep and told me to delete a number of others, then walked to another security officer, telling her this was urgent, and she must question me. They also questioned the driver, and then took him away. I was told not to take pictures of anything else. Then I was told to go and get a sticker for my passport as I had only hand luggage and go through.
I entered the building to an enormous queue for for the x ray machine for hand luggage. Once it was my turn, I was then told I didn't have enough stickers, and had to go back outside! I returned to the original security guard, who was great, and took me to another booth to get yet another sticker. Finally - I'm through...or that's what I thought.
I was then faced with another booth and hundreds of people queuing. I'd only left for a 24 hour period and didn't know what to do. I asked again. Some were helpful, others were not, and told me I had to wait. The hall was full of Jordanians, and a handful of tourists - who were taken to the side and passed through quickly. But I wasn't allowed to go with them. I had to wait. When I reached the booth a couple of hours later, the questions started again. What was the purpose of my visit? Did I want to make Aliya? If not, why not? Endless. The young man in the booth concentrated on his computer screen as if studying for an exam. He called someone else over. More questions followed. I repeatedly said I was just coming back from a day trip. It had been 4 hours since I passed the Jordan border, and I was feeling exhausted and tetchy. It was getting uncomfortable and unpleasant and I had someone who was going to help me find the right bus waiting outside. After what seemed an age - I was given my entry visa and lots of advice about being in Israel.
Surely this was it! I turned a corner to be met by another booth and a turnstile, and another long queue. More questions, more stares, and I could pass. A metre ahead of me yet another turnstile. More questions. I wondered how there could be questions with a journey of only 3 steps from the previous booth. Eventually, I was able to go through. Even the Jordanians were showing some sympathy for me.
I could see 'freedom' ahead of me, the fresh air. I was finally out, and needed to find the right bus. But before I took a few steps, another security guard grabbed my arm. 'Wait' he said. He took my phone, and started asking questions again. I became indignant and said I refused to go through this all again. He told me it was illegal to take photos of public buildings, and warned me not to take any more photos, and if I did, he would take the phone and delete everything in it. Ordering me to delete yet more photos, I duly obliged and broke away from the encounter.
A bus had been waiting a long time, I jumped on and arrived at the Palestinian border. Warmly welcomed, and through in 2 minutes - I arrived in Jericho to collect my car and return to Tel Aviv.
The 4 km journey had taken the best part of 5 hours, 4 of which were at the Israeli checkpoint. I was advised that although many tourists use this border, it wasn't the best option.
The cultural differences between the three borders was stark. Next time I decide to take up the offer of a quick day trip, I shall think again. Especially about which way to go. For me as a European and countless trips to Israel, I didn't expect so many questions after one day as a tourist. It is wise to remember that these delays can happen for no apparent reason. I was told I picked the 'wrong day'. In all there had been 10 stages/checkpoints to travel just one kilometre. I don't know if there would have been any less had I picked the right day!