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Crossing Erez

By
March 15, 2011

During 2005, while our author lived in East Jerusalem and worked in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip, he moved through at least four checkpoints every day. This is what that was like.

erez2-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Olly Lambert

I’m ready to return to Israel through the Erez Crossing, the northern exit from Gaza. As the afternoon meeting wears on, I start to check the time, increasingly anxious about getting to Erez. I never know whether the crossing itself will take an hour, or three, or even days. Since Erez is subject to closing without notice, I ask my secretary to check just before I leave, trying to ensure I’ll be able to cross.

As the expatriate director of the largest maternal and child health project in the West Bank and Gaza, I come to Gaza at least once every month. The Gaza Strip is forty-five kilometers long and ranges from five to twelve kilometers in width. It is bounded by Israel in the north and east, by Egypt in the south, and in the west by the Mediterranean Sea. Approximately one and a half million mostly impoverished Palestinians live within its mere three hundred and sixty square kilometers, about twice the area of Washington, DC. More than half of the population is made up of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Entrance to and exit from the strip—for Palestinians or anyone else—is strictly controlled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). All entries and exits occur only through the few surface checkpoints. This is only one of the draconian Israeli policies involving Gaza. Others include controlling the amount of food and medicines and other essentials that can enter the Strip, as well as restrictions on fishing and exporting. The only cars I ever saw entering Gaza had UNRWA markings, or belonged to other UN or aid agencies. Most people cannot drive from one side to the other. Instead, they have to leave their cars or taxis and walk through one of the checkpoints.

The residents of the strip suffer from unemployment rates of up to 40 percent, and 70 percent of Gazans live below the poverty line, according to the CIA Factbook. Yet, my Palestinian colleagues never complain about their hardships, and Gaza retains an old-fashioned charm. The streets in the poorer parts of Gaza City—like the Jabaliya refugee camp—are the most congested. These streets are packed with shoppers, men loafing in coffee shops, shopkeepers sitting on plastic chairs in front of their shops, donkey carts, street vendors, cars, and buses spewing clouds of black exhaust.

These images remind me of Bollywood movie posters, but here, in the Gaza Strip, the heroes actually die.

Virtually all the Palestinians I know hold several convictions: given the systematically punitive nature of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli policies are purposefully designed to dominate and starve them into submission; America knowingly supports Israel in these policies, a conviction which has been reinforced by the massive and unconditional financial and political support of Israel for most of its existence; they also believe that their own politicians and elites care only about maintaining power and lining their pockets, as evidenced by a 2010 Palestinian survey, which showed that nearly 70 percent of Gazans believe that their leadership is corrupt.

Large billboards dotted around Gaza feature portraits of Palestinian “martyrs,” boyish-looking suicide bombers who died for the cause. These images remind me of Bollywood movie posters, heroes looking into the bright distance, each one brandishing a Kalashnikov. They are dressed in black and wear headbands decorated with Arabic writing. Painted flags wave in the background. Here, in the Gaza Strip, the heroes actually die. I can almost hear the women wailing, the men’s shouts, the angry speeches, shots fired into the air, the drums and martial music played at their death ceremonies.

As I drive out of Gaza City towards Erez, the crowds and bustling energies of the urban areas give way to more open country. What little countryside Gaza has looks dry, almost devoid of the citrus and olive trees that once covered this land. The remains of houses litter both sides of the road, tipped in various stages of collapse. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), since 1967 thousands of Palestinian homes have been bulldozed in Gaza, West Bank, and Jerusalem. ICAHD documents that the residents were often given only ten minutes to evacuate forever with whatever they could carry. The IDF leadership doesn’t bother to deny this, saying only that such actions are necessary to cut down on Palestinian attacks against the Jewish settlement along the border and at the crossing. That is, for security purposes.

The road climbs as my car nears the crossing point. On the parched and bare ground ahead I spot the large Jewish settlement, surrounded by a tall wire fence. Nearby sits an IDF fort. The fort is designed to intimidate Israel’s enemies, with its surround of high walls topped with barbed wire and large spotlights, and forty-foot-tall cylindrical guard towers, which rise high above the walls. The guard towers are made of dark gray steel, with a row of tiny windows around the top for the lookouts who cannot be seen from outside. Each tower is draped with a greenish-brown camouflage material, which sways in the breeze.

The Jewish settlement directly on the Israeli side of the border at Erez is one of hundreds of such settlements Israel set up in Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 War. The majority of the property taken for these settlements was on Palestinian land, unilaterally sequestered by Israel, again in the name of security. All settlements enjoy the protection of the IDF—armed soldiers, military vehicles, fences, special access roads, watchtowers, and one or more communications antennas. Though the settlements vary a great deal in size, facilities, and apparent permanency, they are unmistakable.

