Erez crossing witnesses the plight of the Palestinians

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A Palestinian Christian family leaves the Gaza Strip via the Erez crossing in Beit Hanun in the north of the enclave on May 23, 2014, as they make their way across Israel for Pope Francis' visit to Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Abed)

By: Islam Sakka

Published Friday, May 23, 2014

If the main northern crossing into Gaza could speak, it would have testified about the historic suffering of the Palestinians who are forced to travel through it. The Erez crossing, which is subject to the sovereignty of three separate entities, links the territories occupied in 1948 to those occupied in 1967. Previously, thousands of workers used to cross it to the occupied territories, but today, things are more complicated.

Ramallah: The car coming from Gaza approaches the crossing at the northern tip of the Strip. The road seems empty around it. The car reaches the checkpoint that has been under the control of the Hamas government since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007. Moments later, the journey, which includes clearing three different crossings, begins. Each person crossing Erez is one of 38,000 Palestinians who have passed through here in the first quarter of this year.

In Hamas’ checkpoint, a new room was being built. To the right of it, there was a small corrugated iron room that had a small window and a desk: This was all that was needed to present identification documents to the Gazzan policeman there, who makes sure that passengers have permits from Hamas’ government to enter the crossing.

We saw a car behind us clearing the checkpoint without inspection. The man sitting next to the driver rolled down his window, and handed the policeman documents that the latter checked behind the window, before signaling to the car to pass. We told ourselves, he must be a foreign activist or something, though foreign activists usually cross the same way we do.

We took another car that brought us to the other Palestinian side of the crossing, the one controlled by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. There, the civil liaison officer in charge of coordinating passenger movements greets you. As soon as you arrive there, they will recognize you immediately. They will know exactly who you are because they would have spoken to you the night before, to tell you whether or not you had obtained a permit from the Israelis.

In the 1990s, we used to drive our own car through Erez, on our way to Jaffa and Jerusalem, before returning on the same day to Gaza. The elderly never tired of talking about the previous state of the crossing before the Palestinian Authority took control of Gaza, before the Oslo Accords. Back then, a sole Israeli soldier would sit on a wooden chair watching the passersby, while fiddling with a small radio and smoking a cigarette. That soldier was probably the least qualified among his colleagues, which is why he would have been posted to the then-unimportant checkpoint on the border with Gaza.

At the second Palestinian part of the crossing, called Khamsa-Khamsa, the procedures are just a matter of time. A few minutes after the liaison officer contacts his counterpart on the Israeli side and relays the passengers’ names, the latter contacts him to give him the go-ahead.

These days, there is a long one-kilometer corridor that passengers have to cross on foot. Sometimes, when available, it is possible to pay 10 shekels ($3) to take a shuttle through it. The corridor is between high concrete walls – which have been absent from Gaza for a long time now – interspersed with cylindrical watchtowers monitoring everything.

This is the same corridor that nearly 30,000 Palestinian workers used to cross everyday. It would take them 15 minutes, and in the summer, it was more of a sunbath; the workers even nicknamed it the “Way of Suffering,” and they used to get there early at dawn to get ahead of the queue. But in reality, there was no real queue to speak of. When the Israelis would open the gate, everyone would rush towards it at the same time, and the humiliation would be repeated every day in the same way. This continued for many years until the crossing was closed completely to Palestinian laborers, and made accessible only to foreigners, sick people, NGO workers, and VIPs.

After the corridor, there are four small doors. An Arab attendant opens one and waits for orders – spoken in Hebrew through a radio – to allow the arrivals to go through. You would need to place your luggage, open the bags, and turn them to face the cameras that move and monitor everything. Afterwards, passengers are led to metallic turnstiles, before the main glass doors of the crossing, and then into another metallic gate. The inspection does not stop here. Another Arab attendant then shows up, places the contents of the bags in containers, which are then fed into an electronic scanner and onto an inspection room.

Remarkably, up until this point of the journey, Palestinians do not encounter any Israeli soldiers, but only deal with gates and devices, or non-Israeli attendants.

