-by Eva Bartlett
The process of entering and leaving Gaza is incomparable to anywhere else. All borders are closed by Israel and Egypt to all but a small number of the students and ill who need to leave the Strip. And now, while the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing is temporarily open, unless you have connections, supreme luck, or money to bribe the Egyptian authorities, you’re not getting out. This includes most students and the ill holding the necessary paperwork. Gaza’s health care system has been decimated by the siege imposed since Hamas was elected in 2006, and from the various Israeli bombings and attacks. As a result, there is a chronic depletion of 141 types of vital medicines and shortage of 116 types of medical supplies, says Gaza’s Ministry of Health. The lack of specialized equipment and expertise means those with certain health problems go untreated, and those with chronic diseases suffer slow deaths–at least a reported over 370 deaths until now. While in Gaza, I met Q, a woman in her fifties with renal failure.
On 8 June, we try to leave Gaza. He has a visa to study abroad, and I have an American passport (my Canadian is expired and I refuse to get it renewed via so-called ‘tel aviv’).
A sea of yellow Mercedes –the 6 door, 8 seaters –clouds the parking lot outside the Gaza terminal. Inside the terminal hall, Gaza authorities, with unnecessarily loud voices and frowns glare away those without the stamina to challenge their squints. Maybe they have their reasons but to people whose hopes and dreams depend on this border, meeting this unwillingness to help is the beginning of a long, depressing effort to leave that usually ends in failure.
“Why don’t you go straight through, you’ve got a foreign passport?” people ask and tell me. But I’m with a Palestinian, and want to stay with him. I’m also torn: as an activist, I want to sit as long as Palestinians have to sit, waiting without end for their right to exit. But I’m with him and also don’t want to jeopardize his chances of leaving. I’m all too aware of the whims of the Egyptian authorities, so similar to those Israeli occupation whims, and that anything, any small thing, could trigger repercussions on his chances of leaving. Me, I’ll get out. Maybe not today, maybe not this border opening, but raise a fuss with my consulate and I’m out. He, Palestinian, is very different. And after already having lost 3 chances to study and train abroad, he won’t hold much hope if this opportunity fails. I try to imagine the bitter regret I’d feel if my study opportunities were yanked away from me, let alone my simple desire to travel. I can’t imagine: it’s a pain exclusive to those truly imprisoned by virtue of their nationality.
In the Palestinian departure hall I am told by a terminal authority that I must wait till Thursday, today is for Palestinian students. But we worry about being separated, I worry about how the Egyptian authorities will treat him, and we try negotiating to be allowed out together.
We wait hours, see others in similar predicaments. And this is only the Gaza side of the border.
We inch forward in our taxi, still waiting, waiting, waiting for the word.
It finally comes, hours later, when worry has set in if there will be time for the necessary waiting at the Egyptian terminal. Names are read out off a list and ours are among them.
We board a bus, roughly 18 seats, pay 15 shekels for the bags and 60 shekels for the 200 m or so ride –which we have no choice but to take –to the Egyptian terminal, where the bus parks and we wait another hour or so.
The bus is hot, the windows are sealed shut, unfathomably, and no air circulates. We wait, remember the hard goodbyes that come from close families who don’t know when or if they will see each other again.
The bus moves forward, finally pulling up to the doors of the Egyptian terminal, where the real waiting and uncertainty begins.
There, we see friends, trying to leave to study in Egypt, to breathe a little. They have come for the last few days and have been turned back to Gaza, but they keep trying. We learn later that they are again denied exit.
We hand in our passports, to different Egyptian authorities: I’m holding a non-Palestinian passport, so I will be processed quickly, despite my activism and writings. He is holding the Palestinian passport, so he will be toyed with, possibly turned back despite his visa and plane ticket.
My name is called, I’m processed, stamped out. We wait.
He (Palestinian, from GAZA) is called, told to wait more, this time for an interview with the Egyptian intelligence. After much more waiting, he is called in. He tells them about his studies, his plane ticket, that he is in contact with the Venezuelan Ambassador in Palestine. This helps him, gives him an edge other Palestinians with visas, money or serious illness don’t have. They want to speak with me.
I’m called in.
Are you traveling together? Where are you going? What have you been doing in Gaza? What is ISM?
