Thursday, February 16, 2006

Guinea Pigs (End of the Saga From Gaza)

Thursday, February 16

Yesterday it rained most of the day, and we saw no reason to go anywhere. We called everyone again, and again, and eventually spoke with Hani, who said he was waiting for the applications to come back from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, where Mohammed and Ashraf Dahlan are, and then he would take it to the Israelis. Pat talked to Ahmed al-Fara, who said he had never seen the application; it had never left the Ministry. He said to talk to Ashraf, so Pat called him and he said again, "It's with the Europeans." So obviously, something is not working right in the Ministry, or else they are deliberately losing our applications over and over again, in order to avoid saying no directly. Though why they would want to say no, we don't know.

We sat around our room and wrote, sometimes looking at the sea, ordered coffee from room service, and I reminded myself how often I wished I had a week's vacation to spend at the beach with nothing much to do, to write, get enough sleep. So I should enjoy it while I can and not think of it as just a wasted trip. And in fact, I succeeded, until I was IMing with Laila late last night and she said, "I spent the day interviewing women from Hamas who have been elected to the legislature; you would have loved it." And I started to cry. And Neta said, "I can't stand that you are so close and I can't see you." And I cried some more.

So Pat and I agreed that today, I would try going through Kerem Shalom, because Julio had assured me I would have no trouble doing it. And he would wait for an answer from the PA. And then when I was turned away by the Israelis, I would see if there was a scene to be made, and if not, I would go to the border and try to interview women until I was chased away by the Egyptian security. We were a little worried about what to tell the police in the hotel lobby, when they asked where we were going, but we decided to just say that I was going to Rafah via Kerem Shalom, and Pat was waiting a little longer. I didn't think they would have any reason to know that we had not been approved to go.

In fact, they were happy to arrange a taxi for us, and just as it arrived, this other guy, Nathan, showed up and said he was going there too. Nathan is a Ukrainian printer, living in Canada, who is trying ot visit a Palestinian friend in Beit Lahiya whom we think he met on the Internet. His friend works for the PA, and has connections with Palestinian NGOs and also has a cousin who works at the customs office on the border, so his people have been trying hard to get him through the bureaucracy too. The three of us were ready to set out, but then we had to wait for a police escort. Why do we need an escort, I asked the three police/security guys who hang out at the hotel. "Security," he said.

The police truck was not that impressive, a Mitsubishi truck with four guys in it. Pat and I felt downgraded since the other day, when we rated a vehicle with a siren and everything. The driver kept forgetting and trying to pass the truck. Then we got to a checkpoint, and the truck went flying through and we were stopped. And the driver kept saying, "But they're supposed to go, look, we have the escort," who had finally stopped their truck but weren't doing anything to help us. But we got through. And shortly before we reached Rafah, the escort disappeared altogether.

We drove to the Rafah gate, and then turned off onto a road with a sign saying, "To Taba." Taba is in Sinai, and Kerem Shalom is indeed on the way to Taba, so that seemed like a good way to go, except about 200 meters from where it started, it abruptly ended at an Egyptian army base. The driver explained where we were going, and they asked, "Do you have a permit?" We explained about the permits, and that we had talked to someone from the EU and he told us to go this way, but they said we needed a permit from the Egyptian secret police to go up to the gate, where the Liaison office is. We called Julio, who had told us to go that way, and he had us talk to the Senior Liaison Officer in their office, who knew absolutely nothing about permits from the Egyptians, or even what the muhabarat is (which is kind of telling, because the Palestinians also have muhabarat, who would be involved in this kind of decision), and both he and Julio kept saying, "Well, I don't know if we can help you because the Egyptians are not part of this agreement." And I kept objecting that they were the ones who told us to go that way, so they must be able to do something. Soren, the Liaison Officer, agreed to speak to the Israeli Liaison officer and see if he couldn't work something out with the Egyptians.

"You are helping us," Soren said, "Because we need to figure out how this works. You are the guinea pigs."

