Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Erez Nightmare

I came to Gaza today to spend a few days with Dr. Mona El-Farra, MECA's director of Gaza Projects, and to visit the centers we support in Gaza.

The process of getting in and out of Gaza belongs only in terrifying science fiction novels. As a foreigner, I have to apply for permission from an Israeli office at Erez crossing one week before I want to come. I always feel conflicted when dealing with this office because it is part of the occupation infrastructure and staffed by Israeli soldiers. I have trouble deciding how to approach my interactions with them...It's like visiting a friend or relative at a prison and having to ask the prison guards to let you in. I think it's better to have the visit than refuse to interact with the guards but I also don't want to forget or ignore who I'm speaking to.

Each time I apply I face the same excuse from the soldiers at Erez: they never received my fax. As usual, my first fax disappeared into thin air but they did confirm getting it the second time. This is actually quite efficient in my experience. So I called back five days later to see if I had permission or not and had a bizarre conversation with the Israeli soldier on the other end of the line.

His first question was, "What is your number?" Having gone through this process before I knew he was asking for my passport number but I still felt uncomfortable that he wanted my number, not my name. I know I shouldn't expect it from an occupying army but I still want to be treated as a person. After looking me up, he spent a minute trying to pronounce my name and guess it's origin which is actually quite common for me. Something about "Shields-Stromsness" really arouses people's curiousity. He then told me I had permission until July 15, 2007 "which is a good day. " I didn't know what he meant. Could I enter now? What was good about July 15? I was worried some propoganda would follow but instead he continued that July 15 is the day he finally gets out of the army and that I could enter any time after January 15. I didn't know what to say and still don't. There were so many uncomfortable things going on in such a short phone call. I was calling to ask him (and the Israeli army by extension) for permission, he was looking me up by a number, and then he tells me he's looking forward to leaving the army. But why tell me? Why not refuse to serve? Was he saying this because I'm an American going to Gaza so he thought it was what I wanted to hear?

In any case, I'll continue explaining the surreal process. I took a taxi to Erez from Dheisheh camp this morning and when we arrived at Erez the soldiers at the gate would not let me get out at the gate. Instead, we drove around a military compound that is surrounded by concrete walls with sniper towers and I got out and walked 200 feet completing the circle that took me back to the gate. They checked my passport and sent me inside the office where I am used to waiting at least 1/2 hour while they check everything and then ask me quesitons. This time, I didn't even sit down - just in and out. Then I handed my passport to an Israeli soldier for the third time and entered this long corridor of electric gates and turnstiles. I had carelessly brought with me a large bag with gifts and a video camera for one of our partners. It was hilarious negotiating the trunstiles with such a bag while a Palestinian woman on the exiting side of a fence directed me. We were both laughing and shaking our heads while I pushed and pulled to get both myself and my bag through. Next time, I'll remember to pack light.

I walked through the corridor, waiting now and then for a gate to open. I stopped at one point to switch my shoulder bag to my other shoulder and someone barked at me in Hebrew through a loudspeaker. There are surveillance cameras up and down the length of the corridor. What are they afraid of? Someone taking a photo that shows the maze of gates and metal detectors with mostly elderly and sick people from Gaza who are trying to cross so they can get adequate healthcare?

And that's literally the VIP treatment for getting into Gaza. The ordeal of going through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is an entirely different and more horrific experience. As is crossing at Erez if you are not an international but a Palestinian.

1 comment:

Deacon Jackson said...

Josie! Great to hear from you.
I'm continually impressed by your courage