This is an excerpt from a post I wrote in September 2008…
The outdoor restaurant overlooking the sea has been nicknamed “Casablanca without the alcohol” by Dr Bill. Here, we internationals and Palestinians alike sit, looking out over the moonlit water, sharing argeelah and rumours about the Rafah border. Will it open? If so, when? And for who? People tell each other about what documents they have obtained, what connections they have made, which consulate may be arranging a visa for them.They show pictures of the husbands, wives, children, lovers who are waiting in other lands.
Til now, this border with Egypt, the only way Palestinians with no other passport may come or go from Gaza, has opened 8 days this year. But we hear it will again, for two days, before Ramadan begins. Saturday and Sunday. No, Tuesday til Thursday. Definitely Saturday, Sunday is unsure. Saturday, but only
for the sick travelling for treatment. No, Saturday for foreign passport holders, Sunday for the sick. Maybe also Monday, the first day of Ramadan. No, not Monday. But only if your name is on the published list. No, you can try even if your name is not published…
I first fought the Rafah border last year, and for a month, the Rafah border – or should I say Egypt – or should I say Israel? – won. Eventually, quite randomly, a Danish consulate rep kindly managed to extract me from it, along with my Danish colleague. My Cairo Australian consulate folks had made a unsuccessful effort of sorts for all of that month, never failing however to remind me “But you do realise our website advises Australian tourists that Gaza is not a safe place to visit?”, which used to leave me rather nonplussed, considering the 2 years work I’d put into getting here by sea, the reasons I’d come, and the work I was doing, which had about as little to do with tourism as possible. This year, at least my Tel Aviv consulate contacts seemed, to my relief, to be aware of the concept of human rights work, and one even was interested enough to have a look at my blog, bless her.
This blog is the first time in my life I’ve had to self censor. I need that border on my side again in the future, especially if someone I care about inside Gaza is injured and I want to get to them quickly, something I think about every day. So you are not going to get any political analysis about the border from me here. But I’ll complain about it gladly!
You never know when – or for long periods of time, if – there will be a border open day at all. Generally there is about two days notice. So if you are a Palestinian trying to leave Gaza, you remain in a sort of limbo, having said your proper goodbyes perhaps a long time before you can leave – if you can leave. If you are a student with a scholarship awaiting you in the outside world, months might pass, as each day you expect to leave everyone you care about for three years…or maybe not.
Palestinians have to apply for exit to the Gaza authorities, with all the necessary documents proving they have permission to go somewhere else, and then hopefully they get allotted a place on a border-destined bus, with an early morning collection. Foreigners however can simply turn up at the first border gate on the Palestinian side under your own steam, and if you are me, with a government liasion person on a phone you can wave at a border guard, you might only wait 2 hours getting your nose sunburnt. (Last year, heading to my first unsuccessful border attempt, I found myself sped through that gate in a smart car, sirens wailing, due to being with Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law. But I decided that was a bit embarassing and uncalled for and to be avoided in the future.)
The buses can end up being bed for the night as well, as happened last year, when A from Denmark and I joined the thousands of Palestinians who’d passed the Palestinian border and were waiting for the Egypt gate to deign to open so they could at least be considered for entry. Most of the buses this year looked to be heading for the same scenario, when I – on bus number 4 out of 36 buses – passed through the Egypt gate at 4pm, after a six-hour wait while the Egyptians apparently processed all of 3 preceding buses.
Last year, the Palestinian border guys attempted to arrange for me to sleep in a border compound room, but when I realised they would be ousting about 12 male staff on my behalf, I refused and stomped off back to my bus seat. When they found me about half an hour later, and told me in horrified tones that I couldn’t sleep there, I lost my temper (something I often do with authorities generally and which the ones here put up with, with remarkable patience) and pulled out my honorary Palestinian passport.
“If all the other Palestinians can, then so can I!” I said.
After a moment’s thought, they either decided I had a point, or was too much of a pain to persist with, and left me be.
