by JOHNNY BARBER
The Rafah Crossing from Egypt to Gaza was opened on May 26th for 2 days after being closed for the past 75 days. The opening allowed Palestinian residents of Gaza who were stranded in Egypt or third countries to return home to Gaza. The crossing remained closed for those trying to leave Gaza. The waiting list for people trying to leave has reached 15,000 people. The waiting list includes thousands of medical patients, students, and people traveling to their work or their families abroad. Many of these people have been trapped in Gaza since the Israeli attack last July.
The last time the crossing was opened was in March when just 2,443 people in total were permitted to travel in both directions. While Morsi was in power in Egypt, nearly 41,000 people were traveling through the crossing each month.
My friend Hanaa* had spent 2 years in the U.S. earning a masters degree.
When she left Gaza in the fall of 2013 it took her 6 months to get authorization from Hamas to leave, and an additional month to get a U.S. visa. She came within days of losing a full scholarship. Many other students remained trapped in Gaza and their scholarships were rescinded.
In the first year of her studies, Hanaa’s father died. He needed routine heart surgery but he was not permitted to leave Gaza. He died on the operating table at Shifa Hospital. He was 50 years old. Hanaa could not return to Gaza to be with her family because there was no guarantee that she could enter Gaza, and if she could, there was an even greater risk she wouldn’t be allowed to leave Gaza to return to her studies.
Last July Israel attacked Gaza for 51 days. Hanaa was on the phone with her mom as her family fled her home in the middle of the night. She could hear the bombs and mortars rain down on her neighborhood. Terrorized, her family ran for their lives through the darkened streets. The phone connection was lost. The family survived and days later returned home even as most of the neighborhood was demolished.
Hanaa completed her studies this spring, and planned her return home. I would accompany her. When we left the states, we had no idea if the border would open. Like everyone, we needed to wait, but we needed to be nearby in order to move quickly if the border opened. Egypt has a policy of not allowing Palestinians from Gaza to enter the country unless their purpose is to travel directly to Gaza. Since the border was closed, we were afraid Hanaa would be denied entry at Cairo airport. The Egyptian policy changes like the tide, we heard of people getting trapped in the airport for months, others were deported to Turkey or back to their point of origin. We couldn’t afford to be turned back. We went to Jordan. Jordan also has strict rules about allowing entry to Palestinians from Gaza. The border agent told Hanaa she would not have been allowed into the country if she didn’t have a multiple entry visa from the U.S. in her passport. He assumed she would return to the U.S.
We waited for 3 weeks in Irbid, Jordan. We traveled to the north in order to interview Syrian refugees while we waited for news of the border crossing. On a daily basis, we heard many rumors that ranged from, “The border will open in 2 days,” to “The border is closed- permanently.” We never knew what to do.
We learned that the only time flights to Cairo would be sold to Palestinians was when the border was going to open. Another Palestinian stuck in Jordan told us about a branch of Palestinian Airlines that was still open in Amman. Since the bombing of Gaza’s airport in 2001 they didn’t operate as an airline but as a travel agency. We called them twice everyday and asked them if they had any news regarding Rafah. On Sunday May 24th, they said, “Yes, the border will open.” They received notice from the Egyptians that Rafah Crossing was opening, but only for those returning to Gaza. We immediately dropped everything, packed our bags, and headed to Amman. We purchased 2 one-way tickets to Cairo because once Hanaa left Jordan she would not be able to return. She would not be allowed to remain in Egypt, so like all Palestinians heading to Rafah, she had no choice but to make it across the border.
I still had a problem. Not being Palestinian meant I was required to receive permission from Egypt in order to cross the border at Rafah. After a month of trying to procure permission, I still did not have the necessary document. The Egyptian military, which has been carrying out attacks throughout the Sinai since the coup, now maintains tight control over the region. I was warned that I would be stopped at the first military checkpoint into the Sinai and sent back to Cairo.
