Crossing from Israel into the Gaza Strip was supposed to be easy.
The $US35-million, 375,000-square-foot border terminal at Erez looks like an international airport, with a soaring wave-like dome reaching over an inviting glass facade. When it opened in 2005, Israel was about to withdraw its soldiers and civilian settlers from Gaza, formerly Egyptian-occupied land which it had held since the Six-Day War in 1967. Each day more than 15,000 Palestinians were expected to cross here.
But since the takeover by Hamas, a US and EU-listed terror organisation, Israel has imposed tight border restrictions in order to keep weapons and other financial and material resources out of the militants’ hands. Traffic has precipitously declined: Erez now sees only a few hundred users a day, mostly aid workers and journalists along with Palestinians with rare permission to enter Israel for passage to the West Bank or Jordan or to visit relatives in Israeli hospitals.
The Erez terminal is flanked by a military base, and there there’s a high wall that runs along the border, ahead of a second layer of wall that protects the nearby town of Netiv HaAsara from rocket and mortar attacks.
When I crossed at 8:30 AM on a Monday morning in mid-November, the only other travellers in the broad and empty departure hall were a trio of Swedish aid workers. There was only one desk open out of 15, and no one lined up behind me.
Making the passage was an anxious and unforgettable process. Signs in the terminal point the way “to Gaza” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, with no hint of what awaits on the other side.
First, I entered a rectangular area in front of a passport control desk, with roughly neck-high doors on either side. Each was electronically locked. In my case, the official at passport control seemed interested in conclusively establishing that I wasn’t an Israeli citizen before allowing me to proceed. I was eventually issued an Israeli exit visa and the light over the opposite door switched from red to green. The passport control officer was the last person I encountered on the Israeli side.
The terminal is about 100 feet from the high concrete barrier marking the border. Behind the terminal is a covered area linking the facility to the border wall; a traveller walks through a broad corridor with fencing on either side before entering a second fenced-off area enclosing what appears to be a thick rectangular metal slab cut into the stark carapace.
This area has a fence-type door that remotely locks behind the traveller; for a moment, I found myself alone and seemingly trapped. I tried to pry at the metal door grafted into the border wall, assuming there was some basic cue I was missing. It turned out my movements were being carefully tracked by camera: as I turned around and tried to signal for help, the metal rectangle grafted into the larger concrete wall was slowly and somewhat ominously sliding open on its own, revealing a covered cement walkway cutting through swampy agricultural tracts.
Immediately before me was a covered passageway several hundred-meters in length, with gridded aluminium fencing on either side and a metal canopy overhead. I wanted to walk the entire thing, just to survey the weirdly quiet border area and get used to the idea of even being in Gaza at all.
But a few moments later, a man with a golf cart pulled up and told me to get in. He sped along the otherwise-empty passageway, and before I could tip him he darted into a covered waiting area to collect what few passengers he could wrangle for the return trip.
There were two checkpoints on the Palestinian side.
At the first Palestinian checkpoint there was an outdoor waiting room and a shipping container-turned-office with a small group of non-uniformed individuals inside. They were engaged in a bureaucratic performance unconvincing even to a newcomer — miming the examination of travel documents, issuing the occasional glazed-eye look at travellers collected into gridlocked lines and rows. A banner urging travellers to Keep Palestine Free of Ebola hanged nearby.
It turned out therealborder post was a few hundred yards and a 10 shekel cab ride up the road. The cabs might have licence plates with a Palestinian flag on them — the Gaza Strip the only place in the world where vehicles have these. But one still pays for this cab, and just about everything else in Gaza, in Israeli currency.
The second checkpoint was staffed with vehement-looking young men, some of whom wore faded blue uniforms curiously stripped of any government or national insignia.
These men were from Hamas, and unlike at the earlier checkpoint these officials wanted to look over the contents of my backpack and examine my Palestinian Authority-issued press credential before allowing me to proceed.
It turns out the Hamas men take their job at the border seriously: They will hold up even UN personnel on small bureaucratic matters and can refuse passage to any Gaza resident for any reason. They insist on being informed ahead of time if a Palestinian is travelling through, regardless of who employs them or where they live.
This officious attitude is typical of how Hamas runs the Strip. While Gaza’s Islamist overlords don’t provide much in the way of public services and their governance is all but notional, they seize any and all opportunities to appear like an actual state.