I am quite bendy, and have much practise sleeping in a tangled knot on a bus. But sick people were on these buses, hoping to head outside for treatment. Elderly people were here. I remember watching the patient dignity with which grandparents, knowing there was no chance of sleep despite an exhausting day of waiting in the heat and with another ahead, sat bolt upright in their narrow seats, cradling the smallest children, so that at least they could sleep in comfort.
Palestinian kids, man. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s growing up being one of about ten usually, so whinging isn’t likely to get you anything other than a thump on the head from your next-oldest sibling. But they seem to have learned not to ask for much, to resign themselves patiently to conditions that kids from the UK wouldn’t put up with for 5 mins. Ten, twenty hours on a bus? No toys? Little food or water? Quietness, is what you get from Palestinian kids. I don’t know, maybe they just think to their small selves “No one’s dying. No-one’s dropping rockets on me. I’m on the credit side here.”
This time, the Egyptians handed out bottles of water – that didn’t happen last year in the summer. Remembering that, I’d brought my own and, prior to the handout, had passed it round the back of the bus, resulting in about 5 bottles being forced on me when our bus was later given its ration.
Sometimes the bus engine would actually start, and the few folks that had risked going outside for a breather would leap back in with alacrity, in case our bus was deemed not ready and doomed to more hours wait. But generally it wouldn’t mean anything, or it would mean a metre’s progress and then off would go the engine again.
There seemed to be a complicated system whereby Egyptian guards required everyone to have a seat, and there to be no bags in aisles, despite there being more bags than bag space and more people than seats. This made for a sort of energetic shuffling of people and bags anytime the Egyptians paid us any attention – some clearly enjoying that their demands we were so desperate to fulfill were in fact impossible, and some sympathising, and suggesting compromises of the possible with the impossible, or accepting men sitting on bags in aisles as meeting the requirements.
Getting through the gate, into the Egypt hall, felt like a miracle in itself. Many of the other buses never got that far. You can buy crisps in the Egypt hall. And since you might be spending another 6 hours there – or be turned around and sent back again – then you’re pretty grateful for the crisps.
This year, J and I exited into Egypt at the end of our second day of trying. Egyptian security had “found” the co-ordination papers for me they didn’t find the first day – or just possibly, they really had only just found them, having mixed up my middle and last name. C rejected her permission to leave for a second day, returning with EJ to face an exhausting third day of doing it all again, supposing the British consulate to have got round to providing EJ’s required documents by then. Supposing day 3 of border opening didn’t get cancelled.
C came in through Rafah originally, so a request to leave was all that was required for her. EJ, like me, came on the FreeGaza boat. They have “normalised” us boat arrivals now (last year, we were just told “no” until all sorts of diplomatic strings were pulled for each of us for weeks) but the new paperwork required is still absolutely non-negotiable. No-one negotiates better than C – you swiftly learn that if she mutters “don’t say anything” out of the side of her mouth at you, it’s the absolute best thing you can do for yourself – and even she couldn’t extract EJ.
Turning back with C and EJ, on the buses of the refused, were students who had all their documents totally sorted and confirmed. Patients whose operations are awaiting them. One young man on crutches, with two explosive bullet wounds in his leg since the war. His surgeon, a determined British doctor with many patients waiting her in Gaza, wasn’t allowed in and he wasn’t allowed out to see her. This seemed to have something to do with him having a beard. Bearded men the world over can tell you this is not synonymous with being a Hamas combatant. It’s like of those “false logic” problems they give you in high school maths. “All Hamas men wear beards. Therefore, all bearded men are Hamas members.” Nuh-uh. At least he can try shaving off his beard though. What do the students and patients with all their papers present and correct, try next month? If there is an open day next month.
As we left, a woman that J had been chatting to in the hours of waiting in the Egyptian hall, shepherded her kids through the exit to Egypt, and J turned to congratulate her, but the woman was weeping. They were allowed, but not her husband.
“Marra tanya – next time?” asked J. The woman shook her head hopelessly.
I hate borders. I hate walls, I hate boundaries. I hate anything that prevents the free movement of people wherever they want to go. I hate that we must clutch our passports tight everywhere we walk in this world, knowing that a person without the “right” documents is apparently no longer a person at all. I hate anything that keeps us separate from our hopes, our dreams, and those we love.