SHAMMAS: Kafka at the Rafah border – an American’s journey to Gaza 9Aug11 August 12, 2011

 by Diane Shammas -  Arabic Media Internet Network  -  8 August 2011

Any astute observer who has spent substantial time in the Gaza Strip knows that what Gazans desperately want and need are the freedom of movement and the right to export. This does not diminish the facts that eighty percent of Gazans receive UN food aid, and despite the media hyperbole on Gaza’s burgeoning economy, only one percent of the population is able to indulge in the Strip’s “luxury malls, hotels and restaurants” []

Popularly characterized as “the world’s largest open-air prison,” Gaza is a cruel joke for civilians trying to leave its borders. Imagine being in a locked room with no key, and on the other side you can hear someone jangling the keys–Egypt and Israel are the key holders to freedom. Palestinians must apply for an exit permit from either government, an arduous and bureaucratic process with no guarantees of a stamped approval.

At the end of May, the interim Egyptian government decisively moved to ease the travel restrictions on Palestinians crossing into the Rafah border. Less than a month later, Egypt reneged on their new policy by significantly reducing the daily quota of Palestinians crossing the border from 600 to 400. By some estimates, the Rafah border can accommodate the passage of a 1,000 travelers per day. The severely ill and students bound for study abroad desperately rely on the opening of the Rafah border.  A short narrative of my travails to enter Gaza will illustrate a fraction of the Sisyphean feat facing Gazans to pass through the Egyptian and Israeli borders.

In the winter of 2010, a prominent community mental health organization invited me to Gaza City. I spent a galling six weeks in Cairo awaiting permission to enter Gaza. I submitted my application seven times to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, and each time they came back unapproved. I was given no explanation other than it was not security related. I took the next big step to go visit the Mukhabarat (Egyptian Intelligence), the security agency that issues the final authorization, to inquire about the multiple rejections.

The Mukhabarat is a reputedly sinister place to which many taxi drivers will flatly refuse to drive their customers.  Peering into a rust-covered wrought iron window, I pleaded with the security officials to let me speak to someone inside. Three hours later, they allowed me to enter and directed me to an 8 x 10 sterile, drab gray room to communicate via phone with an unidentified, mid-level intelligence officer.Our discussion concluded with the officer offering me only a 14-day pass to Gaza. The original request was for 6 months. At the end of the day, it was no surprise that a pass had not been faxed to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. This was my welcome introduction to the ruthlessly mendacious security arm of the Mubarak government—the corrupt regime receiving two billion dollars annually in foreign aid from U.S. taxpayers’ pockets.

By the spring of 2010, I finally gained entry into Gaza via the Erez border, but not bereft of a similarly protracted approval process.The Israeli Defense Ministry initially cleared me as not  posing a security threat, but at the final stage, denied me on “not meeting their criteria.” Upon consulting an Israeli human rights attorney, my Arab-descent surname might have aroused suspicions, as commented upon by one major within the Israel’s Foreign Ministry. But the real reason, as we later discovered, was that the Ministry confused my national identity. They thought that I was a Gazan-Palestinian student seeking study abroad. After my attorney sorted out my mistaken identity, it took an additional four weeks for the Ministry to issue me an approval to enter Gaza. Altogether, it took me four months to enter Gaza.

Because of a shared heritage, Palestinians perceive Egypt as being the preferred border to exit Gaza. Egypt’s post-revolution, however, has not augured well for Gazans in terms of granting them a greater freedom of movement. Egypt’s back pedaling on their new border policy reinforces the normalization of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. The re-tightening of the Rafah border restrictions does not hamper the arm smugglers as at least they have the tunnels. Rather, the border restrictions hurt the most vulnerable of Gaza society–the terminally infirm who are in dire need of life-sustaining treatment and medicine. Delays in crossing the border potentially put university students at risk of forfeiting their scholarships to study abroad. A flexible Rafah border crossing becomes even more critical for Palestinian civilians when Israel initiates an escalation of attacks on Gaza.  The relatively flat topography of the narrow coastal strip offers no immediate refuge from the sputtering Apache helicopters and the somnolent buzzing drones that can strike anywhere at any time.  Hailed as the “region’s bellwether,” Egypt should exercise moral conscience by permanently opening the Rafah border. In expressing disillusionment with the trivial changes in Egypt’s border policy, one student blogger, Abu Yazan, described “Please close this gate…we don’t want it. We would be better without Rafah crossing, at least we wouldn’t think about it!”

Diane Shammas holds a Ph.D. in international education and urban higher education, with a specialization in Arab American studies. She lived in the Gaza Strip in 2010 and 2011, and taught at the local university.

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