Inside story'It's not peace in Mideast, but makes life easier for some'

Israel starts running Allenby crossing nearly full-time after year-plus of US urging

US envoy happy with Israel for keeping word after months of delays, says he’s now focused on expanding 4G service to Palestinians, securing hospital funds, getting power plant up

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and Israel Airports Authority chair Jerry Gershon at the Allenby crossing on April 2, 2023. (Jeries Mansour, U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and Israel Airports Authority chair Jerry Gershon at the Allenby crossing on April 2, 2023. (Jeries Mansour, U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs)

Israel began operating the Allenby crossing between the West Bank and Jordan on a nearly full-time basis on Sunday, after over a year of pressure from the Biden administration.

The crossing is primarily used by Palestinians who are barred from using Ben Gurion International Airport. As a result, they fly internationally out of Amman but first must pay additional border crossing fees and endure the perennially long wait times that have historically characterized the travel experience through Allenby.

For over a decade, American administrations have pushed Israel to expand the Allenby crossing’s operating hours to help shrink wait times. While the crossing was once open nearly full-time, for the past two decades, Allenby has only been open from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekends. Those with early morning flights out of Amman have been forced to pay for a hotel or spend the night at the airport.

The Palestinian experience at Allenby struck a nerve with US Ambassador Tom Nides who made it one of his top priorities to coax Israel to operate Allenby on a 24/7 basis.

After securing Israeli approval ahead of US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel last July and thanks to separate lobbying from the Moroccan government, the US announced that Israel would begin operating Allenby at all hours starting on September 30.

Israeli authorities subsequently notified their American counterparts that they didn’t have the staffing capacity to meet the US deadline and proposed the idea of a six-day pilot program instead in October that would test the Israel Airports Authority’s ability to operate the crossing 24/7.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (C) at the Allenby crossing on April 2, 2023. (Jeries Mansour, U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs)

The pilot program wound up being delayed as well but was completed successfully in November.

The Airports Authority then told the Biden administration it would be ready to roll out the expanded operating hours at Allenby in January, according to an Israeli official.

But that deadline too was missed, as the port authority struggled to hire enough staff in time. As a result, Biden officials were notified that the new start date would be April 2 — Sunday. However, instead of running Allenby 24/7 as promised. The port authority said that Allenby would be open around the clock on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Last week, Israel notified the Biden administration that it didn’t think it would be able to meet the deadline once again — this time due to a planned strike of port authority staffers who are demanding a wage increase, two Biden officials said, revealing that the US expressed its deep displeasure at Israel’s inability to keep its word.

The message ostensibly got through, as the port authority managed to open Allenby on Sunday at 8 a.m. for a full five days of uninterrupted service, as promised.

Nides was on site for the ceremonial opening along with the head of the Israeli military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian and Israel Airport Authority chair Jerry Gershon. Nides also walked all the way up to the Israel-Jordan border and spoke briefly with a member of the Jordanian security forces.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (R) at the Allenby crossing on April 2, 2023. (Jeries Mansour, U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs)

Speaking with The Times of Israel upon returning from Allenby, Nides expressed his satisfaction with Israel for seeing the matter through, despite the delays.

“I don’t want to over-exaggerate the importance of this. This is not peace in the Middle East, but it just makes life a little bit easier for people, and it’s also symbolically important, so I was happy to get it done,” he said, acknowledging that it took a significant amount of prodding on his part.

“But when you make a commitment, you have to fulfill it, and that’s what I told [the Israelis],” Nides added.

Later Sunday, the ambassador tweeted, “Big news! As of today, the Allenby Bridge is now officially open 24/5. We kept [Biden’s] promise. This is a win for Palestinians and Israelis alike!”

A State Department spokesman similarly welcomed the announcement, saying that “trade and freedom of movement are keys to peace, prosperity, and dignity.”

Sunday’s development came days after four Israeli, Palestinian and American officials revealed to The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has yet to follow through on a series of small measures to boost the Palestinian Authority it promised to implement ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

In mid-February, Netanyahu’s office leaked that it would be lowering the so-called “blue tax” that it levies from the PA on fuel transfers from three percent to 1.5%; raising the percentage of revenues it transfers to Ramallah from the fees it collects from travelers at the Allenby border crossing; and expanding the list of tax-free imports that it facilitates on the PA’s behalf.

Illustrative: An Israeli soldier stands at the entrance to the Allenby border crossing, the main border crossing for Palestinians from the West Bank traveling to neighboring Jordan and beyond, Monday, March 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The lack of follow-through has the Biden administration increasingly worried since the PA’s financial state is at its weakest ever, a senior US official told The Times of Israel last week. On Sunday though, an Israel official said that the Netanyahu government would follow through on implementing its three promised measures by mid-April.

With the Allenby pledge fulfilled, Nides said he is now focused on implementing another measure to improve Palestinian livelihood that he first began discussing publicly more than a year ago — expanding 4G cellular coverage to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who currently are only granted 2G and 3G service respectively. This was also something announced by Biden during his Mideast trip last July.

The initiative has moved slowly though, according to Israeli and US officials, but Nides said he was determined to see it through in the coming months. “I want it turned on on their phones by the end of the year.”

He’s also working on securing funds from several Arab countries for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network that were pledged last year. The US announced $100 million of its own funding during Biden’s visit and said the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would be matching that sum with $25 million each. Since then, only the UAE has followed through with its donation.

In addition, Nides revealed that he’s working to get the Jenin Power Plant up and running after years of preparation and expressed his hope that it would be ready to provide nearly 50% of electricity for Palestinians by the end of the year as well.

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