Border crossing blues

For a Palestinian to have the audicity to wish to leave or enter the Gaza Strip requires the permission of the Israeli Occupation. Assuming the right permit can be acquired, Palestinians are still at the mercy of the officials at the Rafah crossing, liable to be detained by the Shin Bet and subject to the frequent Israeli closure of the border (more than 160 days so far during the Intifada). Rafah Crossing Point is the only exit for 1.3 million Gazans to the outside world. The Israeli Occupation forces have this week demolished the infrastructure of the Palestinian Liason at the border, an indication of the extent to which Palestinian authority is nothing but a word game. Foreigners too are now also experiencing great difficulties getting into the Gaza strip while Israel maintains they represent a security threat.

The Egyptian side of the border at Rafah is open 24 hours a day: the Israeli side for about six hours, on a good day. For the twenty or so Palestinians with whom I queued, the even shorter hours on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, meant we were unable to get on the bus despite waiting from 12:30 pm and watching those in front pile themselves and their bags on to the coveted bus. At 2:00 pm Egyptian officials told us to head back inside the departure hall. The general mood was disappointment and quiet resignation at having to try again. The distance between the final Egyptian checkpoint and the Israeli vehicle barriers is no more than 20 metres, but for Palestinans and foreigners trying to enter or leave the Gaza strip it might as well be 1000 miles.

Frequent closures and failures to ‘catch the bus’ mean that the Egyptian authorities are used to dealing with people stuck at the border. At the moment several hundred are waiting to cross asa aresult of the current lengthy closure imposed by the Israelis to mark implementation of the Road Map.. To those who do not have relatives in Rafah or El-Areesh, this means sleeping in the departure lounge, or if lucky on the floor of the attached mosque. For once the travellers passport is stamped with an Egyptian departure stamp, it is not possible to leave the hall without cancelling the journey, a measure few seemed willing or able to do. This step certainly provoked the interest of Egyptian security and customs officials. Although in the case of missing the bus, little more needed to be said. The advice for foreigners (non-Egyptian and non-Palestinian) was to take the Palestinian bus on its return journey from Egypt, rather than the Egyptian bus, as a way of avoiding missing the bus again.

The mood back in Egypt outside the border complex was less resigned. Three Palestinian women from Gaza who had been turned back that day for having too much luggage (the Israelis randomly enforce their limit of 60 kg per person) expressed their hostility towards the Israelis for making a simple journey so complicated. Nor did they stint their curses on the local taxi driver who had kept them waiting and overcharged them. They were joined by a fourth Gazan matron, who had crossed that day. To their complaints she added her own: the excessive Egyptian customs duty on her six niqabs. Apart from touting taxi drivers, the vacinity around the border is a den of money changers and fast food vendors. Improptu garment sales are held for excess clothes, while cigarette smugglers try to persuade you to take a suitcase full of Cleopatras (Gaza’s cheapest brand) across for them. (The legendary tunnels linking the two halves of Rafah city, so often cited by the Israeli military to justify their destruction of civilian homes, are far more likely used for smuggling tobacco than weapons - as if you could get a tank, let alone a helicopter gunship through a clandestine shaft).

The following day I returned to the border at 8:00 am. Passing through the Egyptian controls proved no problem as my face had become familiar to the uniformed bureaucrats. I exchanged nods and smiles with travellers I recognized from the previous day. Most had stayed at the border and would have set off on the first bus. Optimism prevailed: the day was young, the border was open. Once through the controls, the queuing continued for the bus outside. The three Gazans from the previous day were just in front of me and they asked me to take a bag for them to minimise their being overweight again. I declined, given my own uncertainties about being allowed in. The Rafah crossing was opened to Palestinians under the 1994 Cairo Agreement as part of the Oslo process. Prior to that, leaving Gaza for Egypt meant entering Israel and taking a boat from Isdud (Ashdod). Up to 1500 people per day were making the crossing before the Intifada began; now they number about 250. The Egyptian complex is under construction and promises to be a quite impressive replica of the Karnak Termple when completed. For the time being, the unfinished halls provide needed shade for the waiting departees, while they themselves wait for the political changes to justify such grand architecture.

