Author: Abdullah H. Erakat/ The Media Line
It has three names. But for the majority of Palestinians, it serves one purpose – as the sole gateway to the rest of the world. Known to them as Al Karameh Bridge, Israelis refer to it as Gesher Allenby and the Jordanians as the King Hussein Bridge. West Bank residents who use it have to trek to the city of Jericho. But before hopping on the first bus of three to begin their quest to Jordan, they have to pay an exit tax.
It’s this $43 fee, collected by Palestinian customs authorities that has caused a row and prompted the independent Palestinian group “Beh Karameh (With Dignity)” to file a lawsuit against the Palestinian Finance Ministry and minister Shukri Bishara.
While Palestinians accept paying a departure tax, they say the current price is too high. This does not include the $4 ticket for the bus or the $.90 for each bag that adults and children have to pay – an amount that goes to the Abdo Palestinian Bus Company.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he would lose his job if it was discovered he spoke to press, an employee working on the Palestinian side of the bridge told The Media Line that West Bank residents are constantly complaining about the departure tax. Others he say, experience ‘shocks.’
“Recently, an old (Palestinian) woman from the north (northern West Bank) started cursing out the Palestinian Authority,” he said lighting a cigarette. “She was loud, swearing at them over and over. Then the police came and kindly escorted her to the management office where she told them she did not want to pay the tax.”
Eventually, the bridge employee, a resident of Jericho, says she did pay. He also says that the amount is slated to rise again soon; something sure to cause more anger among Palestinian travelers.
The Protocol on Economic relations (Paris Protocol), the economic agreement signed in 1994 between the Israelis and Palestine Liberation Organization, within the framework of the Oslo Accords, states the departure tax should be $26 dollars with ten dollars of it going to the Palestinian Authority, the rest to Israel. Currently, travelers are paying $43.
“All we need from the Palestinian government is stop collecting the travel tax at the Jericho station,” Beh Karameh President, Talat Alawi told The Media Line. “We as Palestinians do not have to collect money for the Israeli government.”
A spokesman for the Israel Borders Authority told The Media Line that the fee is in line with all Israeli-Palestinian agreements. He said that tourists crossing the bridge pay an even higher toll.
“The amount of the exit tax was amended in 1988 to reflect changes in the dollar-shekel exchange rate, and in accordance with the Israeli government,” spokesman Ofer Leffler told The Media Line, adding that Israel has recently invested almost $4 million in infrastructure at the bridge, and extended the opening hours.
The Palestinian Ministry of Finance says it is not getting this money monthly according to what was agreed upon after the Oslo Accords.
The ministry’s Media and Public Relations director general Rami Mehdawi told The Media Line that Israel punishes the Palestinian government by withholding its’ tax money “whenever they feel like” and not distributing it. According to the Paris Protocol, Israel is required to transfer Palestinian tax revenues to the PA on a monthly basis. The Israeli Border Authority spokesman said the money is transferred according to the law.
In the past, Israel has occasionally withheld this money, but that has not happened since Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid took office a year ago. Mehdawi said that while his ministry believes all citizens may lawfully file complaints against the Palestinian Authority (PA), in this case, the Palestinian independent group is suing the wrong people.
“The (Israeli) occupation is to blame. If an Israeli soldier shoots a Palestinian, do you file suit against the PA or Israeli government?” he asks.
He says what Israel is doing is ‘piracy.’
“What’s tragic is that we collect it in cash and transfer it on a daily basis to the Israeli government and then have to wait for them to give us our share,” said Alawi. “But on a number of occasions, for “punishment” reasons, the state of Israel withholds this money.” And while he agrees with Mehdawi, Alawi says the PA should accept its’ responsibilities.
“Every time we have something against the (PA) government, they bring up the Israeli side. Stop collecting the (departure) tax and in 24 hours, you will see that we have filed a lawsuit against the Israelis.”
The Allenby Bridge spans the Jordan River and connects the West Bank with Jordan. It is the only designated exit and entry point for Palestinians residing in the West Bank — traveling in and out. Travelers cross through six inspection points — Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian.
Alawi says in the winter 3,000 Palestinians use the bridge daily while in the summer, the number can go as high as 7,000 to 8,000. Annually, he says 1.5 million Palestinians leave and enter the West Bank. He adds that in the winter, the whole process can take four or five hours, while in the summer, it can take most of a day. Comprised of volunteers, ‘Beh Karameh’ was founded in 2009 and receives no financial support from the Palestinian Authority. It says it seeks only to improve the travel aspect for Palestinians.
In 2009, the group succeeded in getting the Palestinian Authority to remove a $2 fee to enter the Jericho side of the crossing, which was put in place in 1994 after the Oslo accords.
“Palestinians pay $100 before even getting to Jordan — $43 of it which is this departure tax,” Alawi said.
Alawi is confident the case against the Palestinian Authority will end with the exit tax being cancelled or reduced.