You Are Not Entering Free Gaza

Palestinian woman demonstrate near Rafah Crossing, on the border with Egypt to the south of Gaza Strip October 3, 2005. (MAANnews/Hatem Omar)

On Sunday I meant to leave the Gaza Strip. This has exactly two exits. The first, the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, was, by Egyptian agreement with Israel, closed for six months when the Israeli army left Gaza - nominally for phantom ‘repairs’, a euphemism for Israeli-Egyptian collusion to forestall be it even the illusion of Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza’s borders. On Sunday morning I received a call: the second exit, the Erez checkpoint into Israel, was also closed, indefinitely, for no stated reason, not only to Palestinians - that would not be news - but to foreigners, too.

That Gaza is a prison is a metaphor that suffers from overuse, because it is too literally true to function as metaphors usually do. To Palestinians it is a truth that needs no elaboration. Foreigners very rarely experience its bitter truth; Israel makes sure of that. As I waited for the UN to negotiate with the Israeli army to shorten the closure from the threatened week - it was eventually lifted after a few hours, but no one was to know - the rejoicing over Israel’s withdrawal rang hollow in my ears. Pace the famous mural at the entrance to Catholic Derry, You Are Not Entering Free Gaza - and you are not exiting it either.

Gaza today, and for the indefinite future, is something unheard of in human history, never mind international law: an undefined territorial entity in a state of permanent, literal siege - or, as Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s once and would-be future Prime Minister, put it the day the army left, ‘a Palestinian state’. ‘What will happen to Gaza?’ asks a friend from Khan Yunis, martyr city and refugee camp of the intifada, as we sit on the beach of the Egyptian resort town of el-Arish. (This is, for one night only, a dormitory for Gazans enjoying their unofficial, once-and-once-only-in-a-lifetime freedom to travel to Egypt unhindered by any border.) My first thought is ‘nothing’: with the withdrawal Gaza’s hour has come, and, for some time, gone. The sadists among the jailers may have gone, but Abu Ghraib it remains.

The eyes of the world are already elsewhere; they were the day the last settler left, and were never that interested in Palestinian Gaza anyway. Correspondents brought in from the world over to cover the withdrawal typically left the settlements for as long as it took to sit on the terrace of Gaza City’s seaside Deira Hotel and talk to Salah Abdel Shafi, ubiquitous political commentator. Mario Vargas Llosa, one of Shimon Peres’ army of useful idiot writers, has helpfully entitled his coming series of articles or book ‘After Gaza’, as if the place had sunk into the sea the moment the army left. And yet, if only Vargas Llosa were unwittingly right: after the end of Israel’s colonies in Gaza and Likud elections eyes will turn, not to the West Bank and Jerusalem, where the action is - but back to Gaza, whose inevitable security chaos will be cited as evidence that the Palestinians cannot be trusted with anything more with which to build the state that Ariel Sharon promised them again at the UN last week.

The border between Gaza and Egypt stayed open, sieve-like, for nearly a week, tolerated by Israel - which could, truth be told, do little about it short of trade sanctions it needs to keep up its sleeve, but would have had no inclination to regardless. The main products brought into Gaza last week were drugs and hunting rifles. Over the coming decade these will do no harm at all to Israel, and plenty to Gaza, already awash with automatic weapons. Bored, workless lads play with the new rifles in Khan Yunis’ cafes, before retiring to smoke the hash. Israel claims that Katyusha rockets and everything short of the nuclear bomb was carried across the border into Gaza last week. It has learned the lesson of the Qassam rockets that forced its withdrawal, weapons so grotesquely basic that they cannot be answered. Gazan society, already so immensely vulnerable, is at the mercy of the weapons it first used to resist the occupation, and those it has since imported to celebrate its victory. Israel has only to throw away the key and sit back to watch the mess it made exempt it from any future responsibility.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank… Last year a notorious Human Rights Watch report, Razing Rafah, detailed Israel’s demolition of thousands of homes in the Gaza town that borders Egypt to create a useless buffer zone, for whose ‘security’ well over 150 of Rafah’s children were murdered. The monstrous building site that is Erez checkpoint suggests that the Israeli Olympic bid has already been accepted, and the Olympic City is half-built. As I crossed the other monstrous building site that is Qalandia checkpoint, as ever unrecognizable from the last time I had crossed it a week ago, to my home in Ramallah, the thought came unbidden into my head: having razed it, the Israelis are now building Rafah - Rafah Border Crossing, that is, the international border between Gaza and Egypt. The signs in Hebrew read ‘Ma’aber Atarot’: not Qalandia ‘Machsom’, or checkpoint, but Atarot Crossing, named, neatly, after the airport within the municipal boundaries of illegally annexed Jerusalem.

For the first time in its 57-year history the State of Israel is building a border - not, of course, on its putative border, the Green Line, but in precisely those places that will make a Palestinian state a sordid joke. Its terminals will have post offices, banks, restaurants, picture postcards: with love from Israel, in Palestine. At Erez, at Qalandia, at Kerem Shalom where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet, behemoth cities are being built for the sole sake of building, for the sole purpose of ensuring that they can never be taken down. The logic of the settlements is alive and well. When I last came back from Europe to Qalandia - once a quarry - a mountain had disappeared, dismantled in days by bulldozers. If you will it, it is no dream.

Tom Hill is a French freelance journalist based in Ramallah. This article was originally published in the London Tribune and reprinted on EI with permission.