Next, the passenger has to enter a large cylindrical glass room where he or she has to place their feet on yellow markings on the ground, look at the camera, while raising their hands in the air. Suddenly, an Israeli female soldier speaks through a loudspeaker in broken Arabic, telling you to turn several times. Two metallic rods turn around you, before another door is opened for you on the other side to cross. It was possible to spot the soldier on the second floor through large windows, showing a number of Israeli officers there.

Apparently, this layout has been chosen after the crossing came under several attacks, including a kamikaze attack in 2004. The modifications cost the occupation authorities millions of dollars; the current crossing was reopened in 2005.

Another series of electric gates lay in store for us, each with one green light and one red light. The door only opens when the green light is lit. Passengers have to then follow a specified path into a spacious room where a soldier inside asks you, behind glass barriers, to take off parts of your clothes.

Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza mentions that a large number of patients are routinely blackmailed at the crossing to spy for Israel, in contravention to international norms in place, according to the Center.

“Let us die in Gaza instead of this humiliation. Let us die with honor!” I remember hearing this cry from a man who had been detained for days with the women and children travelling with him inside the crossing’s corridor in 2007 with others. After Hamas took over Gaza, hundreds tried to flee to the West Bank. Nor can I ever forget how an elderly Palestinian cancer patient died in Erez in February, as she waited for permission to cross to the West Bank for treatment.

In the past few months, VIP-marked cars belonging to the PLO would cross Erez into Gaza to take part in reconciliation talks with Hamas there. Al-Quds newspaper staff recently used Erez to return to Gaza, after a 7-year ban, and similarly, the staff of the Hamas-affiliated Filastine newspaper used the crossing to return to Ramallah after a reconciliation agreement was signed.

Helpless ordinary citizens cannot be blamed for having to deal with Israelis to cross into the other part of Palestine. After all these measures, passengers would be able to see and deal with Israeli soldiers directly, to show them their permits to enter the occupied territories before crossing over to the West Bank. It is worth noting that these permits are valid for seven hours or less, after which a passenger would have had to arrive at the other side of the occupied homeland beyond the wall.

As they traverse their occupied homelands, Palestinians will find it hard to believe that a few kilometers later, the features of the same land can vary so dramatically. Palestinians will glue their heads to the glass of the car window, to see their stolen land and mourn for their lost paradise, as they read the license plates in Hebrew: Ashdod, Haifa, Jerusalem. They will also experience firsthand the militarization of the occupation state and its cynical racism.

They will see ultra orthodox Israelis and soldiers here and there, but the land is as scenic as ever, and the sight of mountains for people used to coastal Gaza’s flatness does not compare to anything. They will see Arab villages whose people were driven out along the way. A taxi driver might tell the passengers, “This is where the Qastal Battle took place, and this is where Abdul-Qader al-Husseini was killed. There they are building a new subway line that will link Jerusalem to Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Here, an Israeli minister was killed. There, is the Jerusalem city hall, and this is the al-Aqsa Mosque!”

Everything the eye can see in between is under the control of the Israeli Defense Ministry. When was all of this lost, and at which fork in the road did the revolutionaries forget that a few bombs on buses could have solved the problem even before Israel was born in the 1940s?

In Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank and the capital everyone is ashamed to declare, one will see breathtaking development. It is the city of opportunities and low unemployment, but it is also saturated with intelligence services, the overbearing influence of the [Palestinian Authority’s]presidency, media outlets, and party offices. Still, it is also a haven for people fleeing from the hellish situation in Gaza, though it shares something with the latter: it has the worst possible entrance one can imagine.

Indeed, on the way to Ramallah, one has to first pass through the Qalandia crossing. One may happen to arrive there during rush hour, when laborers and those with expired permits would be returning, often causing traffic jams that could extend a full kilometer inside the fence. One could need over an hour to cross to the other side of the wall.

On the surface, the city appears orderly, but in reality this is not the case. One reason is that its entrance is part of so-called Area C. What is Area C? Well, no one knows yet.

There are a lot of things that people from Gaza have to learn about the West Bank, but that’s a story for another day.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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