If tortuous is the word that best describes the route, then torturous is the word that perhaps comes closest to describing the journey.
I needed to renew my US visa, but the Americans, like many Western countries, have closed their offices in Gaza. Tel Aviv is off limits to all Palestinians, and the next closest consulate is in Cairo, Egypt.
Israeli forces destroyed Palestine’s only airport in the southern Gaza Strip at the start of the present intifada, and have not given Palestinians access to their own facilities.
The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Israel is now Gaza’s only exit point. So like thousands of other Palestinians, we had to make the gruelling 18-hour trip to Cairo by land, after first running a gauntlet of Israeli checkpoints and the attendant humiliating, long-drawn-out procedures.
I was not enthusiastic about the prospect of making the trip across the dreaded Rafah crossing, but prepared myself nonetheless. It was just before dawn, our bags were packed, and my six-month-old son, my mother and I girded ourselves for the journey ahead.
A ride with a view
We had barely begun our journey only to discover the coastal road connecting Gaza city to the central and southern Gaza Strip had been closed off to all vehicles by Israeli troops.
Armoured Israeli bulldozers backed by Merkava tanks rumbled off into the distance after having just completed their job.
To our east lay the illegal settlement of Netzarim, its 400 inhabitants living in a world within a world. A little more than 8000 settlers occupy approximately 40% of the land in the Gaza Strip; about 1.3 million Palestinians live on the remaining 60%.
Riding carts or walking along the
In front of us is a three-metre-deep pit, with towering mounds of sand behind it.
We stood with tens of other perplexed Palestinian travellers, wondering what to do next.
Some, with no suitcases, risk crawling over the mound under a hail of Israeli fire. Others waited for the next best alternative – donkey cart, Gaza’s latest mode of travel.
We waited until the first of the donkey carts arrived. Having been given word of the coastal closure, many local farmers had taken advantage of the supply and demand market to make a few extra shekels.
Along with an elderly couple and our luggage, we held for dear life – and my son on to me – as the driver steered the rickety wooden vehicle down Gaza’s hilly coast and on to the shore.
The journey was three kilometres through water, sand and gravel. Most travellers take it by foot, unable to afford the relative luxury of the $2 donkey ride.
The invisible soldiers
Ten minutes and several bruises later, we were back on the main road, a little wetter and a little wiser (wearing white pants while riding a donkey is a not so smart an idea, I realised).
We waved down our second taxi, which transported us a kilometre south to our next hurdle: the Abu Huli checkpoint, dividing southern and northern Gaza.
This checkpoint was set up in the middle of some of Gaza’s most fertile farmland at the start of al-Aqsa Intifada. Several hundred donoms of land, including some belonging to my own family, were confiscated and razed in the process.
Long wait at checkpoints makes
Cars had backed up along the main road, and our driver told us we were better off waiting for it out without him, as it could be quite a long wait.
We took shelter at a makeshift cafeteria. Along with a herd of stray goats and hundreds of other Palestinians, we waited for what stretched into four hours.
In Gaza, our occupiers are rarely seen. They hide behind military machines and heavily fortified sniper towers.
They are cocooned in tanks behind massive pillboxes, or hover far above in US-built Apaches helicopters. They operate their checkpoints by remote control, and shout out their orders to us via megaphone.
The invisible soldier manning the Abu Huli checkpoint used the opportunity to taunt us. “Go back!” he shouted in Hebrew from behind a blackened window, with only the tip of his rifle showing. “We are not opening up for you today.”
Impulsive and cruel
Experience has taught us never to trust the invisible soldiers behind the blackened windows.
Suddenly, without warning, the red light near the checkpoint turned green. The milling crowds of Palestinians stuck at Abu Huli scurried to find a seat in the waiting overloaded cars and make it through the checkpoint as quickly as possible.
Lesson number two: soldiers behind blackened windows are as impulsive as they are cruel.
The heat and dust are especially
“Move along, cows,” bellowed the voice behind the window, this time in broken Arabic.
We took our third taxi to the Rafah crossing, only to learn that we had lost our place in line – new regulations require that you “make a reservation” for your date of travel. They do not, of course, take into consideration travel conditions through the Gaza Strip.
The Israelis only allow one taxiload at a time of people to cross the fence dividing us from the heavily fortified border. We were bumped from car one to car 36. After haggling our way up to car 18, we found ourselves in a filthy surrounding with no shade and no chairs.