They are the Intelligence and certainly have a file on me: I came in by boat and have spent the last year and a half standing in the border areas with other International solidarity activists (ISM), being shot at by zionist soldiers because the farmers we are with are trying to access their land. It is repeatedly a ridiculous and unbelievable scene and no matter how real it is and how many times I’ve written about it, it is so illegal and scandalous that it seems unbelievable when telling those who have no idea this happens.
But it is all too real and continues as I type. Farmers, civilians living near the border, and women and men protesting so-called “israel”‘s imposition of a 300 m no-go zone have been killed and maimed, by live ammunition and shelling, including dart bombs, from Israeli soldiers who know exactly who they are targeting.
In the past twelve months, at least 220 israeli attacks have been carried out in the ‘buffer zone’, with 116 coming since the beginning of 2010 (as of April 30th). In the first four months of 2010, over 50 Gazans were injured, and 16 were killed in these attacks, ISM notes.
And the Egyptian intelligence interviewing me knows this, knows I’ve been witnessing this, and is pretty damn happy I am leaving and shutting up. But while I’ll be out of Gaza, I’ll not be shutting up.
He tries to know more about ISM, or to catch me in a lie. But I know he knows, and there’s nothing illegal about justice and solidarity work. The illegality lies in the Israeli soldiers’ actions, the Israeli governments’ policies, and the Egyptian authorities complicity in the siege, including Egypt’s targeting of the tunnels (in which Palestinians, usually quite young men supporting their families, are working and are subsequently killed or maimed) and Egypt’s building of the underground wall to cut off the tunnels lifeline, and Egypt’s continued closure of the Rafah crossing, the only exit/entry point not controlled by Israel.
He asks about our offices, who works with ISM, if there are more coming to Gaza to replace me. Ridiculous, “israel” the 4th largest military force, and Egypt the 2nd greatest recipient of US foreign aid are so concerned about a group of unarmed activists from various countries, backgrounds and ages. Our weapons– the truth, cameras, and conveying Palestinian humanity –frighten them, and he is visibly glad one of us is leaving.
Perhaps due to this, and our connection with the Venezuelan Ambassador, we are granted exit.
But until we step on the plane, it is never certain. Over the next two days, we will wait in suspension, detention, and be disdained by various Egyptian officials and police who attempt to dehumanize their numerous captive travelers.
7pm, waiting on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing:
Waiting, waiting, waiting… near to freedom but still unsure if it is real. Never in my life have I realized how precious freedom is. Technically we are through, but while I hold my passport and any other foreign-passport holding national would have long ago left, he has no idea where his passport is nor when he’ll be allowed to leave this dismal hall. We wait, try to forget we are only less than 50 metres from the Palestinian side and can easily be sent back, and wait some more.
Without any prior notice, Egyptian officials begin to bark at us and the other detainees to line up and damn well hurry up about it, to board the bus which will actually take us away from this nightmare. Approaching the bus, we are told to fork over 350 Egyptian pounds for various bus-related costs (who can contest?) for the ride to the airport (as if we had a choice). No forewarning, no idea what was about to happen, we have no pounds. Need to find a money changer. Have little “israeli” shekels left for that matter, for who knew this fee was coming. Confusing change with some US dollars and remaining shekels, heeling back to the barked lineup, and stuffing bags into bus storage, clipping back to doorway lineup –the latest to bark isn’t happy with our slowness –we finally board the bus.
With the exception of a 20 minute roadside stop to eat or use the toilet, we trundle through darkness to the airport. His first view of the world outside Gaza is darkness and streetlights. Still, one can at least see more power than constantly blacked-out Gaza…
5:49 am, June 9 2010 Cairo airport.
It’s a crime to be Palestinian.
The punishment, in addition to being denied most rights and privileges anyone else enjoys, in addition to being shot at, bombed, deprived of land, deprived of work, and deprived of hope… is being detained everywhere. Even in neighbouring countries.
Because they are from Gaza, the women, children, babies, shebab (young men), men…are whisked –slowly –from cage to cage, with the torment of waiting without knowing if they are being allowed to leave. Or the snub of seeing shining floors, escalators, shops, eye candy, and instead being herded into a hallway detention room. All of the time-killing measures which make travel tolerable are also denied to Palestinians from Gaza.
I leave the hall (only grâce à my foreign passport) we –the Palestinians from Gaza and I –are being held in with its rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs and only one toilet… VIP is written on the walls outside. I need to buy a phone card so we can let his family know he’s okay, outside, and hopefully, hopefully (but still not certain) going to board the plane he has paid money for.