In the attempt to arrange permission, I faced a Catch-22 that proved insurmountable. I sent all my documents to the Egyptian consulate in Los Angeles. (This office had been extremely helpful and friendly when I asked for a visa and permission for other trips to Gaza.) After 10 days they called me and told me there was a new policy. I would need to procure security clearance from the U.S. Consulate in Cairo. I had done this on previous trips, it amounted to paying a $50 fee for a notarized piece of paper saying that the U.S. was not responsible for my safety in Gaza and I was going on my own accord. It also noted that I understood that once I entered Gaza the U.S. Consulate would not help me if any issues arose. In the past, the Egyptian consulate provided the visa. This time they told me it would not be possible and returned my paperwork.
Because my understanding was that my friend would not be able to travel freely around Cairo, I called the State Dept. in Washington DC, asking for this travel document in advance. They claimed they could not provide it, that I needed to contact the U.S. Consulate in Cairo. I emailed the consulate my request. The consulate responded:
Unfortunately, issuing such type of letters is not among our services. If you need a permission or a visa, you should contact the Egyptian Consulate.
I sent a return email and asked them to consider the body of my original email, which came from the Egyptian Consulate and in which I was told to contact The U.S. Consulate in Cairo. The Consulate responded:
Unfortunately, we stopped issuing such letters long time ago.
For weeks I reached out to the main Egyptian Consulate in Washington DC. They never once responded to me. In fact, I couldn’t even get a human being on the telephone. Feeling desperate, I tried the Egyptian Consulate in NYC and was told, “No problem, we are glad to help, send us your documents and the fee for the visa and we will take care of it.” For a moment my hope was renewed, but it wouldn’t last long. After several days they called me back to say they couldn’t help me, and reiterated that a new policy was in place, and that I must contact the U.S. Consulate in Cairo.
Finally, the day before we flew to Jordan, I copied the U.S. Consulate in Cairo and the Egyptian Consulate in the same email and asked why they were both telling me to speak to the other agency. The Egyptian Consulate never responded, but the U.S. Consulate in Cairo emailed:
Despite what may have been done previously, current policy of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is not to issue travel letters and this has been the official policy for over four years. This isn’t to say the Egyptians do not still require it, but that we do not issue them.
Of course this was not correct as I received this letter on my last trip to Gaza in November 2012, but no need to quibble. In order to cross the border I needed a letter and they refused to issue it.
This runaround is nothing compared to the process that Palestinians from Gaza must endure. Conflicting information, changing rules and regulations, ambiguity, bureaucracy layered upon more bureaucracy, and government delays and inertia are all designed to deter people from even attempting to travel into or out of the confines of Gaza. This deterrence would be amplified exponentially in the coming days at the Rafah Crossing.
The U.S. Consulate in Cairo concluded with this:
With this information, I consider this matter closed from our end. Your entry to Gaza is something that we do not advise and do not support with a travel letter or other assistance.
So I didn’t have permission from Egyptian security because my own government wouldn’t provide it.
Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region (behind Israel), mostly in the form of 1.3 billion dollars per year in military assistance. It behooves Egypt to do as they are told when it comes to Gaza.
The matter was not closed from my end, yet. Before leaving Jordan I went to the U.S. Consulate in Amman. When I stated I needed permission to enter Gaza at the Rafah Crossing, they claimed they didn’t know what I was talking about, but explained that for a $50 fee I could write my own affidavit, which they notarized and signed off on. It wasn’t what was required, but it was something.
We were heading to Rafah.
* The name has been changed.
Into the Sinai
On May 24th we received word that the Rafah Crossing would be opened on Tuesday May 26th for 2 days. We left for Cairo the next day, arriving at 7:00 pm. On the plane we met a man named Musa. When he was fifteen and living in Gaza, he was shot by Israeli forces. He was evacuated from Gaza for surgery. He was all alone. He ended up in Australia where he was granted status as an asylum seeker. Now, fourteen years later, he was returning home to get married. He had been waiting in Jordan for the crossing to open since March. In the time he was gone he had lost 2 sisters and more extended family members than he cared to recount to Israeli bombs.
