We wanted to visit Gaza to see Mostafa, a friend who we haven’t seen for 3 years. Israel and the Palestinian Territories are not that large, so in theory a long weekend would be enough to have a good amount of time there. Thus it was that on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, we set off for the Strip.
Initially everything went very well. We left Zababdeh, our village in the Northern West Bank, at 6.30 am and headed south. The trip from the Jenin area to Qalandya, which is the main crossing point between Ramallah and Jerusalem, can take anywhere from 3-8 hours. Before the current restrictions and Israeli shut down of occupied Palestine, it was a journey of just over an hour. Partly this is because Nablus lies between Jenin and Ramallah. Nablus has almost taken on an Atlantis-like mythical status. The only way in appears to be on muleback over a large mountain. I have begun to question whether or not it even really exists. So it is that one must skirt Nablus on the way south, which of course adds significant time to the journey. Then there are the ubiquitous checkpoints. There are three permanent checkpoints between Jenin and Qalandya, and an indeterminate number of temporary ones, set up in the middle of nowhere, for undisclosed time periods. This trip down was a breeze. Only the three permanent checkpoints were in operation, and at one of them we didn’t even have to get out of the minibus style shared taxi. At the second there was a few minute wait in the hot sun as the soldiers checked the van for whatever it is they check for. Always at these times, at least one of my Palestinian travel companions will turn to me and ensure that I am aware of what is going on “You see? You see what we have to go through?” Of course, I do and I don’t. I see and am appalled by the constant harassment and humiliation. But deep down, I know I can and will soon leave. I can’t imagine the thought that this life is indefinite.
Despite the checkpoints, though, and the circuitous route to avoid the Nablus-that-time-forgot, we were in Qalandya in two and a half hours. A new record. Maybe, just maybe, there really had been an easing of travel restrictions due to Colin Powell’s recent visit. It is difficult to know. The transportation hub of Qalandya was buzzing with life. I suspect it always does. It’s the main, and usually only way from north to south, from Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin, to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. If the Barak plan had gone into effect then the West Bank would be littered with Qalandyas – entrances and exits from every tiny bantustan set up under that offer, the offer that we are supposed to believe was incredibly generous. The mass of humanity shuttled themselves between minibuses coming and going from all parts of the occupied West Bank, watched over, ominously, by Israeli soldiers sitting high up in their tower in the middle of the action. We slithered down a hillside and crossed over to get a van to Jerusalem.
Only one checkpoint later and we were at the Damascus Gate to the Old City. A total door-to-archway time of about three hours. A miracle of sorts – although in reality only a relative miracle, a smooth journey that only took twice as long as it should have under normal circumstances, but half the time that it might have. We hadn’t expected to be here so early, but there is always plenty to see and do in the Arab quarter of the old city, so all was well. Plus we had a number of people to contact to ease our passage into Gaza, so now we had the chance to do it at our leisure. We called the Israeli border contact we had been given, to ask about how to skirt the long wait. His assistant told us that we would have to fax down our passport details. A bit of a hassle, but no major problem given the time we had available. We called again. “Gaza is closed today, but we’ll see if we can get you permission.” We waited, and then called again. “Only diplomats are allowed in today. I’m afraid you’ll have to try again tomorrow”
|Damascus Gate - Jerusalem|
We couldn’t give up so easily. We had lunch with two Israeli friends and then called a journalist acquinatnce who often goes into Gaza to report for the Dubai based TV channel MBC2. He told us that he too, along with all other journalists, had been denied entry that morning. A BBC camera crew had been stopped with him at the checkpoint and denied entry. All of them had protested, arguing that this was censorship and that the IDF must be planning to attack Gaza, and that as press they had a right to be there, to see what was happening. As a democracy and a supposedly free society, Israel ought to allow them access – unless of course they had something to hide. None of this worked and they were all turned away en masse. They had all contacted their various governments in order to protest, but were resigned to waiting until the next day to try again.