Fifty or so people, including ten children, managed to cram themselves and their luggage on to the bus which set off for the final Egyptian control and fence. The bus stopped and parked so as to allow the near continuous stream of double lorries to continue delivering their loads of cement and gravel unhindered (where is all this building material destined for?). Each was subject to a brief underbody search using a mirror at the Israeli barrier, about 20 metres away. Suddenly a man in a sharp suit ran up to the bus accompanied by Egyptian officials. This previliged latecomer proceeded to hand out brand new, late model mobile phones to anyone who was willing to take one (25NIS, about $5 was the recompense). After 30 minutes waiting it became clear there was some problem. Discussion centred around three causes: the overcrowding on the bus, the activities of the phone man and the presence of a foreigner, me. As every lorry rolled by, as the Palestinian bus crossed and recrossed, as the heat mounted, as the crying of children loudened people waited stoically, muttering the occasional curse on both houses.

Finally after more than two hours on the bus, the signal came to move. This required all those standing in the aisle (about 15 people) to move to the back of the bus and crouch down on the floor to avoid arousing Israeli suspicions of overcrowding. Once through the barrier everybody helped their neighbour get up and breathed a sigh of relief. The short journey over, now came the difficult part: convincing the Israelis to let you into Gaza. For Palestinians this meant being separated from their luggage after a preliminary glance at passports and passes by apparently Palestinian staff (since 7 July 2001, only eight Palestinian workers and three drivers have been allowed to work at the checkpoint). If all looked in order one proceeded inside the arrival hall and passed through a metal detector. The Israeli woman clerk summoning people through had failed to internalize the stipulation of the Cairo Agreement that “the two sides are determined to do their utmost to maintain the dignity of persons passing through the border crossings”. Her incessant mantra of, “jawwal, sa’ah, mafatih” (mobile, watch, keys), and admonishing “Ya Ustaaz” (mister) or “Ya Hajja” (madam) as she asked men and women to remove their shoes and belts were delivered with undisguised contempt. Her Arabic skills clearly did not include words for please or thank you. That ordeal over, Palestinians handed over their passports to clerks (again Palestinian) who handed them over to the Israelis sitting behind smoked glass behind them where they would be looked up on computers. Rafah crossing is a favourite point to detain incoming Palestinians on “security grounds”. Gradually the crosser shuffled from one block of plastic seats, blue or orange as if according to some secret code, to another as the outside beckoned. The odd individual was escorted away by security officials (recognisable from their trekker style boots) for a chat. If all went well with the two passport and pass controls and your luggage was not overweight and satisfactory you were free to leave. Al-hamdulillah.

That day three people were sent back by the Israelis; two of them were foreign. The first was an American Palestinian with two children trying to join her husband in Gaza. She did not have Palestinian papers and was denied entry simply because she was American. She was sitting in the Egyptian departure hall when I returned. The other, myself, was British. I rejected the offer of the Shin Bet to prove to them I was not a security risk (that is by informing on all my contacts in Gaza) and chose to return to Egypt. This proved an involved process, as by the time the ISA has decided to release me it was getting dark and there was no transport across the border. I waited for some three hours on the border road between the two sides in the hands of the Israeli liason watching the jeeps, apcs and tanks I had become familiar with in Rafah heading in and out of their base. The distant sound of shooting could be heard periodically, and I wondered if my friends’ houses on the border were being targetted again. Eventually I was walked across to the Egyptian side and handed over to to the Egyptian liason to the accompaniment of Israeli sirens sounding for a military exercise. I was warned this would happen and that it was only a simulation. Nevertheless the wailing could not drown out the sound of Israeli gunfire from Rafah. In a way I wished the Egyptians would have refused to admit me and I would be left forever to shuttle between the two fences until the world came to its senses.