Outside Cairo airport we met Musa again. He was waiting for his uncle, and offered us a ride to the services (shared taxis) that would take us to Rafah. At 1:30 am we were on our way to the Sinai. We hoped to cross in the early morning hours. We wanted to get to Rafah by the time the border opened.
Crossing the Sinai is dangerous, especially at night. The people living there have long been neglected by the central government and during the revolution local Bedouin tribesman found an opportunity to exploit government weakness. After the coup, the Sisi government began cracking down on people in the Sinai. Several jihadist groups have joined the fray. Villages we drove through had been emptied. Houses were bombed. Mosques closed down, schools taken over for military outposts. Tanks and APVs were outside every outpost and lined the checkpoints on the road. We avoided the city of Al-Arish entirely. We regularly diverted to small roads through local villages where there were fewer checkpoints and less hazards. The roads were crowded with cars trying to get to the border. The services all had enormous piles of luggage secured to the roofs.
We arrived at the crossing at 9:15 am. Nearly two thousand people were already waiting. The local Egyptian youth were out hustling people for the use of their rickety pushcarts. Business was good; there were not nearly enough carts. Others had donkey carts piled full of belongings. The drop off point for cars had been moved back from the crossing at least another 200 yards from its location in 2012. People would now need to drag their belongings 300 yards to the main gate. There were no lines, no organization. Soldiers were trying to keep the crowds from pushing past them. The energy was tense. It was going to be a harrowing headlong rush to the gate. Based on the numbers of people, I thought many would not cross today. We skirted past the donkeys and the pushcarts trying to get to the front of the chaotic crowd.
We were told that the border would open at 10 am. We managed to find a spot near the front that was somewhat quiet. Several very elderly people, some in wheelchairs, others with canes, were sitting on the curb waiting. Somewhere behind us a confrontation broke out and soldiers rushed into the crowd. More and more people walked around the carts and toward the front, leapfrogging the starting point established by the Egyptian military. The soldiers started screaming at people to go back, but the crowd was packed tight, people couldn’t go back. In response, several soldiers lifted their weapons, and fired into the air. The people stopped moving forward. This scenario repeated itself several times with the soldier in charge yelling that the crossing would not open if people didn’t move back. But moments later, without warning, everyone was suddenly running forward. We became separated from Musa as he rushed forward to separate himself from the crowd. There was more firing, this time behind us. The youth with the overloaded carts pushed as hard as they could, hitting people who couldn’t move out of their way fast enough. Baggage went tumbling into the roadway and got left behind. The elders in the front were quickly overtaken. We moved with the flow, but were overtaken as well. As we got closer, I saw armed soldiers on the parapet above the gate. Fifty yards from the gate an APV with soldiers armed with a rocket launcher and Kalashnikovs was in the roadway. Soldiers allowed the first hundred people to rush past the APV to the gate. The soldiers at the APV stopped us. The carts and donkeys and people pulling suitcases and carting bundles all crammed forward. We were caught in the crush.
It was 10:30 am and the sun was blazing. There was no shade. We would remain in the crowd packed behind the APV for at least an hour. I heard F-16s in the sky before I saw them, and later heard that Israel bombed targets throughout Gaza after a rocket had been fired toward Israel.
There were dozens of soldiers, but they were completely unorganized. People pushed past them, the soldiers chased them down, screaming, and shoved them back toward the crowd. While they were distracted, others went around them. Tempers were flaring. Hundreds of people were jockeying to maneuver through a narrow six-foot space in between the APV and a low wall, others were moving around the APV where they managed to slip past the soldiers. Hanaa and I were pinned in between the pushcarts and several donkey carts and couldn’t move. The soldiers let two small groups of people through. We were now near the soldiers in front of the APV. They continued to scream at people to back up. No one listened, or moved back only to move forward as soon as the soldiers turned away.