My son broke out in hysteric wails. He was hot, tired, and confused. I began to worry about heat stroke, and eventually a kind passenger offered his place in line. The worst of the first half of our journey was over. After a few more hours, we were on our way to Cairo.
We arrived in the Egyptian capital at 11 pm.
Back to Gaza
After successfully getting my visa issued a few days later, we wasted no time and were back on the road to Gaza. We sped through the star-lit Sinai desert, a five-hour journey by night, to make it to the crossing in time – Israel has strict hours of operations: 8-6pm.
After swiftly finishing with Egyptian passport formalities, we were asked to line up and waited for the first of two buses we would take that day within a distance of less than 200 metres. This first one would transport us only a few walkable metres away to the Israeli side.
A Palestinian lifts his shirt to be
As with the taxis leaving the Gaza Strip, 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 the last person has exited the customs area.
And so we waited in the blistering heat for our bus to arrive.
But the bus didn’t arrive. The first two buses could be seen at a distance stalled ahead of the Israeli side. One hour became two, then three, then five. The place was infested with flies that buzzed around, eager to feast on the daily influx of exhausted, sweaty travellers.
I hadn’t slept in more than 26 hours, and dozed off listlessly on some cardboard boxes. My son did the same – crying himself to sleep in my arms as I shielded him with a mosquito net.
When our bus finally arrived five hours later, we indulged in a fleeting moment of euphoria, as if its appearance would somehow change the reality of what awaited us.
About 100 people and hundreds of bags were then crammed into a 60-seat bus, which sluggishly moved ahead to the Israeli side of the crossing.
Again we waited. There was a refreshing breeze outside, but the driver relayed orders from the Israelis: We won’t let you through until everyone is in the bus.
I half-sat on piles of bags with my head squashed against the ceiling, my face strategically positioned towards the window – a small foot-long crack.
Rafah can test the endurance of
The woman next to me offered to hold my son. Soon I felt the air thinning. We were literally breathing in the smell of 24 hours of exhaustion.
One woman ripped off her headscarf and began banging on the bus door, “Open it … please open it. I’m going to faint.” And then she did. We splashed water on her face and fanned her with a cardboard box.
Soon another young woman fell to the floor. My mother, a physician, examined her and found her pulse nearly gone. The entire bus erupted in protest and finally the driver opened the door. We shouted to the Egyptians for some help: We have two women down here and there is no more water.
“What would you have done if you waited on the border for 20 days?” said the officer, alluding to the 3000 Palestinians who were stranded at the crossing in August.
The Egyptians are powerless by their own admission.
Everything here happens according to Israeli orders, and the Egyptian officers are accomplices in an elaborately orchestrated act of humiliation.
Also with us were two children, accompanied by their parents, suffering from cerebral palsy. The father of one of them spotted the Egyptian officer and ran out of the bus towards him.
“Can’t you do something about this?” he shouted. “Look at my son, for God’s sake. This is inhumane. Please!” The passengers saw his pleas for intervention as futile and wrestled him back to the bus. He broke down in tears.
The Israelis didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that a busload of human beings were practically suffocating to death before their eyes. Instead, they let pass truck after truck carrying gravel and cement, being used to build the Rafah “buffer zone” and the West Bank separation wall.
As if perfectly timed to maximise the bus passengers’ suffering yet minimise the chance of fatalities, the Israelis gave our bus the green light to pass through, nine hours after we arrived. I felt an uncharacteristic urge to lash out at the first Israeli soldier I saw.
Two Palestinian women savour
Alas, we were met by machine-gun-toting Israeli border police officers dressed in civilian clothes. Along with our stamped passports, they handed us the latest weapon in the Israeli armoury: a propaganda publication entitled “The Truth”.
Stop firing Qassam rockets, and we’ll stop collectively punishing you, it told us. You suffer at checkpoints and are stalled at the Rafah crossing as a result of your own actions; as a result of your “terrorist organisations”.
At the back of the booklet was a cartoon showing an evil-looking Arab firing a missile that backfires into “Palestinian society”.
“Terrorism kills you,” said the caption.
Now it all makes sense, I thought to myself. We force them to punish us; to humiliate us; to trap our handicapped and elderly and young in small, rundown buses in the midday heat for hours as a time until they faint and, sometimes, miscarry if pregnant.
Now I clearly understand the Israelis’ logic: their cruel, illegal occupation of our land is a result of our own actions.