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.