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Consigned to History? Memoirs of a Closed Rafah Crossing

by Sami Kishawi

At a moment of immense hope following the Egyptian announcement that the Rafah crossing is soon to be permanently reopened, Sami Kishawi offers a personal reflection on the untold history of the siege of Gaza, prior to the 2005 Israeli ‘pull-out’.

This article was originally published on Sami’s blog ‘Sixteen Minutes to Palestine’, and is republished on arenaofspeculation.org with permission from the author.

First Viva Palestina aid convoy arrives at Rafah terminal in March 2009

First Viva Palestina aid convoy arrives at Rafah terminal in March 2009 (reway2007 / Flickr)

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi spoke to Al Jazeera today, announcing plans to permanently open Gaza’s border at the Rafah Crossing within seven to ten days in an effort to alleviate the strangling blockade of the Gaza Strip.

There are two ways to understand this news. The first is through a international and public policy perspective. Avi Issacharoff from Haaretz sums it up nicely:

“The announcement indicates a significant change in the policy on Gaza, which before Egypt’s uprising, was operated in conjunction with Israel. The opening of Rafah will allow the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission or supervision, which has not been the case up until now.”

Since the blockade began in 2007, the border around the Gaza Strip has been forced shut. The only openings were tremendously arbitrary and lasted for limited amounts of time. Things like chocolate, wood, notebooks, vehicles, most medical supplies, and, you can argue, people are among an enormous list of items banned from crossing through the border passages. Today’s announcement brings some form of relief. Humanitarian aid might soon be able to pass into the Gaza Strip. Families might become whole again.

Gaza restrictions before and after Israeli 'pull-out'

Gaza restrictions before and after Israeli 'pull-out' (arenaofspeculation.org / UN-OCHA / B'Tselem)

It is an unfortunate circumstance that most people make the mistake of thinking that the tight border control began in 2007 as a direct consequence of Hamas’ election in 2006. Correcting this misconception constitutes the gist of the second perspective of understanding: the personal one.

In 2004, years before Hamas ever considered running for elections that hadn’t even been planned, the blockade of Gaza’s borders stood in classic defiance of most human rights charters. It certainly existed to a lesser degree — bread was allowed through, unlike today — but it existed nonetheless. My family and I spent a total of six days on the Rafah border crossing. We were part of thousands that year who experienced difficulty (and sometimes failure) at getting in or out of Gaza through the crossing.

We reached Cairo in the middle of June and took a five-hour taxi ride to the Palestine-Egypt border. We joined a large crowd gathered around a ramshackle military compound run by Egyptian guards. Because this happened prior to Israel’s military pull-out in 2005, Israeli soldiers waited for us just on the other side. After a long day of enforcing ridiculous, humiliating rules and body-scanning Palestinian after Palestinian, the soldiers informed us that the border was closed for the day. We dragged our heavy luggage back to the taxi whose driver so graciously waited with us.

Eventually, we made it through and managed to avoid a major confrontation with any military officers. Crossing into the sandy south of the Gaza Strip, the first noise I heard was a burst of gunfire from a distant source. I’m glad I wasn’t startled, though, because nobody else was. It seemed as if everyone either knew what to expect or was already accustomed to sounds like these.

A panorama of the Rafah border, taken from recently completed domestic solid waste composting facility, the first of its kind in Gaza, click and drag to pan image (Ibrahim Zinati / Twitpic)

I stared ahead at the vast expanse of sand. Together with my mom and sister, we made our way toward a collection of taxis and hired one to take us on the twenty-mile journey to Gaza City. Three days had passed since the day we landed in Cairo and I had yet to set down my luggage which, mind you, had been searched so many times, I lost count.

We spent four weeks in Gaza City. When it was time to go, we left for Khan Younis under the cover of darkness. Rumors were circulating that the border was to be opened for a few short hours during the daytime. Without drawing attention, we chose to stay in a hotel in Khan Younis just miles from the city of Rafah. The three-day process getting into the Gaza Strip was difficult on its own accord but trying to exit was an entirely different story. Witnessing raw human emotion is an experience that never dies down.

That morning, we made it to the Rafah border slightly before sunrise. We surrendered our passports to a group of Palestinian police officers in charge of maintaining control of the crowd and ensuring that the movement in and out of the border followed standard procedure. There were no chairs so we, along with the hundreds of others gathered with us, were forced to sit on our suitcases. We couldn’t fall asleep or even nap. It wasn’t that we weren’t allowed to sleep but if the border ever did open, it did so without any advanced warning. You always want to be the first one ready because you never know how quickly it might shut.