A sense of desperation was palatable. Mothers with small children and the elderly begged the soldiers to let them pass. Men in wheelchairs and on crutches pointed toward the gate and argued their case. Little mercies were shown as some soldiers relented and let people move forward.
Finally, we too, were allowed to move forward. The crowd around the gate numbered at least 200 people. We were almost there. Before we reached this group a single young soldier with a Kalashnikov pointed his weapon at us and began screaming. We skidded to a halt as those behind us leaned into us and pushed us forward. He pointed to the ground and demanded no one move forward, not even an inch. He tried to separate woman and men. He pushed people back, screaming. People were focused on the gate; no one knew what he was screaming about until he was in their face. He kept his finger on the trigger of his weapon and kept raising it toward the crowd. I was worried he would shoot somebody.
People with infants and very old women tried to move to the side of the road to sit in the shade under the only tree left standing in the newly created buffer zone. There once was a small snack shop and a mosque here as well, but they were leveled along with all the olive groves. The soldier was raising his gun to women with infants. No one could talk to him. None of the other soldiers tried to calm him. Again we were forced to wait. In the blazing heat it seemed like forever, though it was less than an hour. We had no water. Everyone’s clothing was soaked through with sweat. Babies, young children, and some adults were crying. Later I would learn that an elderly woman, Yousra Al-Khatib, would die here in the heat.
The crossing has a 2-lane roadway with large gates to control cars as well as 4 gates for people. The people on the other side of the gate were collecting individual passports so the Mukhabarat (The Egyptian State Security Service) could examine them. Then they needed to find the people in the crowd and open the gate to let them pass. With the hundreds of people screaming at them to take their passports and let them cross, it was a process that was incredibly inefficient. It was also the process that I witnessed when I first came to Gaza in 2011. Nothing had been improved or repaired in the years in between.
Finally, we were allowed to move forward. It was 12:30. We were at the gate, but in the middle of the crowd. No one seemed to be moving past the gate, but then the soldiers began opening the gate in the roadway in order to retrieve the bags of people who had already been allowed inside. Every time the big gate opened, people desperately pushed and squeezed inside. At the same time, people were throwing 70 lb. pieces of luggage forward toward the gate, hitting the people trying to get in. Slowly Hanaa and I moved forward into the chaos, edging closer to the gate. It was inches at a time. Baggage was accumulating around our feet, making it harder to move. Still people pushed. Everyone was reaching forward, waving their passports and papers, shouting for the soldiers, “Bashar, bashar, please help, please take this!” I refused to yield as people tried to push by me, doing all in their power to get to the gate. We were now 2 people back from the gate itself. Finally Hanaa broke down. She yelled out, cursing. I don’t know what she said. But for a minute, the soldier paid attention. He asked which bags were hers. Two men by our sides, who had earlier pushed us out of their way, gathered our 3 bags. They hoisted them to the guards, who then pushed them through the gate. Hanaa followed, grabbing my arm and shouting, “We are together.” And in a moment we were through. We sat on the ground for a minute to rest. It was 1:30 pm. I was shocked and dumbfounded. Hanaa asked, “What do we do now?” A guard pointed to the Travel Hall 50 yards away. We gathered our belongings and our remaining strength, and we trudged toward the terminal.
“THIS IS THE CASE OF THE PALESTINIANS”
At the Travel Hall we join another crowd, once again pushing and shoving to get through the narrow doorway. We manage to get to the middle of the crowd and are funneled into the hall.
The cavernous hall is packed. We drop our bags against a wall. Hanaa* goes to buy something to drink; I push my way through the crowd to the counter to try and get the man behind the glass to take our passports. He finally takes them, gives them a quick glance, and throws them back at me. Our exit papers don’t have the proper stamps. We need to go to a different counter and then return. After getting the stamps affixed to the exit paper, I shove my way forward yet again and get the passports into the hands of the agent. He puts them in a stack of dozens and hands them to another man who takes them into a nearby office.