Near the end of the road into Erez, but still on the Gaza side, two guards dressed in civilian clothes and carrying Kalashnikovs stop my car.

The car now enters a bizarre moonscape. Except for the elevated fort on the left side of the car, there are no buildings of any kind, no shops, no people, not even wisps of grass, just open fields scraped raw. The IDF cleared this area to create a “field of fire,” in military terms. The absence of any cover makes it possible for the Israeli military to spot potential attackers. In every direction, the ground has been turned over and churned, crisscrossed by long, deep ditches. As I proceed towards the Erez Crossing, my anxiety rises. This surreal “field of fire” always gives me an inner chill that is hard to talk myself out of. Further on towards the Erez Crossing, an IDF tank with that same greenish-brown camouflage sits guarding the single road going in and out, observing the few cars approaching and leaving Erez from the Gaza side.

The IDF soldiers who man the checkpoints wear full combat gear with body armor and steel helmets, everything in olive drab. They carry automatic weapons. They are invariably very young—in their teens or early twenties. At least 10 to 15 percent of the soldiers I see are women, some so petite under all that armor. Since all Israelis have to serve in the army (except for Orthodox Jews), the eclectic coloring and physical looks of the soldiers reflect the country’s multicultural nature. Physically, they run the full gamut: tall, short, muscular, thin, fat, with hair coloring from blond to red to black. Skin color varies from sub-Saharan shades of black to swarthy to pink-white with freckles.

On the relatively rare occasions when the checkpoint soldiers speak to me, most speak with a heavy Hebrew accent, while a few surprise me with an American one. An interesting subgroup of soldiers is drawn from Israel’s Druze minority, who have Arab features. Palestinians I have met refer to them as Israeli “collaborators.” There is no love lost between the Palestinians and the Druze.

The soldiers seem poorly briefed on how to react to provocations. On one occasion at the Ramallah checkpoint, which I go in and out of every day, and know I need to wait in my car, two uninformed Europeans decided to stretch their legs and walk across the field next to the checkpoint line intending for their driver to pick them up after their car made it through. When the IDF personnel spotted them they went berserk, running across the field yelling and pointing their weapons. They shut down the crossing for more than an hour as traffic backed up for a quarter mile.

Near the end of the road into Erez, but still on the Gaza side, two guards dressed in civilian clothes and carrying Kalashnikovs stop my car. These are Hamas security personnel, replacements for soldiers of the Palestinian Authority. More tense and more brusque than their predecessors, these men could be trigger-happy even now, almost a year after the fighting between Palestinian factions which began in summer 2007. I anxiously watch these guards for the smallest sign of anger or aggressive action; I must fully understand what they tell me. A misunderstanding could be fatal.

The second Palestinian checkpoint consists of a couple of trailers, one marked Red Cross-Red Crescent, the rest unmarked. A big man, about sixty, with a long white beard stands with several of his colleagues, who talk in a circle while waiting for their passports and clearance to proceed. I see this man nearly every time I visit Gaza. He is an aid worker with some NGO who lives in a nearby Israeli town and commutes into Gaza every day. I wonder how anyone could endure crossing Erez twice a day.

The big man’s group and the others waiting to cross are overwhelmingly Western-looking, although I overhear two speaking Arabic—Palestinians visiting from abroad. Nearly everyone I see from this point onwards will be an expatriate or a privileged Palestinian. Aided by Red Cross-Red Crescent, unprivileged Palestinians are processed differently and go through a separate entrance, off to the side. Israel admits very few Palestinians, mainly occasional humanitarian cases let in for medical care, while all other Gazans able to leave or enter the Strip have to go through the Rafah checkpoint on the Egyptian border, where they are subjected to the unsympathetic Egyptian military (this checkpoint has been almost totally closed since the Egyptian uprising began this January). Thus, for a Gazan to travel to Amman, Jordan—about a five-hour drive across Israel and the Jordan Valley—they have to go via Egypt, which takes at least two days.

A Palestinian guard takes my passport and ID card. He calls ahead to the Israelis for clearance to enter their side of the border. He is about forty, on the small side with light-brown hair. He doesn’t look at me when he takes my ID. The checkpoint area is quiet except for the buzzing insects, engine and tire sounds, slamming doors from the cars pulling up to discharge travelers, and some low voices. There is no breeze. Empty, churned fields lie on either side; the dark tunnel opening is ahead. A crude lean-to shelters visitors from the hot sun while they wait for clearance.

In addition to myself, six expatriates wait for their passports in the slice of shade. Everyone seems calm and composed. They smoke, lounge around, chat. Despite their relaxed exteriors, I know they are as eager as I am to enter the tunnel, get it over with.

After a wait of at least fifteen minutes, the Israeli side calls back. It’s okay to proceed. I retrieve my passport and walk into the tunnel, toward the border, alone. Clearances are given to one or two people at a time. No groups are allowed through the checkpoint.