Our passports were returned to us later that day. Stapled in each one was a number representing the taxi we were to take through the border passage. On the edge of the military complex ran a column of yellow diesel-engine Mercedes taxis from the 1970s. Each one was labeled with a number. We found the one corresponding to the number stapled to our passports and brought our luggage to the driver. Ten Palestinian children in worn-out sandals immediately flocked around us and offered to help tie our luggage to the roof of the car. “Shouldn’t they be in school?” I thought, but this was the only way to earn money for their families unemployed as a result of the poor civil conditions instigated by the blockade.

Due to the extended and almost limousine-like build of the cabs, each one had a capacity of eight individuals: the driver and seven passengers. There were seventeen people assigned to this cab. The suitcases formed a colorful mountain on the roof of the vehicle and each passenger stood silently and anxiously, waiting for the border to open.

Palestinian families crammed into a vehicle as they pass through the Rafah border crossing

Palestinian families crammed into a vehicle as they pass through the Rafah border crossing

The Rafah crossing never opened that day. We spent all night waiting before finally returning to Khan Younis for a much-needed rest. But the very next morning, we repeated the entire process. And yet again, the border remained sealed. Fruit and other degradable objects were slowly rotting under the hot sun. Milk was spoiling. Chickens were dying.

On the third day, the crowd had grown to more than a thousand. Not everyone was going to make it through. Again, we retrieved our passports and located our assigned taxi. A few hundred yards ahead was the Israeli checkpoint we had to make it through. Things would soon become interesting.

I spotted an Israeli jeep drive along the checkpoint leaving a noticeable sand flare in its wake. Moments later, the jeep traveled back the other way. This time, however, it appeared to have lost its traction and gotten stuck in the sand. It’s front end dipped into the sand; it’s rear end, featuring a mounted machine gun, pointed up.

By now, the loud sound of the jeep unsuccessfully revving through the sand attracted the attention of many of us waiting near our assigned taxis. Here we were, a hundred or so exhausted and frustrated travelers facing an armed jeep stuck in a sandy ditch about two football fields away. Suddenly, a soldier climbed the rear of the jeep and fired the mounted gun toward us.

The tunnels beneath the Rafah border offered a lifeline to Gazans under siege, but also fed economic inequity

The tunnels beneath the Rafah border offered a lifeline to Gazans under siege, but also fed economic inequity (Marius Arnesen / Flickr)

Everyone scattered. My mom snatched my sister from the ground and shouted at me to take cover. It was an instinctive reaction but at the same time, I was mesmerized by the sheer power of the gun. The bullets were hitting the barren sand a few dozen feet ahead of us causing the sand to playfully bounce in the strong sunlight. I felt my mom grab my arm and direct me back to the rear of the cab.

The gunfire stopped once the jeep was towed out of the ditch a few minutes later. The eerie calm settled on us just as suddenly as the bullets had. By now, I was sitting on the lap of an old man in my assigned taxi. Twenty-one people, including a baby and at least three different families, were packed into the vehicle. It was the only way to take cover; it was the only way to get to the other side.

Hours later, the border was opened. From a tower positioned above the Israeli checkpoint, soldiers used telescopes to monitor activity on the ground. The taxi driver held out his identification card just above the side-view mirror, in plain view for the Israeli soldiers. A series of signals and approvals were passed along until the driver received notification that he was free to drive us to the checkpoint for further processing. We were among the first vehicles to cross through.

A Palestinian tunnel worker crawls beneath the Gaza/Egypt Egypt border

A Palestinian tunnel worker crawls beneath the Gaza/Egypt Egypt border (Zoriah / Flickr)

At the checkpoint, just two hundred yards away, we emerged from the taxi, stretched, and presented our luggage to be searched. Some were verbally abused, some were forced to leave behind a portion of their belongings, and still others were denied entry. After a few hours of waiting, an Israeli soldier granted us entry through a turnstile beyond which stood a charter bus that would eventually drive us to the next section of the checkpoint no more than one minute away. To this day, I can’t understand the purpose of the short bus ride but it does fall in line with the rest of the unnecessary and systematically humiliatory aspects of Israeli policy toward Palestinians.

A few more hours passed and we were finally greeted by Egyptian guards. It took us three days to travel twenty-five miles to Egypt.

By now, you might be wondering how any of this relates to today’s announcement regarding the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing. It’s simple, really. Open the border and the likelihood of situations like these manifesting themselves into gross violations of human rights can be minimized. The arbitrary blockade of the Gaza Strip didn’t begin in 2007. It’s been going on for years — decades even — and it’s about time someone took the initiative to end it.

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  1. [...] You can read Sami Kishawi’s text by following this link toward Area of Speculation. [...]

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