The Egyptian soldiers didn't like us hanging out so long outside their base and kept trying to get us to leave. I couldn't reach Soren, so Nathan decided to call Julio. This time, Julio was quite curt and said he had to go, that he had some Japanese journalists waiting for him and that was his job, to talk to the media, but he did ask Hani, who was in his office, and Hani apparently was upset and said, "Why didn't he wait like I told him to? I might have the approval for him tomorrow." Julio told Nathan that and Nathan said, "He said three days ago, that I had to wait three days, and then yesterday he told me again three days. Now he says tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes."

I called Soren again and reached him this time. He said the Israelis said they would have no problem letting us through Kerem Shalom, but the Palestinians would not accept us there. There was nothing he could do.

I said, "But why did Julio say to go this way?" He didn't have a good answer.

I said, "I came all this way, and I'm out of time, and I had people I was really looking forward to seeing, and now I have to go home without seeing them."

And he said, "Well, you know, if I wanted to go to Vietnam, I would have to go to Stockholm and apply for the visa. And I wouldn't leave until I had the visa." I said yes, but if I wanted to go to Vietnam, I would call the consulate and they would tell me exactly what the procedure was. I wouldn't get three different stories from three different people.

"I'm sure there are representatives of the PA in the US," he said.

"Yes, I called the PLO Mission in Washington and the guy told me I could go, no problem, I didn't need a visa or permission, everything would be taken care of at the border. He even told me where to catch the bus in Cairo."

That kind of shut him up and got him to say, "Well, we are sorry that we can't help, it's not from any ill will."

I told him that last night I read on the internet what Condoleeza Rice said when she announced the agreement to open the Rafah crossing, "This agreement is intended to give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives." It seems to me that if you can't invite your friends and family from outside to come see you, and have them actually get in, how ordinary can your life be?

Friday, February 17

Today I got to see the Egyptian police in action - at least 2000 of them (and Nagwan says there were probably 2000 more hiding) for a demonstration of maybe 500 about the Danish cartoons, and then glimpsed the pyramids. So it was not a total loss.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Saga from Gaza (Border) - Episode 2

Monday, February 13

Yesterday afternoon, after days of bureaucrats trying to get us to leave them alone and assuring us they would let us know when they had gotten a decision from some unnamed authority, we finally found out that the Palestinian Authority lost our applications, or something; at least, they never sent them to the Liaison Office. So we had to start the entire process all over.

So this morning, having run out of useful things to do in Arish, we set off for Rafah, Egypt, in hopes of interviewing people there about how the vicissitudes of the border affect them - their relationship with the people on the other side of the Fence, their experience of the Israeli occupation there from 1967-82, how it has changed since then, and if the recent turnover had changed things for them at all. The purpose of this whirlwind trip for me was to do video interviews with Palestinian women about the situation, especially since the elections, their expectations and hopes for the future, so we figured maybe we could do that in Rafah while we wait, hopefully, to get into Gaza.

We were supposed to go with an Egyptian journalist, and when Pat called him to confirm, his mother said he had left for Rafah. But when the driver came a few minutes later, he told us that the journalist could not make it -- he had "circumstances." The journalist, who works for an opposition party newspaper, said that many people in the area felt they had fared better under the Israeli occupation than in more recent years. He said that since the turnover of the border, the Egyptians and the Palestinian Authority had imposed new tariffs on goods being transported across the border, so that traders and merchants are paying more now than they were when the Israelis controlled the border.

The drive from Arish to Rafah is 50 kilometers, and takes about 40 minutes. The area looks pretty sparsely populated. Pat commented that it is almost exactly as long as the entire Gaza Strip. When we met with some official meeters-and-greeters in Rafah, we asked them how many people live in the area in between the two cities, and were told, including Arish, which has about 115,000 people, around 225,000. Gaza is home to 1.3 million people.

