Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2014, Pages 19-20
Gaza on the Ground
Some Animals Are More Caged Than Others…But Why?
By Mohammed Omer
I drag our suitcases, mine and my pregnant wife Lina’s, through the often impenetrable Rafah Crossing, at the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. It’s a ritual carried out by thousands whenever it is announced that the border will be open. Even so, would-be travelers wonder whether they will in fact be permitted to cross into Egypt, or if they will end up waiting all day, only to have to return home and try again tomorrow.
We’ve been trying to cross for two months. Now eight months pregnant, Lina is nearing her due date, and each day it becomes more difficult and dangerous for her and our unborn child. I am lucky: I have citizenship in another country, so we have options. Most of the 1.7 million people living in Gaza do not. Like parents the world over, we want our child born where he or she will be safe. Not under apartheid. Not under siege. Somewhere opportunities exist, where laws aren’t passed and human rights doled out based on religion, race and ethnicity. We seek somewhere where it is safe, with a future and, above all, free.
There are only two crossings through which, if allowed, Gazans can reach the outside world. Gaza does have a seaport and airport, but Israel has blockaded the seaport and bombed the airport, rendering it useless since 2000. That leaves the Rafah Crossing in the south, guarded by Egypt with Israeli overseers, and the Erez crossing to the north, into Israel. Israel requires that all Palestinians enter and leave through the same crossing. Rafah tends to be slightly easier and doesn’t require traveling through hostile and dangerous settler territory.
Today our journey began at 7 a.m. We made our way to the Rafah crossing, carrying luggage and other necessities for an extended stay abroad. We sat at the gate, surrounded by our luggage, waiting for Egyptian border patrol officers to call our names. Three hours pass. Coffee and conversation help pick up the slack. Another hour goes by. Still nothing. We wait. There are now thousands with us: men, women, children, elderly and sick milling about, all clutching tight to belongings. We all wait for a moment of empathy, for a border policeman to be in a good mood and decide that today he’ll let us through.
High noon. I smile at my wife and gently touch her swollen belly carrying a life inside, wondering if we will have to return home and wait for the border to be opened again in a few days, or weeks. No one ever knows.
Suddenly a border policeman on the Palestinian side approaches us, his walkie-talkie crackles out our names. He gestures for us to hurry onto the bus that we’ve been looking at for hours. The bus is hot and crowded, but preferable to sitting outside. In the seat in front of us I recognize the president of my university as we settle in. Our passports have already been stamped at the Palestinian side. Again we wait. The bus will take us to the gate at the border with Egypt.
THE EGYPTIAN TERMINAL
It’s a short drive. The lines, security checks and buses are used to control access and crowds, rather than territory or security. When we arrive at the Egyptian terminal more lines confront us. More waiting. There are hundreds of people everywhere, some sitting on suitcases, others standing looking quizzically at signs forbidding photographs. Obviously, the authorities do not want these conditions publicized. I am reminded of Animal Farm and wouldn’t be surprised to see George Orwell somewhere in the crowd taking notes. If it weren’t real life, the absurdity of the situation would be funny.
We wait for our names to be called. More hours pass. Lina is hungry and tired. Now it’s 5 o’clock. Finally Egyptian security calls out our names: “Yes sir, that’s us.” I reply quickly, rushing up to the kiosk with our belongings. “My wife is traveling with me to give birth abroad; here are our visas and papers. Thank you.”
He orders us to sit and wait a “few minutes.” I smile at him. But he is right. A few minutes later, we proceed through the border and to another 20-minute walk. We are among the last to pass through. Those behind us are sent back to Gaza due to a collapse in the computer system—a common occurrence. Sadly, they will have to start the whole procedure all over again.
Outside the bus we hear the tat-tat-tat of gunfire and the ping of bullets hitting metal. Egyptian soldiers a few kilometers away in El Arish impose a curfew, which they announce by shooting at the legs of Bedouin youths refusing to comply with orders. They continue to announce it by firing at birds, trees and moving vehicles—including buses. I glance at my wife and am reminded that bullets and babies are not compatible. I wonder if she regrets leaving our families. This must be so frightening to her—it’s her first time leaving Gaza.
We have to walk another few kilometers to reach the taxi stand. Our driver on the Egyptian side has been waiting patiently for our arrival—since 10 a.m. I had originally estimated that it would take us a couple of hours to reach him; I didn’t anticipate that the Egyptian regime would revamp its travel restrictions. Thankfully, he understands.
We climb into the taxi. I see an elderly man and woman walking behind us, burdened with heavy boxes. Both their daughters are studying in Cairo, and the parents are bringing supplies to replace belongings recently lost in a fire. Others struggling with luggage can be seen behind them. Around us the sound of rifle fire continues as we drive on. We’re nervous. The curfew is now in effect in Rafah and El Arish.
Our taxi driver does his best to find alternate routes to the main highway, which normally would take two minutes to reach. Under curfew, however, it takes 45. All the while curfew warning shots continue to ring about us. A few bounce off the rims of our tires as our driver pushes through.
Lina and I have three options at this point: stop where we are; keep driving through toward Cairo; or return to the crossing. But none of these choices will protect us from the bullets. Having gone this far, through so many delays, we decide to press on through the Sinai. We have two priorities: our safety and catching our flight out of Cairo.
Thankfully, the KLM customer relations director had given us flexible tickets in case of unforeseen or unavoidable circumstances, starting at the Rafah border. That’s assuming, of course, we reached the airport at all!
Traveling through the Sinai Desert requires passing through nine military checkpoints. At every stop all luggage must be opened and rechecked. If one is Palestinian, the searches take longer, with soldiers going through laptops, cameras and personal belongings. It’s humiliating—but better than dodging bullets on the street during curfew. The final checkpoint, the Al Salam Bridge over the Suez Canal, is closed when we arrive. This means we must take a boat to complete our journey.
It’s dark and cold now. Lina waits huddled in the taxi. I wonder why it is I must feel lucky to be able to travel from Rafah to Cairo in 19 hours. Normally, this is a five-hour trip. Of course, for travelers not carrying a Palestinian passport, it still is.
Palestinians are the only Arab people without a state. We are required to recognize the rights of others to live in safety, freedom and security, but no one recognizes our right to do so. Instead we’re forced to live like caged animals, contained and trapped inside reservations and bantustans, segregated, alienated from our land and heritage, treated as lesser humans, herded by armed guards through crammed, narrow, metal checkpoints. And not just by Israelis, but by Egyptians as well. Not that long ago, Gaza was under Egyptian rule. We’re still the same people—yet we’re disrespected and subjected to endless cold questions and looks of suspicion.
Why is it that some people are treated like animals, while others are deemed human beings worthy of respect? Which humans have the right to determine who is human and who a lesser mortal or animal? Did the world not learn the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s, the danger that comes when race or faith are used to determine an individual’s humanity? How do I explain this to my son or daughter?
Fortunately, my child will be born in a free country in Europe. His or her faith, skin color, ancestry, language and accent will not be used to determine whether this child is a human being, where he or she can live and travel. One day I’ll tell my child about the trip we took so he or she could begin life in freedom.
My child is a human being—as is every child. In a civilized world, no human being should ever have to go through what we go through in Gaza.