As I enter the tunnel, the glare and heat of the sun give way to the relief of shade and cooler air. The final Palestinian checkpoint, inside the tunnel, consists of some haphazard iron bars, presumably put there to organize the flow of foot traffic on the rare occasions when the Israelis allow workers from Gaza to come into Israel for a few hours of farm labor. Several Hamas security personnel, in standard black clothes, sit at a table covered with a green cloth, smoking and talking. They seem relaxed, slouched in their plastic chairs. They look up as I approach, ID in hand. They take my passport, record some information in a ledger, hand it back. One says, “Why you come to Gaza?”

I reply in carefully enunciated, simple English, “I do health programs. We help Palestinian mothers and children.” Whether he understood or not, he waves me on.

The tunnel has high walls—maybe twenty feet—a crude corrugated roof as cover, a gap high up on each side to let in some light. There are no windows or exits. It is dusty and dirty inside. Most rundown places with no bathrooms reek of urine, but not here. A series of widely spaced bare light bulbs line the walls. The tunnel curves. Those crossing cannot see what comes next.

Further down, I pass the large section of wall that has collapsed inward, leaving a man-sized gaping hole. Concrete blocks and debris lie all over. I walk around the rubble. This is where a Palestinian Qassam rocket hit just days before. The walls and roof are riddled by shrapnel, peppered with jagged holes. I cannot help but wonder whether anyone was killed here, people like me, simply passing through.

No signs in any language provide directions. From one end to the other, no text, no symbols, no arrows. A wall of bars comes into view, blocking the tunnel from top to bottom and side to side. This is the first Israeli checkpoint.

About half a dozen people stand waiting, including the two Palestinians I saw earlier. I overhear that they are from Detroit, returning from visiting relatives in Gaza. The other travelers include the big man with the white beard and a couple of foreign journalists, one of whom carries a large movie camera. There are no hellos or exchanges of small talk between the groups of travelers, only desultory talk within groups. There is no place to sit. A series of video cameras trained on the waiting area perch high on the walls. The lighting is still dim, but better here than in the tunnel coming in, probably to allow for good video surveillance. Some surfaces are painted a yellowish-tan, but most are plain cement.

If there is to be a serious delay in crossing, it will occur here. I keep thinking, “What’s going to happen today? A quick crossing, or a long delay?” I once got stuck at this place for three hours and never learned why. While I brood, I stand and wait, looking up at the video cameras, looking through the wire mesh wall to the next barrier beyond it. Finally, after about twenty minutes, a large metal gate swings open, allowing the group to move the twenty feet to the next barrier. As usual, there is no announcement. The gate simply opens, then closes behind us.

Once inside, we walk to a second wall of bars. A turnstile, built into the wall, operated by remote control, admits those crossing to the next stage. Up to this point, I have spotted no guards, only the video cameras mounted high on the walls. Today I’m third in line at the turnstile. Despite everyone’s eagerness to get through, there is no jostling. Although a few in my group haven’t crossed before, they don’t ask questions about what is expected. Since there is no notice given when the turnstile has been unlocked, the first person in line occasionally pushes against it to see if it has been opened. As the turnstile permits, travelers one, two, and three pass through it single file. Now it’s my turn. Once through, I proceed with the group in single file to the third wall of bars, which demarcates one end of a large cage—maybe fifty feet long, the same width as the tunnel. It is closed in by bars on the ceiling and at both ends.

The cage is laid out into rows separated by a series of metal handrails. The rails control the flow. At the far end of the cage, I can just perceive a high cement bunker on the left and another on the right through yet another line of bars. The light around me is bright, but it is dim beyond. I can just see a soldier’s face peering through a slit high up on each bunker, with a gun pointed my way.

When these checkpoints are closed, Gazans are in a state of complete lockdown in the largest outdoor prison in the world.

There are no IDF soldiers inside the cage, only travelers transiting into or out of Gaza. Two people at a time are allowed on the cage side of the second turnstile. After one goes through, the following traveler waits next to the turnstile until the first clears the middle of the cage. Since I am third in line, I have to wait until the first has passed to the far end of the cage and the second man has cleared the midline.

After passing through the turnstile and into the cage, those crossing walk down a row of metal handrails towards the far end. At a given—unmarked—point I know that I must stop, put down whatever I am carrying, take off any coat or outer clothing, raise my arms, and turn around three hundred and sixty degrees. A loudspeaker blares at high volume, with a harsh voice shouting instructions. The voice is garbled, and it is impossible to hear what the orders are, or even what language is being spoken.