We drove around a little. We saw the Wall that separates the two Rafahs, and just across the fence we could see the UNWRA school in Rafah Camp, and what looks to be an apartment building riddled with more bullet holes than I ever saw. The area near the fence was patrolled by dozens of soldiers, tensed with guns ready. The street leading to what we believe was Salah-ad-Din Gate, a former entrance to Gaza, had all the storefronts closed up tight, except for one at the end, which seemed to be a base for undercover army guys who kindly informed us it was a closed military zone. Hassan, our driver, then took us to see the destroyed Israeli settlement of Yamit, where in 1982 settlers clashed violently with the Israeli soldiers who came to evacuate them. Hassan said, "It was the most beautiful and modern city in the world." All that is there now are several square blocks of what looks like crushed limestone and concrete. Hassan showed us the synagogue (which to my eyes did not seem so impressive), which was partially standing.

We sat for a long time with two men in the Rafah Information Center. One didn't say much, and the other didn't stop talking. He said that they had been under Israeli military rule from 1967-1970, and they were very frightened when the war came because they had not experienced anything like it before. After that there was no direct fighting in their area, but the gunships attacking Palestinian Rafah Camp had sometimes injured people here and terrified the kids.

Sometime after 1967, Israel destroyed many homes in Rafah, Palestine, so Canada Camp was set up in Rafah, Egypt for the people who were displaced. At the time of the Israeli pullout from Sinai, the camp was evacuated, and most of the refugees moved back to Gaza. Some remained in Egypt - the guys were vague about how many and what their status is. First, the information minister said they were refugees; a minute later, he said there were no refugees in the area. The other guy said the only Palestinians in the area were married to Egyptians. The minister claimed there were no Palestinians in northern Sinai. "Palestinians are there, Egyptians are here," he said.

He didn't say anything about Yamit, or how people felt about having their land taken away, or how the settlers behaved toward them or the Israeli army presence that accompanied it. My friend Susy was in the Israeli army in 1967, and she spent her army years in a military settlement very near here. She says "The settlement we occupied had been an Egyptian government run barracks-farm doing agricultural experiments before the 1967 war. The residents and workers were Egyptians and settled "Bedouins" of the area. So we were told. They were all driven out of their barracks type houses when it was decided the master-race soldiers would settle in and run the farm and experiments. We were the second batch of soldiers and we lived in their houses. We worked their fields and did some agricultural experiments as well. The former residents who'd been driven out half a year earlier were still hanging around. I don't know where they slept, but during the day they would stand around the plots while we were working them and watch. For long hours they would stand and watch. The place is now called The Peace something."

She and her fellow soldiers used to go to the beach at Arish on weekends. And she adds, "in the summer of 1999, I think it was, I joined a bus-load full of my ex-co-settlers to visit that ranch again. When I talked about my memory of the dispossessed farmers standing a short distance away and watching us working their fields, the reaction was almost disbelief. No one, but really no one, had a memory of anything similar. My grown up friends did not remember the dispossessed of our younger times. For them, they have totally (and comfortably, these are good people by and large) vanished."

The Information Minister didn't mention any of that. He just said that after 1970, they had Egyptian police and Palestinian police and Israeli police, all working together, and everyone was happy.

Our friend the journalist had told us that there was a center for foreign journalists in Rafah, Egypt, so we thought we would go there and see what they could tell us and if they could direct us to anyone we would want to interview. It turned out that the center was at the border, where we were two days ago. When we got to the gate, there seemed to be some kind of problem - people were running around and closing gates right and left. Someone took our passports immediately, and Patrick explained what we wanted. They told us to go wait outside the gate.

I had dressed as a foreign journalist today, in jeans and no head covering. The difference in terms of how I was treated was incredible. The other day, when I tried saying hello to Palestinian women who were crossing, they looked at me in confusion and didn't respond. Today, as soon as I exited the gate, I noticed a group of women sitting together and their eyes lit up when they saw me. I greeted them, "Salaam aleikum," and they all immediately shook my hand, pulled up a chair for me, called their friends over and started grilling me about what I was doing. They excitedly answered the questions I asked in my broken Arabic.

