Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rafah is Open, The Siege is Over (part 2)

We arrive at the Rafah Crossing at 9:00 am in the morning. Six buses are lined up at the gate, pilgrims waiting to cross for Umrha. For weeks I have been checking in, making sure I was prepared with all necessary information in order to cross the border. Each time I was told not to worry, everything was fine. Internationals have no difficulty. No one mentioned Umrha. We weave our way through the people and cars to the front of the gate. When a car is permitted through, we follow closely behind, passing through the gate. We hand our passports to a man in a small booth. He takes our information and tells us to go back to the other side of the gate. He would call and see if we have permission. “Five minutes”, he says.

Returning to the other side of the gate, we speak to Palestinians who tell us of daily visits to Rafah, each day repeating itself like a Kafka story. In the heat and dust,  people push and shove up to the bars of the gate, thrusting papers and passports towards the guards, hoping someone will listen. Each day they are told to return to Gaza. They wait all day anyway, repeatedly trying to get someone’s attention. At days end they go home vowing to return to the crossing the following day.

With a look of relief, Mohammed informs us that his friend, who works with border control, was coming to the crossing. He would personally escort us to the border. One half hour and he would arrive.

An hour passes. We call again, “ten minutes, ten minutes” we are told. We cross through the gate a second time. Our status as Internationals gives us benefits denied Palestinians. “Go back”, the man in the booth tells us angrily. We return to the shade and wait.

Another hour passes. We receive many calls, “you can pass once the Umrha buses are through.” “You can’t pass.” “You can pass.” “You have not been cleared.” “You are cleared, just wait.” Just wait.

We interview several Gazans who have come back to the crossing for days on end. A son who desperately needs to return to Saudi Arabia for university exams, denied. He had the proper permissions, he arrived on the proper day, but because of Umrha he could not pass. Denied.

A man visiting his mother needs to return to the Emirates to renew his residency. If he does not leave today, his residency will expire. Denied.

A woman with her two small sons, trying to get out so her youngest boy could give a bone marrow transplant to the older boy. She has come to the crossing everyday for a week. Though theses types of medical emergencies are supposed to travel without restrictions, she was denied for a week because of a backlog of people waiting to cross.

Egypt sets a daily limit. The number seems to vary from 300 to 500. Desperate to get her child the emergency medical care he needs she subjects herself to the daily humiliations at the border.

I call the American embassy in Cairo asking for a call to the Egyptian side of the border, so we are permitted to cross. The representative says, “The border is open, you should have no difficulty.” She promises a call back. It never comes.

We pass through the gate for the third time. When we get to the other side, the booth is closed, the man we had been dealing with gone. Mohammed continues making calls, one phone at each ear. We watch as a Palestinian policeman gets in a tug of war with an old woman, grabbing her bag and tossing it on the other side of the gate. She breaks away from him, screaming furiously, and comes and sits near us. I realize my privilege will do nothing to protect her. I feel ashamed.

 A border guard shouts at us- we must return to the other side. We refuse. Every time the gate opens to allow a car to pass, people push past the guards. Tempers flare. Reinforcements are called in. Shoving and shouting ensues as desperate people are pushed back. Denied.

A half dozen border guards jump out of an SUV and begin moving people back to the other side of the gate. Mohammed speaks to one of them and comes back to us saying, “No matter, what we will not go back to the other side of the gate. We will stay here until you are allowed to pass.” We agree. Another American approaches us. This is her third day at the crossing. Mohammed includes her passport with ours and approaches the guard yet again. He continues to press the guard, who returns to his SUV and leaves, promising a call. He returns shortly, but ignores us. Mohammed approaches him once again. He takes our passports and drives toward the border.

The university student I spoke with earlier is nearby. He moves from guard to guard, trying to get some help. Shouting, one guard grabs him by the arm and points. He goes back.

I notice a small girl with inquiring eyes, who I had photographed hours earlier near the tea stall, has made it inside the gate. She hobbles past us, desperately following an old woman who is imploring a guard for help. Frantic, she tells the girl to raise her pant leg, to show the guard the terrible urgency that they seek medical care. The little girls leg is terribly deformed, scar tissue running from the knee to the ankle. The guard, exasperated, turns away. He is not permitted to send her to the Egyptian side without permission. There is nothing to be done.

The SUV returns and the guard calls us over. “The Americans will be allowed to pass.”  We clamor into the police vehicle to be delivered to the border, leaving behind the Palestinians who remain trapped in Gaza. Hours later, while still waiting on the Egyptian side, we see the woman with the two small boys, finally being allowed to pursue her child’s bone marrow transplant. The old woman and the child with the damaged leg is nowhere to be found. Rafah is open. Gaza remains a prison. Gazans persevere under the harshest of circumstances. We are told the situation in Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis. The crisis we face, as Americans, is a moral one.