He, as well as the other Palestinians, cannot leave the hallway, and its only the grace of my non-Palestinian passport that has allowed me out, despite the suspicious words of our Egyptian police guards.
The Palestinian detainees’ only option is to pay extortionist rates to the airport’s cleaners to buy them food, paying at least twice, often thrice, the price.
My first venture out leaves me swaying: obscene amounts of things to buy, wide spaces, restaurants with delicacies I’d forgotten over the last year and a half in Gaza, fast food fumes, and travelers ambling, wondering where to eat or drink, as I myself have done on many, many occasions. But now, returning to the “VIP” hallway was somehow comforting: a section of Gaza, isolated, neglected, imprisoned… but the faces warm, familiar, real.
The numb sense of timelessness one feels when stuck in the same small hall for hours, same music, same announcements… no sense of passage of time, no way to relieve the boredom.
Still in the airport hallway, but at least with the promise of leaving early tomorrow.
We sleep, eat white bread, long for real food. I’m no longer allowed to leave but manage to complain my way into leaving with an impatient police escort, to again buy an overpriced phone card.
There is now only a smatter of travelers –all Palestinians –left, waiting in this hallway with its rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs and only one toilet…
“It’s freezing, there’s too much air con, the children are cold… can you give us blankets?”
A mother, with 4 kids, is trying to keep them from getting ill as they pass the days in this hallway.
The guard had promised to move us to somewhere better in a while, and now the call is suddenly barked out to hurry the hell up and bring our bags.
We go to the ‘better’ place: a 10x12m room below ground with barred windows. A storage room, as evidenced by the boxes filling corners and serving as makeshift beds.
23 people locked in the storage room, walls covered with the graffiti of former detainees, from Palestine, Somalia, Uganda, Ukraine, Ecuador, Iran, Nigeria…
“It is my first time in prison, with nothing. I wish you good luck, those who are in this prison. May Allah bless you.”—Somalian girl
“Shitholes, useless egocentric, racist, stupid, illiterate Egyptians.” –annonymous
A voice shouts from a white uniform. He doesn’t notice the humanity of the detainee, a traveler with a ticket and on his way abroad when detained.
He leans forward and barks. Feen? FEEN taskarra?
The detainee, a Palestinian man in his early 30s, replies calmly, affirmatively: yes, he has a ticket like any other passenger.
Like any other passenger… except that he is being held in an overcrowded cell below ground while regular passengers mill above, shopping duty free and whiling away the hours over drinks, with no idea fellow travelers they may end up sitting next to on a plane are being held like animals below.
White uniform leans into another passenger and shouts his question. DO YOU HAVE A TICKET?!!!
He uses the same bark technique the Israeli soldiers use when trying to degrade Palestinians at Israeli military checkpoints in occupied Palestine. DEHUMANIZE! I WIELD POWER OVER YOU!!!
A father has come to accompany his daughter and her four young children. She is returning to her husband in Morocco. He, the father, has an obligation –cultural, parental, and from his heart–to see her off, ensure she is in safe hands. She flies days from now but left Gaza early to avoid the border suddenly closing, and knowing that it often takes repeated tries before Palestinians are permitted to leave Gaza…if they are permitted. Now, to avoid her children waiting the next 3 days in a hallway, in artificial lighting without natural air, walking space, and food, her father would have her stay with relatives in Cairo. But without an onwards ticket nor a non-Palestinian passport, he is unable to leave the airport to see her off…not even to the doors with a police escort. He tries, repeatedly, and I agree easily to accompany her myself when he is not permitted. But the Egyptian authorities resist, her father withers, and the authorities decide she cannot even leave on her own, though she does hold a non-Palestinian passport. Many hours later she is allowed to leave to the relatives’ home… but with a police escort. Her father isn’t permitted to see her to the taxi. He withers.
It turns out I know him, vaguely: he is the husband of my friend’s sister from Faraheen, a farming community in Gaza’s southeast where I and ISM spent many times standing with farmers and sharing meals. Their plight, that of Israeli-bulldozed, bombed or burned land, or land rendered inaccessible by the lethal live ammunition spat out by bored teenage soldiers or remote controlled automated towers. Yet of the farmers who harvest any thing, they share willingly. And it is fresh, luscious produce. Were they able to grow all the vegetables and tend the decades-old trees as they did before Israel’s razing policy, they would be much less affected by the siege… and would in turn provide the produce and fruit largely trucked in (late) or not allowed at all by the Israeli authorities.