Today, an unfortunate first-timer is in line just ahead of me. He has no idea where to stop or what to do. The voice on the loudspeaker bellows, punishing him for his ignorance. He looks confused and helpless, scared, trying to guess what he’s doing wrong. He looks at me for help, and I pantomime what he has to do. He catches on and finishes the routine. While I do my three-sixty, I happen to glance up and spot a partially hidden IDF soldier peering down at me from a side balcony.

I pick up my things, put on my outer clothing, and proceed to a scanning machine, where I place my bag, shoes, and the metal items I’m carrying. I pass through an arched metal detector, pick up my items, and go to the barred gate leading outside. The two concrete bunkers just outside this gate can now be clearly seen. Each stands about twelve feet high, with only small slits at the top where the armed soldier I spotted earlier watches everything taking place in the cage.

The barred gate eventually creaks open just enough to let me pass through it.

I am now out of the tunnel, in the open air. Over an hour has passed since I entered. The hot afternoon sun is low, the shadows longer. After passing through the creaking gate, those crossing are expected, without being told, to go behind the bunker on the right and hand over their passport to one of the three IDF soldiers standing there. A female soldier telephones ahead to whomever is responsible for allowing me to pass. There is no talk, no facial expressions, no exchange of any kind. I wait, and am then handed back my passport.

Nothing is marked, so I wend my way around miscellaneous small buildings and raw-concrete walls. I keep walking until I spot a large shed with a corrugated tin roof, the inspection point for vehicles and trucks allowed to go back and forth between Israel and Gaza. I pass through the inspection shed and head for a low building on my right, the Visitors Center.

This is the last checkpoint. There is no sign, but I’ve been here before; I know the routine. Inside, the center is clean and well lit. It offers bathrooms and even a few waiting room-type couches. The Visitors Center is for VIPs only, that is, for foreigners only. A line of people waits in front of the counter.

IDF soldiers man the center, but they wear no combat gear, although most of them have their automatic weapons nearby. The soldier at the counter today is a young woman. Although she sits behind a counter, she seems tall. Her pulled-back mop of auburn hair frames a freckled face and hazel eyes. She wears no makeup of any kind. With only a heavily accented word or two, she takes my passport. I wait while she does something with it behind the counter.

The encounter is like those with bureaucrats everywhere, and with immigration officers at foreign airports: no human contact, no affect, no unnecessary communication, just follow the rules. Be respectful and polite despite whatever animosity and frustration you may be feeling. I reprise my wandering thoughts while the soldier behind the counter telephones to check me out.

She tells me to wait.

After twenty minutes, an even younger-looking female soldier at another counter calls my name then hands over my passport and a yellow gate pass. I walk through the gate that lets crossers into Israel. A soldier there takes the yellow gate pass without question or comment, and I proceed to a parking lot full of cars and trucks. The trucks and the new cars are waiting for customs clearance before being moved into Gaza. Some taxis also wait here, looking for fares. A van sells sandwiches, chips, coffee, and soft drinks.

They say that after the first few crossings, it doesn’t depress and tire you so much, although I never get used to it. Even those who cross regularly know that some crossings will be seriously delayed and, although it has not yet happened to me, eventually all frequent crossers find themselves stuck in Gaza for days on end, waiting for Erez to open. Closings happen at least every fifth or so time I try to visit Gaza, which I don’t learn about until I arrive at the Israeli side from Ramallah. They are a certainty every time there is an exchange of fire with the Palestinians, or an Israeli incursion into Gaza to exact revenge for some transgression by what the Israelis routinely claim to have been “armed militants.” The Israelis also close the checkpoints into Gaza for major Jewish holidays, so IDF personnel can enjoy them with their families. When these checkpoints are closed, Gazans are in a state of complete lockdown in the largest outdoor prison in the world.

For transportation back to Jerusalem, I look for the taxi I arranged to meet me. I relax in the backseat as the driver pulls onto the road into Israel. Leaving Erez, the car passes through open farmland. Even though Israel is largely desert, this part of the country is covered with farms and orchards, all lush green, beautifully tended. Population density is low. Housing is modern with many condominiums. The roads are excellent, and nearly all cars are recent vintage, in good condition. The area has a look of order and, compared with Gaza, middle-class well-being. A few towns with modern markets, shopping malls, restaurants, hospitals, gas stations, and fast food outlets dot the countryside. I could easily be in Spain or Arizona.

The air becomes cooler as the road ascends hills covered with pine and olive trees. I feel tired after the long day with its many tensions. As the car progresses towards Jerusalem, twilight modulates the light from day-bright to soft gold. The land takes on rich tones and deepening shadows.

G

Richard Moore spent nearly all of his forty-year career living and traveling in developing countries, where he designed and managed public health programs. He was in charge of the largest maternal and child health project in West Bank-Gaza throughout 2005, and visited there again in 2008. He began writing Creative Nonfiction a few years back; has a MFAW degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a PhD (in management); is now retired in Washington DC, and writes nearly full time.

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