Hell’s journey: Coming home to Gaza

It has often been said that no one goes through more trouble trying to return home than the Palestinian.

Checkpoints used to dehumanise and discourage travel
Checkpoints used to dehumanise and discourage travel

The comforts of modern day travel are a distant luxury for him. Complaints about airplane and ticketing service are mere trivialities compared with what he endures on an ordinary day of travel into the West Bank or Gaza Strip. 


The Occupied Palestinian Territories are riddled with every form and fashion of checkpoints and border crossings. 


There is the Qalandiah crossing, which divides Ram Allah from Jerusalem, and Erez, which literally closes off the Gaza Strip from the West Bank and Israel.


But for a Palestinian travelling into Gaza, the only possible entry point is the Egyptian crossing. 


Making difficulties


The Palestinian airport has been shut down, and all permits giving Gazans access to the Allenby Bridge into Jordan and the Erez crossing into the West Bank have been denied. The paperwork needed to exit and enter is a bureaucratic maze. 


The travel itself is physically exhausting, and more pertinently, utterly humiliating. It is especially taxing on young children. 


Carrying vegetables through the checkpoing is ‘illegal’

Carrying vegetables through the
checkpoing is ‘illegal’

This intentional Israeli policy of making the process of travel into and out of Gaza as convoluted, miserable and humiliating as possible, is no doubt meant to discourage Palestinians from travelling in the first place. Most just get used to it. 


Starting off


I arrived from Boston on 17 September 2003. For the first time in my recollection, the Egyptians swiftly stamped my passport and let me through to baggage claim, even after explaining that I do not possess an Egyptian visa, but a permit to travel to Gaza.


Usually, this revelation would produce at least a three-hour wait. 


After meeting my party and getting a brief rest, we continued onwards across Sinai at three in the morning. 


Palestinians with Palestinian Authority passports are not allowed to remain in Cairo overnight. They are either to wait in the airport or be escorted immediately and directly to the border. 


Night journey


The trip across Sinai is five hours long, we have to hurry because the Israelis have strict hours of operation: 7am to 3pm.


Arriving after eight in the morning, we pay a man for helping us carry our many bags on a rickety cart across gravel and sand. 


We proceed quickly through passport formalities, and exit outside into a large sand lot that appears to be under construction. We are told to wait near a cesspool of dirty diapers, rotting tomatoes, and swarms of flies. There are no chairs. No shaded areas. Just sand, sun, and filth.   


Long wait


All border crossers will have theirbags checked repeatedly

All border crossers will have their
bags checked repeatedly

We wait in a long line of a most eclectic group: doctors, restaurateurs, peasants, merchants and mothers. Here on the border crossing, all lines of social status disappear. You are reduced to the least common denominator: a Palestinian trying to get home.


The Israelis give specific orders to the Egyptians that only one busload of people at a time may be sent over their way. And this busload is not to be unloaded on the other end until every last person has exited the customs area. 


And so we wait in the blistering heat for our bus to arrive. 


As we wait, we are thankful it is not July, when the number of people travelling is considerably more and the temperature is at least 25 degrees higher. Four or more hours pass by. Still we wait. 


People are getting restless. A mother attempts to calm her hysteric baby. The last toilet was on the Egyptian side, the next one on the Israeli side. The interim wait can last several hours in the winter and fall, several nights in the summer. At the end of the day, however, it is a coin toss.     


Transportation problems


After about four hours, our salvation arrives. 


Israeli troops on the Egptian
Gaza border are ‘unwelcoming’

About 80 people and literally hundreds of bags are then crammed into a 24 seat capacity bus, with barely functional air conditioning. The women are asked to sit on top of each other, including the pregnant. The men stand, some with their faces pressed against the windows. 


This bus is to transport us to the Israeli side about 50 yards away. After maximizing every inch of space in the vehicle, we proceed to the Israeli side and are asked to wait just ahead of the gate. Truckload after truckload of cement and gravel pass by unstopped as we slowly suffocate. 


The decibel level in the bus slowly dies down to a murmur and then a hush. 


Passing the checkpoint


People are utterly exhausted. Some men are allowed to wait outside. A man sitting near me calls his wife in Gaza on a cell phone and asks what she is making for dinner, as if the verbal description will give him sustenance for the hours ahead.  “Okra?  Excellent!  What? You haven’t cooked it yet?  Please cook it!  With meat or chicken? Meat? Mmmm.”


We are finally given the go ahead.


We proceed through the heavily fortified checkpoint with tanks all around. The driver stops, and asks us to get out of the bus and find our bags. It is every man, woman, or child for themselves now as the passengers swarm towards the luggage.


More searches


Might may not be right, but
nothing looks likely to change

Soon, we head towards Israeli passport control.  Palestinian police sit obediently on counters ready to take our documents, which they immediately place in a drawer leading to the blackened windows behind them, filled with Israeli security officials. 


The mood between the two parties, once jovial and friendly, is sombre now. I hear the angry muffled Hebrew words of a female soldier from behind the windows. 


She appears to be yelling at the Palestinian policemen. She commands one to ask a young child, waiting for her turn, to look up so she can be identified. 


Young or old, the crass treatment is the same.


After another couple of hours of search and seizure, we head towards the final bus, which is to transport us another hundred yards to the taxis stands. 


Numerous baggage searches


I am stopped by an Israeli soldier conducting “random” checks of luggage for goods smuggled by merchants trying to avoid taxes. 


Inta! Istanna!  Do you have any cigarettes?” He shouts in a broken Arabic, in the most condescending of tones possible. 


“Cigarettes?? Look, it’s been a long day. I don’t smoke, think cigarette smoke is revolting, and certainly am not involved in the illicit cigarette trade.  Can I go now?” 


“No. You have cigarettes.” 


Venting frustration with poor
treatment will only lead to trouble

I could fast see this was heading no where. 


“Listen go ahead and check my bags if you want. But they were just checked! That and frankly I’m not too fond of merchants myself.”


“Is that so?” he cracks wisely “Why not? What’s wrong with the merchants?”


“They hold everyone else up with their smuggling, can I go now?”  Why am I am even bothering to have this conversation I thought to myself. 


Further still


I exit the comfortable air-conditioned building and hear the soldier calling out to me sarcastically “You’re welcome! Have a nice day! Pleasure doing business with you! Would you like some tea with that?” 


I mutter profanities under my breath and continue onwards, until I am stopped by another soldier. “Phones. How many phones do you have?” 


“Oh, for the love of God,  I told you, I am NOT a merchant!” 


Finally, after having our bag checked a third time, we were on our way. For about the fifth time that day, we struggled to put our many bags back on the bus. 


Palestinians on the other end of the crossing, including taxis and relatives, are not allowed to meet their parties directly at the exit of the Israeli passport control. 


Why should it take Palestinians
travelling home from Egypt six
hours to pass a checkpoint?

Instead, we drive for about 10 seconds, and are swarmed by children eager to make a few shekels off travellers who they know are far too tired to care about haggling with them. 


Finally there


The trip to Gaza city is swift and, luckily, we are not stopped at the newly erected Israeli checkpoint dividing the southern part of the Strip from the northern part. 


Entire farms have been demolished around this checkpoint, and the main road leading into Gaza cut off all for the sake of “protecting” the Israeli settlements surrounding this area.


We notice, though, that taxis coming into Khan Yunis from Gaza on the other end of the checkpoint stretch back for at least two miles. As the Palestinian saying goes, when it comes to checkpoints “it’s you and your luck.” 


Another ordinary day of travel for a Palestinian going home, I thought to myself. Just another ordinary day. 

Source : Al Jazeera

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