We slump to the floor as near to the counter as we can get. It is 2:30 pm. We spend the next three hours waiting, listening through the din of the crowd for our names to be called. There is no intercom system, no monitors to show your name, just people shouting out names.
Hanaa is exhausted, shaking, and barely able to move. We share a small bottle of water and a soda. At 5:30 the man next to us explains he has been waiting since noon. We entered the hall almost 2 hours after he did. Apparently there are issues with the computer systems and the phone lines to Cairo. This is the same excuse that was given to me in 2011 as I waited 6 hours at the gate before I was allowed to proceed.
The snack bar runs out of water, soda, tea, and coffee. There is no food except crackers and candy. The trash receptacles are full and overflowing. People throw their trash on the floor. The two bathrooms, each with only four stalls, are filthy. The air is stagnant and hot. The hall is full; all the chairs are taken. The aisles are blocked by people sitting on the floor and the piles of luggage. People are exhausted. Old women slump to the floor crying.
Three men are stamping the passports that come back from the Mukhabarat (Egypt’s Intelligence Service). A thousand or more people are waiting. After stamping the passport, the agent shouts out the person’s name and waits for them to fight through the crowd to the counter. People begin raising their hands and the men just fling the passports into the crowd. I walk around a corner, down the main hallway to a guarded door that leads to the back offices. I’m told to go away, to wait out front with everyone else. Old women, people in wheelchairs, young moms with kids in tow were all pleading for something to be done. For hours I would walk back and forth from the counter to the hallway asking for help, for some consideration. None was forthcoming.
I can’t forget the old man, a double amputee, in a spotless white thawb laying on a small piece of cardboard on the floor next to his wheelchair; the exhausted sweaty children, sleeping in the aisles of the main room as people climbed over them; the old woman, who had been sobbing earlier, spent and now quiet, laying on the floor next to me and Hanaa, resting her head on a small bundle. The exhaustion and frustration etched on people’s faces is still difficult to bear.
This system has been in place for years. Nothing is ever improved; even the simplest fixes are not implemented. This is exactly how it is designed to work. Every aspect of the system acts as a deterrent, so people will no longer try to travel. If you were to find yourself in this hall, desperately trying to get home, and were met with the complete indifference, contempt, and bald-faced lies of the authorities in these rooms, you would not accept it. But thousands of people have no choice. If you cause too much of a problem, you risk getting thrown out, ending a bid to see your family, or return to your home. The authorities told us, “Go away, go sit down until your name is called,” and we sat. They told us to “Wait right there for 5 minutes,” we waited for an hour. People had to endure it, much like the siege itself, like the lack of medicine, like the lack of jobs, like the lack of homes, like the lack of possibility, like the lack of a future. One indignity piled on top of another. When you think it can’t get any worse, it invariably does. Yet the people remain. They struggle. They persevere. Against desperate odds, they survive. That being said, every time people are treated with such disregard something of our humanity is lost, and all of us suffer.
Finally, Hanaa’s name is called. She pushes through the crowd, and returns with her passport in hand. I say, “Get your bags, you can go home.” She refuses. She insists on waiting for me. It is past 6 pm. I walk from the desk to the door in the hallway back to the desk, trying to get someone to help me. Someone says the Palestinians will be taken care of first. Anyone with a foreign passport, whether Palestinian or not, would need to wait, “But don’t worry you will go to Gaza.”
At 8:30 pm there is an announcement that the passport desk is closed. The agents continue handing out the last of the processed passports. I squeeze up to the window to look at the passports on the counter. Maybe I could find mine. I don’t see a single foreign passport. I walk back to the door leading to the offices. Desperate mothers with newborns in their arms are begging for their passports. They implore the guards, they can’t possibly stay overnight, they have no more food for their babies. Pregnant women try to explain they can’t lie on the bare floor. Elders grab soldiers by the arms, asking for mercy. They are all brushed aside, and told to go away, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, there is nothing more to be done now, the office is closed.”