“They believe this is strength,” one Gaza-based analyst told me, “but it is weakness.”
Hamas’s situation became even more tenuous this summer after they instigated and lost a battle against Israel, resulting in the death of hundreds of its fighters and the destruction of its attack tunnel network — along with thousands of structures inside of Gaza. Now the Palestinian Authority, which holds little actual power in Gaza but holds far more credibility globally, has even more excuse to curtail the Islamists’ power. Although the PA and Gaza are technically in a unity government, the PA has cut off salaries to Hamas civil servants in Gaza and few expect the arrangement to last.
Hence power-tripping inconveniences at the border, like the annoying insistence that taxis park far down the street from the checkpoint, as well as weightier policies, like a border guard’s brief inquiries about whether I was carrying alcohol into the Strip.
My Palestinian Authority media credential was issued under PA letterhead by an office peopled with Hamas officials; I was told the $US50 I paid for it, along with the hefty sales tax levied at my waterfront hotel, almost certainly went into the group’s coffers.
Visible from this second checkpoint is a line of black-scarred highrise apartments that lie just a few hundred yards inside the border. The Hamas checkpoint itself enclosed a mound of bomb-shattered cinder block, ruins of a building leveled during the war. It’s only the first, comparatively mild evidence of destruction from the conflict that Hamas kicked into motion this past summer. The road to Gaza City is scattered with damaged and collapsed buildings, with neighbouring structures often left remarkably unscathed.
Restrictions on the importation of construction materials — Hamas used600,000 tons of concrete to build its attack tunnel network— mean that most buildings look only half-finished in Gaza City. Sky-scrapers give way to the concrete skeletons of unbuilt floors; in the outer neighborhoods, the buildings are little more than rectangular stacks of exposed cinder-block wedged on either side of rough or unpaved streets.
Billboards heralding the grisly accomplishments of local militant groups make it impossible to forget the violence to which the Strip and its future are now captive. Same with the Hamas traffic cops in downtown Gaza City and the Hamas policemen manning checkpoints between towns. On the morning of my second day in the Strip, I saw unarmed men in blue khaki uniforms drilling in formation in a vacant lot across the street from my hotel near the Gaza port, members, apparently, of Hamas’s “civilian” auxiliary.
While I was crossing back into Israel, an Israeli tank was firing smoke bombs from near Erez into Gaza to ward off a gunman allegedly opening fire near the border, each burst sending up a thin pillar of dust and issuing a dull, empty thud. The red tile roofs of the nearby Israeli community of Netiv HaAsara and the layers of grey walls protecting it hovered eerily close in the background as a golf cart drove me back to the rectangular metal slab in the wall.
Re-entering Israel through Erez is somehow an even stranger experience than leaving.
The slab rolls open remotely. Just inside the wall is a metal table in front of a pair of electronically-locked turnstiles; the light only turns green when travellers open their bags or suitcases for a remote camera. Next is the 100-foot corridor to the border terminal, followed by a second electronic lock, followed by another corridor with a third electronic lock, followed by a conveyor belt where travellers must leave their luggage — signs note that every item in their position is liable to an individual search behind closed-doors. At various points, hidden loudspeakers issue brief instruction in Hebrew.
The first human a traveller encounters on the Israeli is just after the conveyor belt and the aforementioned series of locks, cameras, and corridors; the day I crossed, this individual was actually an Arabic-speaker. There are a number of turnstiles along the way — inconvenient for one of the people with whom I was crossing, a mother attempting to angle her child’s stroller through a gauntlet of cramped metallic cylinders.
The inconvenience serves a purpose: the border is an attractive target for militant groups. Erez was the site several attacks during the war over the summer, as well as a 2004 suicide bombing in which four Israeli soldiers were killed and several Palestinians were injured. And these days, the border receives so little foot traffic that the labyrinth of locks and passage ways and conveyor belts can take dizzyingly little time if one’s papers are in order. Crossing back into Israel took only about 30 minutes for me.
After I’d collected my baggage, the last obstacle was passport control. After a now-perfunctory question about my African travel and a stamp of my passport, I was back in Israel, some 300 meters and an entire universe away from where I’d stood just minutes before.
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