This post first appeared on Pam Bailey’s blog, Pam in Progress:
When you think about dreams unfulfilled, so often it is borders that stop us in our tracks, or force detours or delays.
Borders can be mental, existing only in our heads, but as powerful as if they were enforced by barbed wire and guns. My friend Suleiman comes to mind, a Gazan Palestinian who is studying English literature — in preparation to be a teacher — in Alexandria, Egypt, only because that is his father’s wishes. His heart, however, is drawn to forensic science — a specialty that is far from a priority in a territory where residents struggle just to make a living. In his case, the border/barrier is culturally imposed and accepted.
And then there are the borders that are very much physical, although their ramifications are also emotional in a quite visceral way. As I traveled from Egypt into Gaza, borders were very much on my mind — both the ones I laboriously traversed today, and the ones I have struggled to cross in the past in my work as an activist for Palestinian rights. (My experiences pale, however, in comparison to what it means to be a Palestinian, trying to travel both within and outside their homeland.) Because I am asked so many times how I manage to get into Gaza and what to expect along the way, I thought I would chronicle the journey, with some tips and explanations and a little “color” for those internationals (non-Palestinians) who might want to try it themselves…
There are only two ways to enter Gaza: through Israel’s Erez terminal, or Egypt’s Rafah gate. Unlike a “normal” country, into which you can enter at will, as long as you have a visa issued by your destination (if required), traffic in and out of the Palestinian Territories is controlled by often-hostile third parties — in this case, Israel and Egypt.
Israel: the ‘belly of the beast’
Erez is typically the most difficult way into Gaza, and in fact is virtually impossible unless you happen to work for 1) a major, recognized newspaper, magazine or radio network (with a stature along the lines of the New York Times) and haven’t developed a track record that put you on the black list or 2) an international NGO, which then seeks clearance for you directly from the Israeli “security apparatus.”
I had the “privilege” of receiving approval to enter via Erez just once, in January 2010. I was among the 1,000+ activists who descended on Cairo for the Gaza Freedom March, with the intention of marching into the Strip to mark the one-year anniversary of Israel’s massive attack, called Operation Cast Lead. Those were still the Hosni Mubarak years, however, and he announced just days before the first marchers began arriving that he had no intention of letting us cross through Rafah. We responded by demonstrating and protesting in the streets and in front of every embassy we could for a solid week, before most of the marchers returned home. I, however, had come determined to stay on in Gaza, living and working there for six months to better understand how I could help. I was not about to just go home.
Along with a handful of other motley die-hards, I camped out in Cairo, making The Sun hostel my home, for 45 days — trying every way we could to either get a legal permit to enter or somehow sneak our way in. And then, as I was beginning to face the fact that I might not succeed, a well-placed friend from UNRWA (United Nations Relief & Works Agency) whom I had met on a previous delegation, came to my rescue. UNRWA filed with Israel for approval for my entry, and lo and behold! I got it. A ‘VISA’ THAT PERMITTED ME TO GO IN AND OUT FOR THE NEXT SIX MONTHS. I felt like I had struck gold.
I left my comfortable home away from home in Cairo, took an all-night bus to Taba, and crossed the border into Israel — a border that is very much a mental as well as a physical one, largely due to the way their “power” is wielded by the young soldiers who decide who comes in, and who doesn’t.
That time, I sort of slithered under their radar. But not too long before, in June of 2009, it was a totally different story. I was traveling at the time with three other activists, and just as we thought we would sail through, we were stopped — likely because of the Rafah stamps in our passports from previous trips, but it could really be anything — your age (the older the better), the way you dress, your answer to what appears to be a simple question. What followed was eight hours of tedious waiting, punctuated by visits with various members of the guards. I was increasingly singled out, although the only line of questioning focused on my religion. [Tip: When asked, say something safe like “Catholic” or simply “Christian.” I am an agnostic, but said Unitarian, since I was experimenting with that at the time. Big mistake. “What’s that?” the guard asked. “Well, it means we pretty much respect and accept all of the religions,” I helpfully answered. “That’s not a legitimate religion,” came the reply. (Oh, really? Why was I somehow not surprised by that reply, given who it came from?)]
