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.

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