They were all relatives; four from Rafah and one from Khan Younis. Things are much better in Gaza since the pullout from the settlements, the kids are not as terrorized, they do not have the daily bombings and the kids can go to school. They voted in the elections, they like Hamas. They loved Arafat, and they like Abu Mazen, though they have never seen him in person. They want to work, but they have no work. The youngest, Ibtisam, has been married for ten years (she is only 23 now) and has not been able to conceive. She cannot get any help for this problem because she has no money. Another woman showed me a report from a hospital about her husband, who is apparently suffering from renal failure and a hernia. He cannot get the treatment he needs, she said, because they don't have money (although obviously, he had been to a hospital, so he was getting some kind of care). I tried to ask about the clinics that Hamas is famous for, but couldn't remember the word (aadiya).

They showed me their passports. I saw that Ibtisam's had many stamps that said "Palestinian Authority - Rafah Border Crossing," going back at least to the beginning of 2005. There were no stamps from any Israeli border authority. I was surprised, because I had understood, when this crossing opened in November 2005, that it was the first Palestinian-controlled border, and also that the border had been closed for a long time before it opened.

Over the hours that I sat with them, they of course brought juice and cookies for me and Patrick, though I had to go give them to him, because they couldn't talk to a strange man. Meanwhile, Pat and Hassan were talking to an Egyptian whose wife was from Gaza City. She had not seen her mother in 15 years, because she hadn't been able to go to Gaza and her mother hadn't been able to leave. Now they were trying to go, but there was some problem about her ID. The two Egyptians asked Patrick if he worked for a governmental or nongovernmental newspaper. When Patrick explained that we do not have governmental media per se, they couldn't understand.

Finally, the police came back with our passports and asked for some more information, so we went into their office. Suddenly, things had taken a hostile turn. A commander who hadn't been there before told Pat that he had heard from the Palestinian in the Liaison Office that our application to go to Gaza was denied and we had to go back to Cairo. Stunned, I said, "But what business is it of theirs where we go?" Pat was very freaked out and I couldn't understand why. I said, "Well, okay, so we tell them we're going to Cairo, and then we don't." Pat didn't say, "You don't understand how it works here," but he lived here before and he knew stuff I didn't. He called the guy in the Liaison Office, who said no, we had not been refused yet. Pat told this to the commander, who then started saying, "Well, you have to go to Cairo and I don't know why." Eventually someone else came, who Pat thinks was the brother of the Palestinian Liaison Officer, and wrote down our names, and everybody talked some more, and then the guy in charge said, "Okay, you can go back to Semi Ramees," the hotel where they installed us the other day, and where we've been semi-happily staying ever since.

They talked to the driver, and then finally gave us our passports back and we got in the car, and so did one of the police, who said we were taking him to Arish with us. We had left Arish at 10:00 a.m. and it was now 4:00 p.m.

As I mentioned before, the road between Arish and Rafah is riddled with checkpoints, but usually, everyone seems to zoom through them like settler cars in the West Bank. Occasionally they have glanced in our car and asked what we were doing, and the driver would say, "Americans," and they would wave us through. This time, though, we had to stop at every one, pull over, the driver would have to answer some questions, and at the second one, they took Pat's passport but not mine. Shortly after that, our driver suddenly tapped his horn several times and pulled slightly over to the right. Pat realized that he had a flat tire. A military jeep passed us, and then turned around and settled on the road behind us, and Pat said, "That's what I thought. We are being escorted."

We all got out of the car so Hassan could change the tire. He was stopped in the middle of the lane of traffic, not on the shoulder, and Pat suggested he pull over, but he shrugged and said it would be okay. We didn't think so. Cars were whizzing by, and one literally almost took Hassan's head off. Thankfully, he got the tire changed without getting decapitated, and we got back into the car and rode on to Arish with our escort behind us. At the police station on the outskirts of Arish, Hassan stopped and let our minder off, which was a relief to us because we were wondering if it would cause a problem for him if we tried to paid him. He said to us, "Now you will have the eye of the security on you," and that he would be questioned after he dropped us off.

The jeep stayed behind us all the way to the hotel. We got out and the police got out of their jeep and went to talk to Hassan, and before we were in the door, Pat heard them say, "Okay, you can go," but he didn't know if maybe he would have to go somewhere else at that point to be questioned further. We walked into the hotel, past the police who guard the door, and around the metal detector, and the manager/receptionist said to us, "You're leaving tomorrow, right?"

