Stopped at Rafah Crossing: Shades of Checkpoint Charlie


On Monday 30 June, Gaza was abuzz with the sudden announcement that Egypt would open the Rafah Crossing – the only gateway for 1.5 million Palestinians who have been imprisoned here for almost two years – for 3 short days. Although I had good reasons to  use the crossing to leave Gaza, I was unsure about trying my luck to escape, if only for a short while. Past experience has made me graphically/ painfully aware that thousands of my fellow Gazans would also try to capitalize on this very rare opportunity suddenly available to us.

 

On the one hand, I had also already asked my university to add my name to the list of academics who intended to travel to Egypt to further their studies as I had accepted an invitation to a conference– to be held at University of Brighton– in London in September. Moreover, I wanted to be with my wife who is in South Africa, and whom I have not seen for almost two years as a result of the siege. On the other hand, the story of failed attempts to leave Gaza through the Rafah Crossing is an agonizingly familiar one to every family in Gaza.

 

Nevertheless, the temptation was too great and hope triumphed over experience. At 2pm, on Monday, I called the university’s PR officer on Monday. I was told in two short sentences to be at the Rafah crossing at 2. am on Tuesday morning. The reason for this strange departure hour was not explained and I did not question it. If one wants to leave Gaza after two years, one simply follows orders.

 

My mind went immediately to the myriad tasks that must be completed in preparation for a journey: money, packing, goodbyes, tickets – how would all this happen in less than 12 hours? I was not prepared at all and the banks were closed.  I allowed myself 10 minutes to think about the steps I should take to ensure that I would be at the Rafah Crossing  - 40 km from my home at the end of badly damaged and unlit roads at 2am the next morning.

 

I then remembered that the bank manager is my neighbor; when I called with my unusual request outside of normal banking hours, he was so helpful that getting the money I needed turned out to be the easiest step. I then called my niece to help me pack and prepare for my unexpected journey. Dozens of phone calls were made, but I did not call my wife because I did not want to raise her hopes only to have them dashed as has happened so many times before during this siege of Gaza.  I, myself, did not have high expectations but I wanted to try because in Gaza one never knows for sure. It could go either way.

 

I made another call to our PR officer just to find out what I was supposed to do on arrival at the Crossing. "Wait with the other academics" was the answer. At around 11 pm on Monday night, a colleague called to tell me to delay my departure until morning. His sources at the crossing had informed him that our names were not on the list sent to them by the Egyptians. He suggested I wait for more instructions in the morning. I did not sleep that night. In the morning, I got a call from another colleague, who was also leaving Gaza with me as he had to attend a conference in London. He suggested, on the advice of the PR officer and another colleague who has contacts on the Palestinian side of the crossing, we go to Rafah and wait for someone to help us enter the crossing because "our names are on the list".    We left Gaza City at about 12 noon and drove straight to Rafah. Our taxi was stopped 5 km before the crossing, by Palestinian policemen at a mobile checkpoint. We were asked to leave the taxi and wait along with other people. I was encouraged to see only a few people – perhaps the list was being used and we would be able to leave after all.

 

As it is almost impossible to go anywhere in Gaza without bumping into familiar faces, true to form, I immediately saw my cousin, whose wife has cancer, waving at me. He said he had been at this checkpoint since the night before! Needless to say, this was not good news. My colleague and I then called our friend who has contacts on the Palestinian side. He told us to wait there because one of the policemen at the checkpoint would be informed by his senior to allow us to walk to the crossing. That call never came.

 

Our contact himself then called to get our exact location because he was on his way to fetch us. What relief! Three hours later, we were still waiting and the mobile checkpoint was disbanded. We decided to drive to the crossing itself.

 

That is when reality hit us: tens of thousands of people were waiting there, children, old people, women, and worst of all, terminally ill people, all sitting under the baking hot sun of this semi-desert area. My heart sank! But we had to try our contact again – how could we not, when the Crossing itself was so tantalizingly mere meters away now? And if we passed, what freedoms awaited us: bookshops, movies, theatre, chocolate, friends, fuel, food, fruits and of course, in my case, my long-suffering partner. Our contact gave us more hope by asking us to move closer to the electronic gate and ask a policeman named Bassam to let us in.

 

The next problem on this long journey was trying to reach the gate through the masses of people jealously guarding their spots on the way to the gate. Finally we got to the gate which is where we realized that it would not open for us. The authorities would not open to let a small group of academics through – list or not list – simply because the waiting crowd would surge through the gate en masse. In any event we never did find Bassam to open the gate for us.   But we waited. The heat became even worse, children cried, and the sick and the elderly sat desperately on the ground – they could no longer stand and would have to sit on the ground to wait for the gate to open. I decided to join them because it was clear that the wait would be a long one.

 

Worse news was to follow: our names were not on the list – and the crossing was, in fact, closed! We had to wait outside until somebody allowed us to go inside the Palestinian hall to spend the night there. I was so tired and felt ill. I was also desperate for a toilet – as none had been made available to us for all these hours.

 

Next to me was an old woman talking on her cellphone about the pain she was in. Next to her was the family with seven daughters, all on their way to Jordan. Opposite me was an  ambulance with a cancer patient  - they had been waiting there for 12 hours. The place was so hot and sticky. After 3 hours I felt a sudden sharp pain in my stomach; I stood up to lean against the wall while yellow circles danced in front of me and a humming began in my ear. Then, everything went blank. I must have fainted. When I opened my eyes, people were giving me water, chocolate, cheese and asking me to eat and drink. Some pronounced it a diabetic episode, others were convinced it was low blood pressure. I was sure it was sunstroke. Whatever it was, I resolved to go back home right away.

 

On my return home, I was so relieved to see my bed – and my flat felt like Paradise! That night I wanted to cry; cry for myself, for my dignity; cry for the old woman sitting next to me; cry for my cousin’s wife; cry for the patient in the ambulance and for the 50 000 desperate people at the gates of the Rafah Crossing.

 

The horror at the Crossing continued after I left. Many people spent the entire night there, only to be told the following day that the crossing was still closed (!) and that they should leave. It took me almost two days to feel physically better, but every single muscle of my body still hurts. I am angry and sad and do not have the words to express the depth of my feelings about this experience. 

 

The situation that the tens of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children faced at the Rafah border crossing this week was inhumane and unconscionable. Nothing can justify this. Most rushed to the Rafah Crossing in as short a time as I did with similar stories of frenzied activity and hope. More than 3500 of them are terminally ill patients in urgent need of medical treatment in Egyptian hospitals. Others hold residency permits in other countries and have been trapped in Gaza for at least a year. Some are academics and students, traveling abroad to attend conferences or further their studies.

 

So, instead of giving them a chance to do these very ordinary things: go to a hospital,  study, go to a conference or work, go back to other homes and other loved ones, the  failure to open the Rafah Crossing, instead, increased their misery. Many of them spent three sleepless nights hoping to be allowed to cross into Egypt. Like me, many fainted,  or suffered from dehydration and sun stroke. The failure to open the Rafah Crossing reminded them of their imprisonment and their lack of human rights; it reminded them that they move at the whim of others and it reminded them that the siege of the Gaza Strip has still not been broken.

 

The fact is that all the people who were at the Rafah border are civilians. Under the Geneva Conventions they are entitled to freedom of movement and protection from collective punishment.   During the Cold War, much was made of Checkpoint Charlie as the dividing line: we have a new Checkpoint Charlie today and it is called the Rafah Crossing.  

 

 

 

Haidar Eid is an Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at Al-Aqsa University-Palestine.

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