The room’s dirty walls are covered with tormented writings; there is almost no ventilation, are just a few chairs…a crowd of dignified, human passengers sprawl on floors and boxes.
An elderly man in plain white robes and a red and white Kuffiya, stretched out on the floor. He gets up, washes in the filthy bathroom without soap, prays, and returns to the floor where a boy of 12 years lies at the feet of two women.
A young man, returning from four years of studies in Turkey, asking another from the Sheyjayee neighbourhood what’s new at home, what has changed with the last 2 major “israeli” attacks on Gaza.
A group of women in a corner, sit-sleeping. One has a daughter who has just had a stomach operation. They are waiting to return to Gaza.
The room cleaner comes in, but the room stays filthy. He’s here for business: coffee, sandwiches, phone cards… you can order from him. But the prices have gotten higher the further below ground we’ve gone.
The cleaners are making a profit from these Palestinians and the other unwanteds stuck in this room below ground. They, expecting to fly from Egypt and like anyone buy food from markets or stalls, were caught in the racist system. And to survive, they pay a higher price for the luxury of sandwiches and a murky filth which doesn’t qualify as coffee.
Oh, Gaza, with your siege, your impossibly difficult life, how much beauty and kindness you hold!
In this underground final holding room, the cleaners add another few pounds to their inflated prices. One returns with a 10 pound phone card, charging 15, and a shot of the coffee filth for 5. I’m pretty certain the group of women to my left don’t have the money with them to afford these extortions. We leave our food with them as they sleep.
Again, I’m struck by the similarities between this detention and “israeli” deportation detention: the same snide disregard for detainees’ humanity, the same undisguised goal of degrading and dehumanizing the detainees. And, as when in “israeli” detention I wondered if they would actually ever put me on a plane or simply keep me longer for spite, I wonder the same. These people here have committed no crime, except that they are Palestinians from Gaza. Yet they are held in prison, in limbo, and are treated as criminals.
3 am: Prison Break
We are allowed out, allowed to check in to our airline. It’s the same sudden barked-names, move-it dammit! procedure. We walk, and as we leave the holding room into a brightly-lit, sparkling airport lounge, he is stunned by the difference. Regular passengers line up, having come from their places of recreation, food, drink… We are escorted by a police officer, obvious to all watching.
But he is cool in his flip-flops and shorts, calm as he has been throughout the ordeal. And as have been most of the Palestinians I’ve been with. Cool, patient, dignified. They are used to being played with, by the “israelis”, by the Egyptians, by their own politicians, by the world. They crave a very simple few things: freedom, basic rights of work, study, medical care, and perhaps the chance to visit family or see another part of the world.
I’ve been that traveler lounging for hours in a café, waiting for a flight to some other country, the beginning of an expedition. I know well that excitement of beginning a new adventure, and the disappointment and frustration of a delayed or cancelled flight. But how humbled I would have been, and am retrospectively, at any sense of indignation for mere delays, or at the reality of my freedom to hop on a plane and buzz through countries, continents… when I know of the ordeal Palestinians endure just attempting to leave Gaza or all of occupied Palestine.
What a gift freedom truly is. Would that the world would recognize not only the injustices dished out to Palestinians for over 6 decades, not only the strangling, inhumane and counterproductive total siege and closure of Gaza, not only the continued colonization of Palestine and the daily occupational crimes that entail… but that Palestinians are human, dammit. They want to travel like anyone else, and it is Palestinians rights to do so, let alone to study or seek health care.
It’s his first whiff of freedom. He is intoxicated by the colours, scents, space…He is still in the airport, but we’ve paid the necessary extortion to our police officer accompaniment, to say thanks for partially doing you job, and hey thanks for not arbitrarily holding him back as you could have, on a whim. We make it through the check in procedures and are released by our police officer accompaniment into the departures lounge.
We wonder the halls, stretching legs cramped by 2 days of waiting and sitting… at the border and in the airport. He sees everything for the first time: escalators, moving floorways, Duty Free, the coffee shops and food chains ubiquitous around the world. And he doesn’t even want any of it… just wants to walk, to feel like a human, a free human being.