The next day we awoke in the Armeinan Quarter of the old city to the news that overnight there had been a major attack on Gaza City and Khan Younis, the two biggest cities in the Gaza Strip. Tanks, apache helicopters, F-16s in and above the crowded streets of the towns. The Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated places in the world – over a million people living in an area of a few square miles. The potential for “collateral damage” in any operation against such a place is huge. At least 15 people had been killed in the incursion, and countless people were injured.
We called our checkpoint contact again. Again we were told not to come that we wouldn’t get in. The only people allowed in were diplomats and medical personnel. A small but significant difference from the previous day’s restrictions. We called Mostafa in Gaza, who sounded exhausted. No-one in the city had slept the night before as the noises of open warfare raged around them. We explained that we had been told that we couldn’t get in. He sounded desperately disappointed. “Please try. We need people to see what is happening here. Perhaps you can get in through Egypt.” From Jerusalem it would have been about an eight hour bus ride to get down to the Egyptian border, and then back up through Egypt to Rafah. Plus of course there were the imponderables – the border crossings, the checkpoints, and the possibility that at the end of all of that, we still would be denied entry and have to make the reverse trip for another eight hours.
We went through every possible scenario. Should we go anyway and be denied access? Because it was closed, there would be no service (shared) taxis from Jerusalem to the Erez checkpoint. We’d have to take a long bus ride to the nearest Israeli town and then get a private taxi down. And then of course, with 99.9% probability, come all the way back again. The Egypt route was out of the question, we didn’t have that kind of time. We had, by this time, become a small ad hoc group of the disempowered. One of our number, A Swedish woman representing the World Council of Churches, actually lived in the strip and was just trying to get home.
By now we had also learnt that if we were ever allowed in, we would have to sign two pieces of paper – the first a waiver essentially giving the Israelis the licence to kill us, if they so chose, and the second a paper saying that we were not members of the International Solidarity Movement and that we had had no contact with that group. We weren’t quite sure what that meant, but of course every one of us had some contact with members of ISM. We had become friends with them. The first paper was as a result of the new apparent Israeli policy of targetting foreign observers – be they journalists like James Miller, or those, like the ISM, like Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, who come to observe, stand beside injustice and try to relieve some suffering. The optimists amongst us saw this as the last flailings of a doomed occupation, the pessimists as the beginning of the end, the beginning of a concerted effort to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian Territories.
Ultimately we failed. Failed to get into Gaza, failed to see for ourselves what was going on there, and failed to provide the eyes that the world needs to observe the brutality of the occupation. Eventually, days later, and after a storm of international protest, journalists were allowed back. By that time I had returned to Jenin, after a short trip to Bethlehem. Jenin is seen by many as the wild end of the West Bank, the place where the struggle is at its most visceral. In Jerusalem, when I tell people where I live, I instantly gain a new respect, and a series of questions “How is it in Jenin?”, “What’s going on up there?”. It’s far from the cities of Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem and as such is out of the range of most. It’s also the home of the fiercest on the ground resistance outside Gaza. The resistance fighters in Jenin still have power and influence, and still defy the occupying army. To my mind though, the occupation is more visible and more depressing in Bethlehem. Yes, there is a semblance of normality in that city, yes there are restaurants, and cinemas, and a bustle on the streets, but as you look above the city, on every hill, in every direction there are the settlements, brand new California-style condos, standing guard over Palestine, rubbing the noses of the people in the loss of their land. In Jenin this is not the case. While Jenin may be underdeveloped, under-regarded, under curfew, it still feels like Palestine.
|Settlement looming above Bethlehem|
The way home was even smoother than the way up. One of the permanent checkpoints was even unmanned, and at the most difficult to pass, we were waved through with barely a glance at our IDs. Perhaps the army had been forced to redirect its resources, its front line to Gaza. It speaks volumes about the situation and how it has squeezed people’s hope from them, that on passing the last checkpoint, the mood in the van was not one of relief, or of happiness, but of trepidation. Why exactly was it so easy to pass? Was something being planned? It remains to be seen.