“I am on my way home,” I told my wife over the phone as I rode the bus back from the Egyptian terminal at the Rafah crossing with Gaza. “What?” she said surprised, “I thought you had already crossed into Egypt. It’s now almost 5pm! What is going on?”
Early on Thursday, I set off from our home in the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza, carrying my wife’s medical file, including the results of her latest MRI tests. My destination was Cairo, where I planned to show the new scans to my wife’s doctors who would decide on the latest course of treatment for her chronic cancer.
We have been making the arduous journey from Gaza to Cairo for her treatment for years, but this time I was going alone to spare her — and our children — the ordeal. I would come back and get her later if the doctors decided it was necessary.
During what I expected would be a visit of only a few days to the Egyptian capital, I also wanted to renew my press accreditation papers as my official Egyptian press pass expires at the end of the month.
Not without my wife
I arrived at the Rafah crossing terminal at about 10:30am and, like dozens of other travelers, began filling in the registration forms. I wrote that I wanted to cross for medical and other purposes.
After waiting a few hours, an officer at the crossing called my name, apparently so I could be questioned by Egypt’s “National Security” agency, previously known under the old regime as “State Security.”
“Why are you going to Egypt?” the officer asked. I explained my purpose and showed him all the papers I was carrying.
“I cannot let you pass unless your wife is with you,” he said.
“She is waiting at home for the doctor’s advice and we cannot leave our four children alone right now,” I answered.
He was not convinced and directed me to a nearby desk where intelligence officers were conducting checks.
Another officer took my passport and asked me to sit down and wait. Filled with anxiety, I waited, wondering if I would be allowed to pass, or be sent back into Gaza.
Restrictions on Palestinian men
Palestinian men from Gaza are allowed to cross into Egypt without so-called “coordination” — time-consuming permits and bureaucracy — only if they are over the age of 40. I am 39.
That was one of the measures to “ease” the blockade of Gaza taken after the 25 January 2011 revolution in Egypt.
Ironically, this is the same condition Israel imposes on allowing Palestinian men from the occupied West Bank to enter Jerusalem to pray in al-Aqsa Mosque.
But even though my age is below the magic number, I have been traveling back and forth from Egypt regularly.
As I was sitting thinking, the intelligence officer called my name, and I jumped up hoping I would be allowed to cross.
But he took me into a room, where there was another, more senior officer. The senior officer asked me the same questions, and I gave him the same answers.
“Please wait in the hall,” he said.
Waiting, hoping and smoking
Even after all the waiting I’d done, being asked to sit and wait some more still gave me hope. By about 4:00pm, no one had called my name, even though many other travelers had their passports stamped and were allowed to leave the hall en route to Egypt.
Finally, after twice my usual intake of cigarettes, and only a bottle of juice all day, my name was called by a policeman carrying a big stack of passports in his hands.
“Yes sir,” I replied.
“Take your bags and wait right here,” he ordered.
My heart sank. I realized that I would most likely be sent back because along with a number of others I was asked to wait by the gate leading back to the Gaza side of the crossing.
Not giving up
I put my bags on the floor and asked the policeman to let me see the senior officer again. I spoke to two other personnel as gently as I could.
“I wonder why you are not allowing me to cross. Please look to my passport and see that I was even granted a temporary residency permit in your country last May, but it was never validated because I left Egypt before the procedure could be completed, because I had to go back to Gaza for some important matters.”
I pointed out that my passport was filled with Egyptian stamps. I read them the words off my Egyptian press pass: “Please provide whatever assistance the holder of this pass may need.”
I must have spoken well, for one of the two officers praised me. “You are an eloquent journalist and speaker,” he said. But words were not enough.
Finally, I went back to the first intelligence officer who had appeared helpful in the beginning. But now his tone changed and he shouted at his subordinates, “Bring the security guards!”
I stopped talking right there, picked up my bags and went out to the bus that would take me back to the Gaza side.
That day, the Egyptian authorities at the Rafah crossing terminal turned back 38 Gazans, including myself.
As we were riding the bus, some of the rejected passengers spoke. One said he had paid $400 the Gaza-based coordination office to cross and he wondered why he was sent back. Another man in his late 20s said, “I did the needed coordination and I have an invitation letter for a conference in Turkey.”
A third, who was 21 and from Rafah city in Gaza, couldn’t hold back his tears: “Why did they send me back? I wanted to see my ailing uncle just there in on the Egyptian side of Rafah. He is alone and needs urgent help.”
It is two years since the Arab “revolutions” began, and the changes in Egypt brought much hope for people in Gaza. But for so many still waiting at Rafah, things are frustratingly the same.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.