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 ...

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