Until last year, Nassar Herbawi’s arduous daily routine mirrored that of thousands of other Palestinians who do business in Israel. Herbawi, a mattress manufacturer, would rally his fleet of 15 trucks in Hebron and drive northwest for 10 miles to the Tarqumiya crossing, the busiest of the three freight transit points along the Green Line that divides Israel from the West Bank. On good days his trucks idled on a very long line waiting for guards to inspect their cargo of foam mattresses and sofa beds. Then the merchandise was loaded onto an Israeli truck for the final leg of the journey—a delivery at a department store in Tel Aviv.
On bad days, unexpected closures at the border caused such long delays that by the time Herbawi’s cargo got through to the Israeli side, the business day had ended, forcing drivers to return to Hebron without making their deliveries. The Palestinian businessman, who employs 500 workers, says that between 2007 and 2010 his once-thriving company operated at just 20 percent capacity.
Then in August 2010, Herbawi, 51, had a stroke of good fortune. The Israeli government named him a “known trader.” The designation grants Herbawi Industrial & Trading, along with 13 other high-volume Palestinian businesses, the privilege of bypassing some of the security hurdles that encumber their countrymen. When they approach the Tarqumiya crossing, Herbawi’s trucks can often jump to the front of the line so they can be scanned by a $2.5 million X-ray machine. Herbawi is now allowed to store some of his merchandise in a special area at the crossing, which saves his drivers the trouble of having to make multiple trips to the factory. He credits the program with the survival of his business. “This has given me a chance to work,” he says.
The fast lane at Tarqumiya is the creation of the U.S. Agency for International Development and stands as an example of the less heralded micro-diplomacy between the U.S. and its closest ally in one of the most politically combustible regions in the world. The U.S. scanners and other checkpoint infrastructure were paid for out of a $50 million earmark for Israel that was slipped into a 2005 emergency appropriations act to fund tsunami relief and the global war on terror. (The U.S., which gives Israel approximately $3 billion a year in military aid, has not provided economic assistance since 2008.)
The World Bank estimates that Palestine’s gross domestic product contracted by 40 percent between 2000 and 2008 as a result of the security blockades that came in the wake of the second Intifada. In 2009 the Americans approached the head of the Israeli Crossing Points Authority, General Kamil Abo Rukun, with a practical idea argument: At a busy checkpoint where it’s impossible to search everyone, it pays to identify low-risk pools of individuals and speed those people through. Such fast lanes were introduced in 2004 on the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, the Transportation Security Authority also operates a “Known Shipper” program on cargo flights.
General Abo Rukun was wary at first. He says he gave the Americans a long list of security criteria that had to be satisfied. To identify potential candidates, U.S. officials met with Palestinian businessmen in Hebron, then proceeded to carry out background checks on their companies, complete with factory visits and research into their suppliers. After some push and pull—General Abo Rukun says he resisted American efforts to involve anyone other than army personnel in the security operations at the checkpoint—he gave the program a green light. “We took a calculated risk,” he says.
U.S. officials, who spoke on background because they did not have clearance to go on record, call the pilot program a success: It’s cut down on overall wait times by 25 percent, they say. Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studiesin Washington, calls it “a critical tool to get economic traffic across the border,” adding that it also “reduces tension in very meaningful ways.”
Yet as successes go it remains a modest one. The fast lane at Tarqumiya handles just one-fifth of the trucks inspected at the crossing daily. “You are talking about 14 companies,” says Amjad Qasas, the former director of development of PalTrade, a consortium of 327 companies in the West Bank and Gaza. “There are hundreds of big and medium companies in Palestine that need this.”