Drivers in the north of Israel may have recently encountered an unusual sight: convoys of old refrigeration trucks going to or from Haifa, decorated with posters and colored lights and escorted by police vans. These trucks, carrying Jordanian or Turkish licence plates, made no stops but were traveling directly between Jordan and the port of Haifa, moving Jordanian or Iraqi goods to Turkey or vice versa. Lately, Israel has quietly become an overland conduit of export and import goods, resulting from the ongoing civil war in Syria.
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Transportation experts have long held that Israel is strategically placed as a potential land bridge between the Mediterranean and Arab countries. But it required the blocking of access to the Mediterranean through Syria to make this potential a relevant alternative for Israel's neighbors.
Jordan is almost completely landlocked, with only Aqaba, far from most of the country, as an outlet to the Red Sea. Thus, most goods to and from Jordan are transported by land. Ships from Europe and Turkey used to anchor in Syrian ports such as Latakia and even more so at the more southern port of Tartus. Goods were unloaded onto trucks and then transported overland to Iraq and Jordan. The Syrian civil war disrupted this chain.
At first, the Syrians raised the tolls they charged for transferring these goods through Syria, but later on the authorities could no longer guarantee the security of drivers or of the goods they carried. Merchants in Turkey and Jordan looked for alternatives, initially considering overland transport from Turkey to Iraq. However, bad roads in the area and lack of security in view of Kurdish rebel activity in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq made this route too complicated.
Another route that was tried was shipping the goods to Port Said in Egypt, then by trucks overland to the Red Sea and by ferry to Saudi Arabia, then overland again to Jordan. This seven-day trip was not worthwhile. Only after these convoluted routes were tried did Jordan approach the Israeli office for regional cooperation. A few days later, the Turks also asked to use Israel as a trade corridor to benefit, among other things, the passage of trucks carrying medicinal oxygen for Jordanian hospitals.
Israel’s response to these requests was not a simple matter. The security services have little intelligence regarding the drivers or owners of these transport trucks, unlike information they have on Palestinian truck drivers who enter Israel. After lengthy discussions and following pressure exerted by the Regional Development Minister, Silvan Shalom, approval was given for a small number of Jordanian trucks. This number grew over time.
The trucks enter Israel at the Jordan River crossing at Sheikh Hussein and then travel directly to the port of Haifa, covering 80 kilometers. They undergo strict security checks, including imaging of the cargo and tests to detect explosives. They travel in convoys of 10 trucks, accompanied by a police escort.
This land commerce involves Turkish trucks as well. Between 50 and 150 trucks arrive by ferry, and then are driven by their Turkish drivers straight into Jordan.
The Israel Tax Authority says that this commerce with Jordan has been around for a while, but on a small scale. In 2011, for example, 3,500 trucks carried goods in both directions. The goods were carried on Israeli trucks, since Jordanian trucks were not authorized to travel in Israel. After setting a precedent allowing them in, the number of trucks almost doubled to 6,400 in 2012. In the first quarter of 2013 alone, there were 2,600 trucks carrying goods in both directions.
The tax authorities do not have figures for the value of goods transported through Israel. Trucks from Jordan to Turkey carry mainly agricultural produce, along with textiles and light industrial products. Goods traveling from Turkey to Jordan include raw materials for industry, packaging and dry food.
Regional Development Ministry is now trying to expand this commerce to include containers as well, to be placed on trucks. The Jordanians are reluctant out of concern for hurting trade through the port of Aqaba. The ministry is trying to improve communications and existing links, hoping to expand services and facilitate passage by prolonging workers' shifts at customs services, while making them more efficient.
This transport by land has been operating for a year with very few hitches, hidden from public view. Government officials say that this was done in attempt to protect the delicate relationship with Jordan. “People considered to be collaborators with Israel are shunned in Jordan,” says a senior government official. “The trucks show no signs of having passed through Israel, and drivers’ passports are not stamped.” This is partly due to the fact that some of these trucks continue to Iraq, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
The senior official voiced concern that publication of this article would have negative consequences in Jordan. “Commerce is proceeding under the surface, but this succeeds because no politics are involved,” says a government source. Nevertheless, this land bridge affects and is affected by geopolitical considerations. It may have helped the recent thaw in the frozen Turkish-Israeli relations.
Israeli government sources say that the permits given to Jordanian trucks to move along Israeli roads is “an important feature of cooperation which may bring the two countries closer.” What started out as a gesture to Jordan and Turkey may become a source of revenues as well. “One could collect up to NIS 200 million a year in port duties, refueling, insurance and other transportation payments,” says a government source. But the biggest winner, another source says, is the improved relations with our neighbors.