by Laila El-Haddad, November 29th
We stood and we waited and we cried and we returned back to Egypt yesterday, and again today. Us and thousands of others.
It was anguish. Anguish and misery and desperation personfied in every woman, man and child.
One hour turned into two, then three, then five, as we stood shielding our eyes from the piercing midday sun on Wednesday, when we were told the Crossing would be opening for a few hours.
Some wailed in exhaustion, others fainted, still others cracked dry humor, trying to pass the time. We stood, thousands of us, packed together elbow to elbow like cattle, penned in between steel barriers on one end, and riot-geared Egyptian security guards on the perimeter, who were given orders not to allow anyone through until they hear otherwise from the Israelis-and to respond with force if anyone dared.
Many of the people had been waiting for more than two weeks to cross back into Gaza, sometimes making the trip to the crossing several times a day upon receiving word of its imminent opening.
“We have been waiting for 15 days now. Only god knows when it will open-today, tomorrow, the day after?” said 57-year-old Abu Yousuf Barghut, his shrapnel-riddled arm trembling by his side.
His tearful wife, Aisha, added: “God knows we only went to seek treatment for him and to come right back. And now we are stuck and waiting us in Gaza are my four children. This is the most basic of rights-to be able to return to our homes, and we are even denied that.”
“The only way anyone will actually pay attention to our plight is if one of us dies here, and even then, I’m not sure the world will care,” stammered one young man, Isam Shaksu, his eye heavily bandaged after having received an corneal implantation in Jordan.
In July, seven Palestinians waiting to be let into Gaza from Egypt died waiting to cross Rafah.
After the hours and the sun, one would have thought the black steel gates ahead of us were the gates to Heaven, but in fact they only led to more masses, more waiting, more hell.
There is something you feel as you stand there, and sometimes squatted, for hours at a time, waiting to be let through the Egyptian side of Rafah Crossing. It is something of your humanity slowing drifting away. It is gradual, but unmistakable.
And you are never quite the same again.
There were mixed Israeli orders-first to open the crossing for three days, starting Wedneday, yesterday; then breaking news at 11pm retracted that order, and by Wednesday morning, another about-face saying that the border would in fact be opened. By the time we arrived, it was 11am, and already somewhere around 2000 has amassed in front of the gates. And no one was budging.
Yousuf waited along with us, asking incessantly “When would the crossing open??”, and begging me to pose the same quetion to the Egyptian officers manning it. Everytime he’d see the gate budge open he would get excited and yell “Its open!! Its open!!”. And everyone would heave a heavy sigh.
When we finally did make it inside the “Second sector” of the Egyptian side, the relief was overwhelming-we had moved 50 metres!! And we could wait another four hours if it meant we’d finally be allowed through. But instead we faced yet another uncertain wait; it was like some sadistic game with no certain ending.
As we waited, we saw members of the Palestinian athletic teams heading to the Asian games after a two week delay.
We also saw Ismail Haniya on his way out to his Arab tour. He stopped to mingle with the desperate crowds, some hailing him, some complaining about how long they had waited.
We finally learned that the crossing had been closed this entire time, and the Egyptians were only allowing people through to give them some hope to cling on to-and to prevent the masses from rioting, which has happened before.
We thought once he’d passed, we’d be allowed through. But it is then we learned that Mahmud Zahar had crossed earlier that morning-carrying suitcases full of $20 million.
The European Monitors were not pleased. How could he not declare the money, and how could he have the audacity to try and bring in money to feed his peole in the first place??
They filed a “complaint” with the Israelis, who immediately told them to shut down the crossing, without giving a reason, leaving thousands-including Yousuf, my parents and I, stranded.
My mother and Yousuf had gone ahead of my father and I-and our bags-into the terminal, and Yousuf fell asleep in the mosque. It was then that the officers had informed us the crossing was no longer operational-and everyone who was inside, even those who had already made it as far as the Palestinian side, would have to go back.
We pleaded with an Egyptian Officer: “It took us 6 hours to get as far the inside of the terminal, please let us through”.
“Big deal-it took me ten hours to get here from Cairo,” he retorted, as I reminded myself they get paid a measly 180 Egyptian pounds a month and couldn’t care less.
Another officer was more sympathetic.
“What you lot have to understand is that no one gives a damn what happens to you-you could sit here and suffocate for all they care. You are simply not human enough for them to care.”
When is it that we lost our humanity, I wondered? And when is it that the humanity and desperation of a people, waiting desperately to be let through to their homes, was less important than the call of duty? And that a government was made to choose between feeding their own people, or giving them passage to their homes?
Inside the terminal, the scenes were dizzying. Already disoriented form lack of sleep and little food, I looked around in awe. It was nothing short of an interment camp, and I lost myself somewhere between the silent anguish of old men, aching, teary eyed-women on the verge of collapse, and children, some strewn across the floor in exhaustion, others who were sick, in wheelchairs, wailing…
We returned to Arish, exhausted and sleep deprived, only to find that all of the apartments were occupied by returning passengers. The only flat we found was one without hot water and leaky ceiling pipes, but we couldn’t care less. By 9pm we were all out.
The next morning, we left again to the border-where we had left our suitcases-despite word from taxi drivers that the crossing would not open. We waited again, this time for only 5 hours, until we decided it was an exercise in futility.
Everyone was looking for answers-some answers, any answers. When would the crossing open? Was there hope it would open today? If so, what time? Should we wait, should we return to Arish? Nobody knew.
Every now and then someone would make a call to some secondary source they knew in Gaza or on the border, and rumors would spread like wildfire across the masses. “At noon-they say at noon there is a possibility it will open! Patience, patience!”.
And then we wait some more.
One man, frustrated, took his bags and began to push them back on a trolley and out through the throngs of exhausted passengers.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going??” bellowed one of the Egyptian officers.
“To Jerusalem! Where do you think??” he snapped.
It was nearing the end of our long day, and overcome by exhaustion, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
A friend in the UN told me the Europeans had left their posts after yesterday’s “incidents” and thus the Palestinian side of the crossing has shut down indefinitely now.
And so now, we return to square one. Back in Arish, waiting, as ever, for the border to open.