West Bank Trade : Israel-Jordan 'Front' Is a 1-Lane Bridge

Times Staff Writer

An elderly Arab wearing the traditional red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh walked out to the middle of the Allenby Bridge and placed his bundle of newspapers carefully on the rail, then went back to the Jordanian side to wait.

A few minutes later, an Israeli worker approached the bridge from the other side. He, too, brought newspapers. He went halfway across the bridge, put down his newspapers and retrieved the bundle from the rail. Then the old Arab went out and picked up the papers that had been left for him.

It was the start of another day of cautious cooperation here at the "front" between Israel and Jordan, which technically are still at war.

Soon Ali Abdel-Rahim Jalayta would arrive from Jericho with a truckload of bananas to take over the rickety, one-lane plank bridge, one of two that link the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Jalayta drives one of the specially designated "bridge trucks." There are 425 of these, and they are the only vehicles permitted to transport fruits, vegetables, building stone and other commodities from the West Bank to markets in Jordan.

The Israelis require that the trucks be little more than steel skeletons. This reduces the number of potential hiding places for weapons or explosives, and it makes it easier for teams of soldiers to inspect the trucks for contraband.

Bridge truck engines have no covers, their seats no upholstery, their instrument panels no padding. Where other trucks have metal tubing, these have plastic tubing. Small windows permit the soldiers to peer into the fuel tanks. Wired seals close off areas that might conceal a detonator of the kind that is about the size of a cigarette.

In all, about 700 people, most of them Palestinians, will cross the Allenby Bridge on this day. Those coming from Jordan to the West Bank are strip-searched, and their baggage is inspected bit by bit in a modern border terminal that houses a synagogue called "The Gates of Mercy."

Nobody likes the procedure, Capt. Elice Shazar of the Israeli army said, but in the circumstances there seems to be no alternative.

"If you know of any other way to do it, please tell us," she said to a reporter.

The Israelis confiscate some articles--lipsticks, for example, which are difficult to check for contraband. But on average, the equivalent of $2 million in cash crosses the bridge every day into the West Bank area.

The activity at the Allenby Bridge--and, to a lesser extent, at the Adam Bridge to the north--reflects the anomalies of life on the West Bank for about 800,000 Palestinian residents. They depend for their well-being about equally on the Jordanians, who ruled them for nearly a generation after 1948, and the Israelis, who took over after the Middle East War of 1967.

Dinar, Shekel Both Used

The Jordanian dinar and the Israeli shekel are both used on the West Bank, and the Arabs carry Jordanian passports as well as Israeli identity cards.

Israel and Jordan both see it as in their interest to keep the peace in the area and to maintain a certain level of prosperity. But, at the same time, each manipulates the situation for its own political ends. The result is a bewildering mixture of restrictions that hold economic and social progress hostage to resolution of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel is intent upon ensuring that no economic foundation is developed on the West Bank that could form the basis of an independent Palestinian state. Under more than 1,000 military occupation orders they have issued since 1967, the Israeli authorities strictly limit industrial development of the area.

The Israelis also restrict sales of West Bank products in Israel, forcing residents to look to Arab markets. But under the terms of an Arab League boycott, Jordan and other Arab countries refuse to buy almost anything from the West Bank that includes Israeli components or even raw materials shipped through Israeli ports.

Tomatoes in Wood Crates

This means that West Bank farmers can ship part of their tomato crop to Amman but only in locally produced wooden crates; the more-protective cardboard boxes available here are made in Israel.

Also, Jordan will accept no more than 50% of any West Bank crop, on the theory that to allow more would empty local markets and thus benefit Israeli farmers.

"We're caught between the frying pan and the fire," Palestinian economist Ibrahim Mattar said. "It's a miracle that people are still growing, farming and surviving."

The Israelis argue that the West Bank was underdeveloped when they took it over and that living standards have risen sharply since then. They point to the large, modern Arab homes in towns like Ramallah, near Jerusalem, as evidence of prosperity despite Palestinian complaints about poverty.

Palestinian-Jewish Group

When a mixed group of Palestinian-American and Jewish-American businessmen formed a group to aid West Bank economic development last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said he could not understand, at a time of economic crisis in Israel, why "American Jews would want to improve the quality of life in an area where the standard of living has improved tremendously since 1967."

But without normal economic development, according to economist Mattar, West Bank living standards can be improved only with assistance from outside.

Many of the new West Bank houses, for example, were paid for with money sent home by Palestinians working in the Arab oil states--and this source is drying up as the oil recession worsens in those countries.

Also, although some West Bank residents have grown wealthy under Israeli occupation, most lag far behind their neighbors in Israel. According to the latest official Israeli figures, per capita disposable income on the West Bank is $1,522 a year, compared with $5,260 in Israel. The 1.3 million Arabs who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have about as many telephones as the 25,000 Israeli residents of Afula.

Very Little Industry

"Even by standards applied to developing countries, industry in the territories is minuscule," the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs said in the latest issue of its Survey of Arab Affairs. The combined output of West Bank and Gaza Strip industries, the center said, is about $150 million a year--"equivalent to the production of a medium-size industrial firm in the United States."

About 3,000 Palestinian students are graduated annually by the West Bank universities that were opened under Israeli rule, but most are unable to find jobs in their fields.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, defending his decision not to allow construction of a cement factory in Hebron, said there are two cement plants each in Jordan and Israel and that none is working at capacity.

"Do we need another white elephant that nobody will know what to do with?" he said.

Critics See Another Goal

Palestinian and Israeli critics of Israeli policies contend that there is another goal. The leftist Citizens Rights Movement said in an open letter to Rabin, "The inhibition of economic growth in the region and turning it into an auxiliary of Israel's economy constitutes one of the most fundamental and strongest factors aiding the annexation of the occupied territories to Israel."

Mattar said: "For Israel, this is the ideal situation economically. You have a monopolized market where they can sell anything they wish, and at the same time they don't allow exports from the West Bank into Israel except under restrictions."

According to government figures, Israel sold $380 million worth of agricultural and industrial products on the West Bank last year, almost four times the $99 million worth of goods it bought from the area. Israeli officials said the figures do not include a substantial amount of other trade with the West Bank, but added that the 4 to 1 ratio is about right.

Large Labor Pool

Meanwhile, up to 100,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories work in Israel, providing a large pool of cheap labor willing to take manual jobs that most Israelis do not want. They are paid about half of what Israelis are paid and are given fewer fringe benefits. But the government has protected them from the widespread layoffs that had been predicted because of Israel's economic crisis.

Jordan continues to pump money into the West Bank, despite the Israeli occupation. About 6,000 teachers and other former employees of the pre-1967 government still get regular paychecks from Amman, Mattar said.

West Bank municipalities get funds from Jordan, too, as do Muslim religious institutions in the territories. "If you add it up over the years since 1967, it amounts to several billion dollars," Mattar said.

Pledge by Arab League

The Arab League has pledged $100 million in annual West Bank economic aid through a joint Jordanian-Palestine Liberation Organization committee. But Mattar said that because of the drop in oil demand and the Iran-Iraq War, Arab aid since 1978 has been about half of what was promised.

Palestinian and Israeli experts agree that unless there is some breakthrough in the peace process, no major change is likely in the West Bank's situation of dual dependency.

A symbol of the underlying problem is on display daily at the Allenby Bridge. Israel flies the Star of David at its end, signaling that it considers this its rightful eastern border. But there is no Jordanian flag at the other end, because to Amman the rightful border is the pre-1967 border, miles to the west.

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