We were exhausted and limp (the intended result) by the time we were all ordered to sign a statement agreeing that we would not enter the West Bank (our Israeli attorney friends had told us to go ahead and sign it; there was no way it could be enforced). I, however, was told to sign an additional statement informing me that I must leave Israel within 48 hours or pay a stiff fine as penalty.
That same game of roulette plays out no matter what way you choose to enter Israel — Ben Gurion, Taba or Amman, Jordan (in which case you exit into the West Bank, but the gate is controlled by Israel). The key is to avoid admitting your destination is Gaza (or the West Bank, for that matter) and to be armed with names of places and people you intend to visit in the “land of the chosen people.”
When you eventually arrive at the Erez terminal, typically by taxi, the feeling is one of a high-security prison or nuclear installation. Unlike Rafah Gate, which is often thronged with noisy, friendly Palestinians, Erez is typically empty, with only a few Palestinians coming in or out for medical reasons or privileged internationals working for the cushy NGOs and living in their own version of the ‘Green Zone’ to be seen.
The first stop is a guard house, just outside of the high mesh fence. Getting approval to enter Erez is never given in writing, in the form of an actual slip of paper you can use like a security blanket. So, the fist time at least, a feeling of insecure pins and needles is pervasive. That is intentional. Once the guard — typically in wrap-around sunglasses that hide his or her eyes, disguising any hint of humanity — checks your name in your passport against the records in the depths of a computer database, you are miraculously waved through the first gate. That gushy feeling of awe and relief is all part of the mind game. “Wow! I can’t believe it! I am being let into the inner sanctum!” It’s amazing…you almost feel grateful; the Wizard of Oz is letting you into the castle!
Inside the huge terminal, all white and echoey, the eerie feeling of being all alone continues. There is another stop at a guard station, this time while you crane your neck up to peer at the stern “official” (but really just a pretty young recruit) behind the glass. It’s as if every aspect of this border sentinel was designed specifically to isolate and intimidate. A physical border, yes, but also very much — and deliberately — a mental one. Until you reach the other side of the building, where you are spit out into a long passageway that leads you deep into Gaza, you are guided one step at a time by blinking lights signaling which door is open (literally), always under the watchful eye of the guards high above — only becoming apparent when you don’t understand what to do next and a voice barks out. Coming out into the open air, it really doesn’t matter that you have to walk what seems to be miles before you can exit the passageway into the friendly, waiting arms of the Palestinians. Freedom! you want to cry. With each step closer to the taxis, breathing gets easier, while you exchange furtive smiles with the poor Palestinian man who has to make his living by serving as “escort.”
It’s funny; although the “visa” I had allowed me to exit and enter unlimited times over a six-month period, I rarely exercised the right. Just the thought of going back into Erez made my stomach turn.
Egypt: chaos and uncertainty
All of the other five times I have come to Gaza have been through Egypt’s Rafah Gate (about a six-hour journey from Cairo, by shared car or bus).
There are three ways to do so:
Request permission through the Egyptian Embassy in your home country, either alone or as part of a delegation. A letter of invitation, outlining what work you will be doing, from a Gaza-based NGO must be submitted along with a scan of your passport and an email outlining your desired entry and exit dates. In other words, you cannot go just because you’d like to, or because you have friends there, like most other destinations. The embassy will send your request to Cairo for a security review, with an answer — yes or no — provided within 20 days (although nothing will happen at all, my experience says, if you don’t keep checking in).
If you are approved, you will receive a visa stamp for your passport that includes Gaza as a destination. But that’s not the end of your battle. The border guards at the Rafah Gate operate as if they are their own entity. No matter what permission Cairo grants, they often see fit to simply ignore it. It’s not uncommon to have to shuttle back and forth between Rafah and the central government in Cairo, or Rafah and Al Arish (the nearest town, where you can rest up for the next day’s argument; I recommend staying at the Sina Stars Hotel!). If you have the necessary permit, and are persistent as well as patient (it also helps if you know Arabic or are accompanied by someone who does), chances are you will get in — that is, unless unrest erupts in the Sinai or Tahrir Square, in which case the kneejerk reaction is often to close the doors.