We never heard another word from our journalist friend, and neither did the friend who introduced us to him. My friend called several times from Cairo, and was quite upset to hear the story and said to me, "It's only because you have American passports that you are not in jail." She called back later to tell me not to try to interview anyone, not to try to go to Rafah, to come back to Cairo, and then again to give me the U.S. embassy numbers just in case.

I really want to go back to the border with my camera and a woman translator and interview women, but I am afraid of what will happen if either of us shows up there again. Though I might joke about it, I don't actually want to get deported from two Middle Eastern countries in thirteen months. But I came all this way, and I am so close to Palestine, I do not want to waste it. It was weird, while at the border I talked to my friends in Palestine on my Palestinian phone. It's like, I was there but not there. I suppose it must be a taste of how people in Gaza feel talking to family members and friends in the West Bank, or in fact, people in East Jerusalem talking to friends in Abu Dis.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

This morning our friend Laila talked to Hani from the Liaison Office, and he said that the decision was with Mohammed Dahlan. Laila suggested we try to get someone who knows Dahlan to call him or call him ourselves, because apparently during the elections, Dahlan was debating someone from Hamas and the other candidate said, "You said everyone would be able to cross the border, but they are not." And Dahlan said, "If anyone has a problem with the border, Palestinian or foreigner, tell them to come to me." So after failing to find anyone who knows him, we called Dahlan, and finally reached him and he said, "Talk to Ashraf," and Pat said, "Hani said the file is with you. So he said, "Talk to Ahmed al-Fara," from the liaison office, and Pat said, "Hani said the file is with you." And that is where it is. And it occurs to me that although of course the occupation is responsible for this in the macro sense, our Palestinian friends might be kind of irritated with their supposed government because after all, we do not have nefarious motivations for going to Gaza, we are trying to help, and plus we want to see our friends, and they are the ones being hurt by our not being able to.

On our way out of the hotel, the policeman asked us "So are you going to Gaza?" We said we hope so, but don't know yet. "So now are you going to Rafah?" he asked. "No," we said, "we are just going downtown to the market and the internet." He said into his radio, "The two Americans are going to Arish," and we walked away with another man carrying a suitcase. He turned out to be trying to go to Gaza too, but his situation is much worse than ours. He is a Palestinian with a British passport, and no hawiyya, because he left before they started the hawiyya system. His wife is from Gaza. So he had to apply for a permit, like us, while she only had to show her ID. He applied ten days ago, and was told the permit would be ready when he arrived, but yesterday when he got there, it was not ready, and so his wife and child went through to visit her family, and he is stuck out here. It puts our situation in perspective.

We wandered in the market until we found the places Palestinians hang out. I talked to women and Pat talked to men, who are here to sell things. They only get to come once every 15-20 days, and they can stay up to five days, but most of them stay only a night or two. They need to show both passport and ID, and the ID is jointly issued by the Israelis and Palestinians, so if someone cannot go to the Israelis for an ID, then they can't go across.

Incidentally, yesterday, when I talked to Julio from the EU, he said that he was sure we would be turned down to go through Rafah, because only humanitarian cases, diplomats and people from accredited international NGOs are allowed. Everyone else, he said, has to go through Kerem Shalom, which puts you in about 30 meters of Israeli territory, he says, after which you are in Palestinian territory and they put you in a car and take you to Rafah. He urged me to try it, but we were afraid to just do that while theoretically, the PA is still considering whether to approve us for Rafah. We thought they would not like it if we just headed for an Israeli-controlled border after all this. So we asked Hani, the guy from the Liaison Office, who works alongside Julio, you realize, if we should do that. And he said no, that Kerem Shalom is not set up on the Palestinian side to receive people, just goods. So which is it? Why can't these people get their stories straight?

