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    Sunday, November 9, 2008

    Into Palestine

    By taxi and bus from Amman, Jordan to Jericho, West Bank Thursday, Nov. 6

    Entering the Palestinian Territories from other parts of the Arab world is always a sombre experience. You're going to a place many Arabs - particularly the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered around the region since the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars - dream of seeing, but will likely never visit in their lifetimes.

    This morning I was driven from downtown Amman to the King Hussein border crossing (known as the Allenby Bridge to Israelis, after the British general who built it in 1918) by Tariq Hassan, a 48-year-old Jordanian of Palestinian descent who had only seen his hometown of Ramallah once, when his father took him there as a 13-year-old boy.

    "I still remember it," Tariq told me as we descended towards the Dead Sea, with the Palestinian city of Jericho coming into sight. "But I don't know if I'll ever go back. They will never give me a visa, I don't think."

    The Jordanian side of the border crossing is a surreal experience where foreigners are whisked through with as little hassle as necessary (I drank coffee and watched al-Jazeera while my passport was processed) while hundreds of Palestinians queue for hours in a separate terminal.

    But it's on the other side, once you've passed the last photographs of King Abdullah II and his father King Hussein and see the Star of David for the first time, that the disparity becomes plainest.

    Israeli security services are notoriously intrusive and impolite (I've been left shaking with anger by airport security who often go so far as to ask to see e-mails between me and my editors in Toronto as proof that I'm being sent somewhere on assignment) but today it's relatively painless for a Canadian guy named Mark.

    "What's you family name?" the unsmiling young female guard asks me when I get to the front of the long passport line inside the Israeli side of the border terminal.

    "MacKinnon." Just like it says in my passport. I pronounce it in as an unthreatening a manner as those three syllables can be uttered.

    "Your father's name?"


    "Your grandfather's name?"


    We both know the drill. If I answer "Mohammed" or something similar to any of the questions, it's off to the little interrogation room for me. Wayne and Gerard sounds sufficiently un-al-Qaeda, so I'm allowed through quickly. Welcome to Israel.

    The Ahmeds and the Fatimas stand in line behind me, some seated off to the side awaiting their confrontation with the Shin Bet internal security service. Many of these people were born and live in the West Bank, but they could never dream of such rapid passage to their own home.

    (I've had friends - with Canadian passports - delayed for four or five hours because their last name was Ibrahim or because their grandfather's name sounded suspicious to the Israeli ear.)

    After passport control, I board an air conditioned 48-seat passenger bus whcih for 16 shekels (about $4) will take me and 47 Palestinians to the mandatory next stop for those who can't afford the exorbitant taxi fares onwards - the main bus station in Jericho. You can't be in a rush to get there. The bus doesn't leave until every seat is full.

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