There is an announcement that the exit doors are also closed. A commotion ensues as people are still trying to leave. Now Hanaa would be forced to stay the night.
In the hall I recognize an Egyptian man who I dealt with in previous trips to Gaza. I implore him to find out what is going on. He promises me he will, “Wait here for 15 minutes.” An hour later I found him smoking a cigarette and laughing with a friend. I call to him. “Fifteen minutes,” he assures me, without getting up.
Hundreds of people are lying on the floor amidst the garbage and their luggage. The Egyptians provide nothing. There are no blankets, nothing to lie on, the snack bar is closed, no food is forthcoming. And here I am hoping something could be done for me, amongst all these stranded, desperate people trying to go home. I run out of words and feel deeply ashamed.
One dignified old gentleman, dressed in fine slacks and a white pin striped shirt, leans on his cane, sits down on his boxes and says to me, “This is the case of the Palestinians.”
Hanaa finds a darkened corner where we can lie down. I take a minute to look at all the people around me. I try to make sense of all that has transpired, but can only shake my head. Even as I write this I cannot comprehend it. Hanaa was next to me on a thin piece of cardboard. She covered her face completely. The mosquitos were out in force. Although I am lying on just a towel on the marble floor, I quickly fall asleep.
At 6 am I wake up and look around me. People are already stirring. I walk around the hall, it is finally quiet. People whisper to each other. The energy level is low. I step outside into the bright sun. Small groups of people are talking and smoking. A football appears and the youth begin kicking it around. No one smiles.
I go back inside. Even though it was not yet 7 am, a man is behind the passport counter, and he is answering questions. I ask him about my passport. He goes into a back room and comes back swiftly. He tells me, “You will not be allowed to enter, you will be sent back to Cairo this morning.” I show him the paper I had notarized at the American embassy in Amman. He says, “This paper must come from Cairo, not Amman. This will not be accepted.”
Hanaa joins me and we go back outside to get some fresh air and consider our options. A young man we met near the passport counter comes and sits with us. He says he knows someone working with the Mukhabarat and he will make a call. Hanaa goes with him. They also come back quickly. There is no way I will be allowed to pass. It is not Egyptian policy, but American policy. U.S. Citizens are no longer permitted to enter Gaza through Rafah Crossing because the U.S. Embassy in Cairo will not permit it, there is nothing to be done.
Hanaa lights a cigarette. A young man approaches us. I ask him what he was doing outside Palestine, “Were you working? Going to University?” “No,” he replies, “My brother has kidney disease. I went outside Gaza so I could donate my kidney to my brother, now I am trying to return home.” Luckily, his brother had been called the day before; he made it back to the family in Gaza before the terminal closed.
I encourage Hanaa that it was time she went to her family. I would wait for my passport and return to Cairo. She reluctantly agrees. We gather her bags and I walk her to the doorway that opens to the Gaza side of the crossing. She steps outside without looking back.
At 1:30 pm my passport is returned. There are still hundreds of people in the hall waiting to be processed. I grab my bags and I am escorted from the Travel Hall back to the gate that I forced myself through 24 hours earlier. People dragging their luggage walk quickly past me toward the Travel Hall, relieved to be inside the crossing. At the gate, the scenes from yesterday repeat themselves. A man tells me that they just began allowing people to pass. The numbers of people are much lower, maybe only one hundred or so. The soldiers must have turned cars back in the morning.
I shove my way past the soldiers and the people jockeying to enter. I feel free but utterly, completely defeated. I walk past the APV to the few remaining cars, hoping to find a ride across the Sinai and back to Cairo.
* The name has been changed.
Video taken at rafah crossing:
Original article : http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/06/04/this-is-the-case-of-the-palestinians/