One of the things this whole experience teaches us is that NO ONE KNOWS how any of this is supposed to work. And if we cannot figure it out, with all our connections, the Palestinians, who are so used to the rules of occupation changing on a daily basis, certainly cannot and will not feel that there is any point in even trying.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Saga From Gaza - 1

Patrick and I arrived in Cairo last night and left early this morning for the Rafah crossing into Gaza. We didn't leave as early as we had planned, because of a comedy of errors involving hosts who could not be woken up even with vigorous shaking and shouting, drivers with non-working cars, and the ubiquitous fighting/scamming of taxi drivers.

I had decided I would cover my head for the border, and maybe the whole time I'm in Gaza if it seems like people prefer it. The Palestinian friend who was planning to meet us at the border asked me to, because she's afraid of our being kidnapped. My friend Nagwan, whom I stayed with in Cairo, tied my scarf for me, and she used to wear hijab, so I looked much more like all the other women with covered heads than if I had done it myself. At the many checkpoints we passed en route to Rafah, the driver would say, "They're Americans," and the soldiers would be very confused about why my head was covered.

We finally hit the border at about 2:00 p.m. and initially everyone assumed we were Palestinians. People were motioning to us to go one way, but I saw a sign that said, "Exit Tax," and thought maybe we were supposed to stop and pay the tax there, because that's how it works at the Jordanian border, and if you don't have the stamp that says you paid the tax, you have to go back and wait again. So we were standing and looking around, and a guard came up to us and took our passports. He asked Patrick where we were from, and Pat said in Arabic that we were Americans, and the guard said, "Well, does she have a hawiyya?" referring to the Palestinian ID card. He didn't even seem to believe it when Pat said no.

The Egyptian security guards, whose armbands said "Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities," looked at a list and said we were not on it, which we already knew from our friend Laila, who has been pressuring the Palestinian Border Ministry to get our applications approved. So they told us we couldn't go through, and seemed ready to hustle us back to Arish, the nearby resort town.

We persisted and insisted and ended up getting to sit in the little security office and call everyone involved to find out what the story was. Later it occurred to us that if we had not stopped, we might have been able to walk right by and maybe at the next point, they would assume we were on the list. Hard to know.

We talked to Ashraf Dahlan, the person responsible for processing applications by foreigners to cross through Rafah. He is rumored to be the nephew of Mohammed Dahlan, who is one of the most powerful people in the Palestinian Authority. Someone told me they've never seen an office as big as Ashraf's in Gaza. Ashraf told Pat that the papers had been sent to the Europeans, who he says have the ultimate authority to decide whether to let us in or not.

In case you aren't familiar with the arrangement, this border crossing was opened because James Wolfensohn, formerly head of the IMF/World Bank and now U.S. special envoy to IsraPal, visited Gaza about two months after the much hyped disengagement, and noticed that it was a prison, with no one allowed in or out. So Condoleeza Rice flew out and by all accounts pretty much forced Ariel Sharon, the Prince of Peace, who still had brain waves at that time, to agree to a border between Rafah in Palestinian Gaza and Rafah in Egypt which would be controlled by the Palestinian Authority with oversight by the European Union and the Egyptians, while the Israelis get to sit in a room nearby and watch people go through on video cameras. The border opened on Thanksgiving weekend, to intensive filming, and viewing audiences around the world got to watch Palestinian border police stamp the passports of smiling Palestinians who rushed through and hugged their Egyptian family members and bought cigarettes. But that's only how it works - when it does, because it's been abruptly closed a number of times since then, leaving people stuck on the other side from where they lived, not knowing when (or if) they would get to go home - for Palestinians.

