Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Erez Crossing

I'm safely back from Gaza City, and not a day too soon. This morning a leading terrorist died when a car he was walking past blew up (circmumstance still unclear). Also, the head of the land registry was kidnapped as he left his office, but he was later released unharmed.

While I was in town, only about 24 hours, I never went anywhere unescorted, except to the corner kiosk to buy some cigarettes.

I've pretty much finished writing my feature on Christians under Hamas, but will not post it to the blog until AFP's own subscribers have had a good chance to use it.

So for now I'll write about another aspect of my trip -- passage on the way back through the Erez checkpoint from the Gaza Strip to Israel.

The best part of the experience was that the Israeli army broke my camera, but more about that later.

The Palestinian end of the crossing is fairly straightforward -- you show them your passport, they make a note of it, and off you go. I had been planning to travel through with a colleague, who was driving one of our armored cars back to Israel, but since he had told the Israelis he was traveling alone, they wouldn't authorise the Palestinians to let me through with him. So I had to walk. No explaining why, as we both work for the same company, and I had entered Gaza correctly.

The trip is short, perhaps 500 metres, through a covered passageway known as The Tunnel. But it took two hours. Yet that was a quick trip compared with people I met up with half way there. All of them Arabs, and some of them mothers carrying babies, they had been held up for more than eight hours for no discernible reason.

Most of the time, I sat waiting with them on the Palestinian side of a floor-to-ceiling set of bars, inset with a huge electrically activated gate. Beyond that was a sort of holding pen, with another barricade beyond it, and a turnstyle (also electrically activated), leading into railed-off lanes remeniscent of cattle runs.

As we waited, Palestinian laborers who have permission to work in Israel were on their way home in the other direction. Regularly, groups of a few dozen would gather at the far barrier and wait, tired and impatient, till they were let through into the holding pen. Then another wait, before they were let through the final barrier. Men carrying tires over their shoulders, toilet seats, childrens' bicycles, electrical cable, bags of fruit, just about anything imaginable.

Intermittently, a woman would shout something unintelligible over the loudspeaker, even to those who speak Hebrew or Arabic. At one point, people began to say we could go through into the holding pen when the gate opened, so I walked through. But no one followed me. The gate swung shut, and I was alone. Then came more unintelligible, but annoyed, squawking over the loudspeaker, and Arabs beckoned me to come back.

Looks like it wasn't my turn after all. So back I went, as the gate swung open for me.

Then more confusion. The loudspeaker convinced some people that we were on our way again, so we all streamed through into the holding pen after the latest batch of laborers had passed in the opposite direction. But then, a heated conversation over an intercom seemed to indicate that only Israeli Arabs would be allowed through the turnstyle. As if Israeli citizens needed to be treated this way. Among them was a young mother with her four children, all under 10.

But as the discussion proceeded apace, the latest crowd of laborers was building up behind the gate, and shouting at everyone to go back, because they wouldn't be let through until we cleared out. After some hesitation, those who had remained in the pen went back to the other side. (Chastened from before, I had already retreated).

Finally, we were all let through into the pen and through the turnstyle, one by one, and there was a rush to make our way down the lanes to the next checkpoint, only 30 or 40 metres away. There the real action began.

The Israelis are quite understandably concerned about suicide bombers, as Erez has had some nasty incidents in the past. So they have set up a couple of machines that everyone has to pass through. These are vertical glass cylinders equipped with a sort of 360-degree gadget that gives a full picture of what is inside one's clothes. (A sign containing instructions even tells you the images will not be share with third parties).

When you finally get in there, you have to spread your feet wide apart and hold your hands above your head, holding still as this thing makes a complete circle around you. I watched indignantly as a toddler of no more than three years old stood, legs spread apart and hands in the air, as if in some strange yogic asana.

Finally came my turn. But before you go in to the magical machine, you are ordered to remove all metal objects (people even took off their belts) and place them on an airport-style conveyor belt to run through an X-ray machine. I put my jacket, tape recorder, camera, glasses, pens, and belt, of course, on the conveyor and got into the capsule. But I was told to take everything out of my pockets. I think I removed my passport and a toothpick I had in my shirt pocket.

I passed the 360-degree inspection and breathed a sigh of relief, imagining it was all over. But I came out of the capsule to find that everything I had placed on the conveyor belt had been unceremoniously dropped on the hard cement floor. Unlike airports, where you have those lovely rollers and a table at the end to recive items from the X-ray, all any of us got was a filthy cement floor -- without warning. So my camera was broken.

But it doesn't end there. Another turnstyle, and finally live human beings -- in my case a bored young soldier, who when I flashed my US passport through the glass, tells me, without a hint of sardonic humor, to go to the VIP section. Then another wait of 10 minutes or so, as not-quite-so-VIPs ahead of me step out into the fresh air, where a table awaits them to have their baggage inspected. (Not quite sure what was wrong with the X-ray machine). A dear old woman in front of me, one of those who had waited hours longer than I, turned to see me and gestured for me to go ahead of her. I thanked her and refused.

Finally I made it to The Table, Israeli press pass draped around my neck, and was cordially received. "Any bags," I was asked. "No, only this," the book I was carrying. And the fellow took it from me and flipped his way through the pages, just so he could inspect something, I suppose.

With that, as if the previous two hours had not transpired, he said "Have a good day."

Biting my tongue and gritting my teethe, I said: "You too."

So it's all over? No.

Now you have to go inside, and make your way past one adolescent Israeli soldier, as she types your details into a computer while chatting with someone on her mobile phone; then another round, with another teenager, who types some more details in to her computer and then gives you a blue pass to give to the third adolescent at the door, who immediately walks over to the counter and returns the blue pass to adolescent soldier number two.

Ironically, my colleague had appeared in the line next to me as I was dealing with Mobile Phone Corporal. He had expected to take even longer, and it's suprising he didn't. From what he described of the noise and the time, it seems that they dismantled and reassembled his armored car before letting him through.

We got into it and drove off.

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