Apply for a press pass from the Egyptian government. This is my preferred, and highly recommended route — mainly because it is the most predictable and fast. The review/approval time is normally just two weeks (you can apply before you leave home, by email), and once you get your pass, you are sped along the way with professionalism and style. I cannot speak more highly of the Foreign Press Office staff in Rafah city, who meet you at the gate; shoo away the incredibly persistent crowd of opportunists who want to carry your bags, etc. for a fee; push their way to the front of any lines and expertly navigate the bureaucracy; then settle you onto the bus to the Palestinian side. The caveat: You must have an official letter from a bricks-and-mortar media outlet (no online-only media) saying you write/report/produce for it.
The other, really aggravating requirement for a press pass is that you obtain a letter from your embassy in Cairo. If you are American, that means you have to make an appointment online, then pay $50 in return for a notarized letter saying, basically, that the U.S. government washes its hands of you once you enter Gaza. And, btw, they are serious about that. In February 2011, an intended one-month stay in Gaza turned into three, due first to the Egyptian revolution and then to the theft of my purse, including my passport. (All of my friends in Gaza were shocked; petty crime is virtually unheard of there.) To get a replacement, however, the American embassy in Jerusalem (designated as the “liaison” with Gaza, rather than Cairo) requires an in-person interview. The problem was, without a passport, I couldn’t leave Gaza to travel to Jerusalem, and U.S. policy prohibited embassy staff from coming to me. It was a classic Catch 22. After many phone calls — by me, my friends and the senators they contacted — a solution was finally reached. Embassy staff would meet me in Erez (literally, in the middle of the terminal), but at a cost of $800 (reimbursement for their travel time, and the cost of the passport itself). Moral of the story: Do not lose your passport in Gaza!
Note: The Patriot Act requirement that passport interviews be held in person in Jerusalem (thus requiring applicants to leave Gaza through Israel) is the same that prevents many Palestinians from getting U.S. visas. Israel simply won’t let them out. I am told by Gisha (an Israeli agency that tries to help Palestinians leave Gaza for school, etc.) that the United States is one of only two countries in the world (along with the Czech Republic) that won’t allow video conferencing as an alternative. Wouldn’t repealing this onerous requirement be one small, simple way to reverse some serious wrongs?
Enter illegally, through the underground smuggling tunnels. I was prepared to take this route, when my press pass was taking a bit longer than usual to be approved, and I didn’t want to lose any more time in Gaza. Everyone I talked to for their advice indicated that accidents or bombings are rare these days. In fact, the tunnels are responsible for the incredible building boom I observed the last time I returned, in December. (There is very little shortage of “things” in Gaza these days, thanks to the tunnels. What is missing is freedom to travel in and out, and to do business via export.)
In addition, if you do it the “right” way — having an in-the-know Gazan obtain approval from the “Rafah Tunnels Committee” and officially assign you a tunnel — it’s also amazingly inexpensive: just US$50 each direction. (If you go in that way, you have to return that way.)
The biggest downside, from what I have heard, is that tunnel “quality” varies. If you are lucky, you will be assigned a spacious “luxury” tunnel — wide and tall enough to stand pretty much straight up, with helpful luggage assistance. If not, crawling may be in order, and beware if you are bothered by claustrophobia!
One of the more recent developments, no matter which way you enter, is that Hamas is getting smart. If other countries/territories can make it difficult for others to enter, so can they. Thus, you must now have a visa from Hamas in order to enter Gaza. A friend, or your sponsoring NGO, can obtain this for you, usually without a hitch (although the questioning can be extensive, of your sponsor as well as yourself). However, Hamas can be as repressive as Egypt or Israel; last year, it kept Gaza high school students accepted into the U.S. State Department’s YES program at home, refusing to let them leave.
I’d be happy to serve as advisor/consultant to anyone who wants to come or return to Gaza! Remember…borders are made to be challenged, whether they are mental, physical or both!