For foreigners, it's much more murky. One friend was told twice by representatives of the PLO that foreigners cannot under any circumstances use the crossing. I called the PLO mission in Washington and was told absolutely, no problem, you can go, you don't need a permit, it will all be taken care of at the border. Fortunately, Pat didn't believe that and asked around. He learned that the official process is that you submit your application to the PA, who sends it to the Liaison Office, which is composed of Palestinians, Europeans and Israelis. From there, it gets pretty shady indeed. No one exactly knows who makes the final decision, and on what grounds. Some people say it's the Europeans, some say it's the Palestinians; Palestinians, not surprisingly, say it's the Israelis, though it's definitely not supposed to be. Pat said that when Ashraf said it was out of his hands, he said, "Not it's up to the Is--the Europeans." Various people claim to know people who have gotten in. One of them reported that his friend said it was "easy," which I'm pretty sure means she did not have to go through this baroque process that we are in. Before the elections, a number of foreigner journalists were turned away. During the elections, supposedly everyone got in, which is what I thought would happen and that was the impetus for planning this trip now, but then people started getting kidnapped and many people who were in the know told me not to go, except that then just before the election, it calmed down and it would have been fine to go then and we would have gotten in, and since the elections, the kidnappings have started up again and people have also, and probably unrelatedly, been denied entry again. Pat was told by one of the myriad people he has spoken to about this in the last week that fewer than 5% of those who applied to go have been denied.

So back to our story, we called an EU guy from the Liaison Office, who Pat had talked to before we came. He was the one who had told him that the decision was made case by case, and around the elections, everyone was getting in. He said he would check on what was happening with our applications and Pat should call him back in a few minutes. Pat finally reached him about an hour later, and he said the papers had never been delivered to the Liaison Office. Pat called Ashraf back and told him that, and Ashraf said, "There's some problem with the coordination between the Europeans and the Israelis, and I'll have to check on it."

We also called a Palestinian friend who works for the PA and is pretty well connected, and he had someone in Gaza call Ashraf to encourage him to do what he can to help us, because we're in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Julio also told Pat that he didn't think we would qualify to get in because our invitation is from PARC, a Palestinian NGO, and the current regulations say that you need to be from an "accredited international NGO."

I started to get really incensed. Why should it be so difficult to go to this one tiny place? Why are they limiting entry so carefully. Remember, it's not even the Israelis. The Israelis have not even had the chance to say they don't want us, individually, to go to Gaza. This is the international community's hard-won agreement because disengagement is supposed to mean some form of freedom for Palestinians, and look. They cannnot even have visitors. They can only have "aid workers." We have invitations from at least ten Palestinians, come whenever you want, happy to see you, "from Rafah with love" said one email I got from a woman I have never met. Why isn't that good enough? Why is friendship not a good enough reason to visit someone?

The people in Gaza are still in prison. They might get passes to go and come, though they still cannot go the the West Bank, which is part of their own supposed country, without going through Jordan. While we sat there, I watched people streaming in and out, laden with luggage and packages, and I am sure for them, it is a lot better to go through a border controlled by Palestinian police than to have Israeli soldiers asking invasive questions at gunpoint. But even in most prisons, you can have the visitors you want - Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails often can't, and the prisoners indefintely held by our government at Guantanamo cannot, but in most prisons in most countries, if you want someone to visit you, you put them on your list and eventually they can come. The Palestinians do not even get that.

We returned to Arish; one of the Egyptian border guards took care of getting us a taxi (like there weren't a hundred sitting there) to take us to a hotel he recommends (from which presumably he is getting a little kickback), where for not too much more money than we were hoping to pay we got a pleasant room right on the sea. We walked on the beach for a long time, looking at Rafah, just out of reach, and talking about how nuts it is that this quiet resort town, which presumably in the summer is teeming with Egyptian vacationers and the occasional tourist, sits thirty kilometers from Rafah Camp, which much be one of the most traumatized places on earth

It emphasizes for us the artificial nature of the "conflict." There is nothing about the landscape or the culture that creates danger for the people. Once the people of Palestinian Rafah and the people of Egyptian Rafah, which lies just beyond Arish, were one community. And it is clear it was a beautiful and blessed community. And then the colonizers came and stuck a border in the middle, and then a fence, and then a wall, and then some gun towers, and now they are the tortured pawns in an international game of mine's bigger than yours.

All over the world this scenario is replicated. Alta California and Baja California - the family members on one side of the fence belonging to the richest country on earth, those on the other part of the "Third World." My family members on the Canadian side of the border having good universal health care, while my friends at home are suffering from late-diagnosed cancers. It's just that this situation is so recent, and the distances are so small, it puts the whole insanity in perspective.

To be continued ...