The Palestine Entries: The Rafah border crossing

// Entry #4

Ask anyone who has ever traveled to the Gaza Strip from Cairo; the Rafah border crossing is the most strenuous, most tense, and most taxing experience of the entire trip.

We left Cairo’s newest airport at around 1 a.m. and took a taxi to Mawqaf al-Marj, a rallying point for any individuals traveling to the Gaza Strip. We boarded a red, eight-seater Mercedes Benz diesel engine taxi with three other travelers and began the five hour drive northeast to the border shortly thereafter.

For the most part, the scenery was bleak. Shrubbery, cactus plants, and unfinished cement structures lined the road. We had been traveling for almost twenty hours by now and I was really growing restless. The frequent roadblocks and passport checks weren’t helping. I counted nine Egyptian tanks and a dozen soldiers throughout the course of the drive.

At seven in the morning, our taxi driver pulled into the Egyptian side of the crossing and helped unload the luggage. A large cement and wrought-iron gate welcomed us to the infamous Rafah border crossing. In just two hours, Egyptian authorities were expected to open the gates, stamp our passports, and transfer us to Palestinian custody.

We were the second group to arrive so we strategically placed our bags on the edge of the road closest to the gate. There stood a small café immediately to the right of gate where we waited until the crowd gathered. But the tension built as the crowd grew. Families hoping for a headstart inched their luggage forward. Others dumped their belongings in front of others, blocking their paths. I saw men buy their way to the front.

Surprisingly, everything appeared to be running on time. At 9 a.m., Egyptian policemen gathered on the opposite side of the gate and ordered all the men to line up on the right and the women to line up on the left. Each individual would move through his or her respective gate, present a passport for approval, and carry the luggage to the next stage.

It’s during times like these when you witness humankind’s animal instinct. It was as if our lives were at risk. Men jumped over other men. Women tossed each others’ suitcases out of the way. Conversations became arguments and people lost all sense of respect. Nobody wanted to be left behind.

The Egyptian policement opened the right side of the gate only. The next three minutes were pure chaos as upwards of fifty men stampeded through a four-foot wide opening. I managed to get through safely but the Egyptian guard wouldn’t approve my passport. He wanted my haweeya, my Palestinian identity card, but I didn’t have my own personal card yet. I’m listed under my mother’s name; she’s the only one with a physical haweeya.

I explained this to the guard but he wasn’t satisfied. He held on to my passport and ordered me to bring him the haweeya as soon as possible. Fine, but the only problem was that my mom was on the other side of the gate I almost lost my life trying to get through. After a bit of frantic shouting, she muscled her way through the chaos and handed me her haweeya. The guard glanced at it, returned my passport, and ushered us toward the military compound ahead of us.

We found a stray luggage cart and pushed our belongings to the building’s entrance. Customs gave me the usual interrogation while my mother and sister filled out forms. We submitted the paperwork with the passports and waited.

We waited for half an hour for our names to be called. Everyone before us had already been approved. Those who came after us were also being called to the front to receive their stamped passports. Back and forth we went as we checked the status of our passports, but to no avail.

Eventually, the loudest guard fell silent. We feared our passports were rejected, but as I peered over the counter, I saw that our passports had indeed been approved. He just couldn’t read English so he didn’t know who to call.

Once we obtained our passports, we paid a few hundred Egyptian pounds for taxes and fees and climbed into a coach bus that eventually drove us to the Palestinian side of the crossing meters away.

I immediately recognized my surroundings. The last time I was there was in 2004, a year before Israel’s pull-out from the Gaza Strip. I recognized the Israeli military compound, its watchtower, its heavily reinforced concrete walls, and the skinny dirt path meant only for Israeli tanks and jeeps.

The dirt path was abandoned and so was the watchtower, but Hamas had taken control of the military compound. Everything appeared to be in the same condition as it had been in 2004. The only noticeable difference was the arrangement of the compound’s interior. There were no more private pat-down rooms and full-body scanners, only desks, tables, chairs, and a brand new television.

Again, we submitted our passports for approval and joined the crowd already waiting. The television was set to Al Jazeera Arabic which featured an extended commercial on the glory of the Egyptian revolution and the improvements Egypt has made since then.

Moments later, our names were called, our passports were returned to us, and we were graciously welcomed to the Gaza Strip. The entire ordeal at the Rafah border crossing took five hours: four and a half in the Egyptian side and only thirty minutes in the Palestinian side. So much for Egyptian post-Mubarak improvements.

An uncle, a close family friend, and a young cousin quickly whisked us away. Thirty-six hours later, we were finally inside the Gaza Strip.

Sami Kishawi


There are 6 comments

  1. Adeeba

    Salam, sounds really tiring and intense! Alhamdullilah 3la alsalami to you, your Mom, and Deena. It’s nice to know everything went well and you guys arrived safely.

  2. Bushra

    Sounds just like the trip from Jordan to Palestine with the exception of the trip to the Rafah border being longer. Hamdillah 3la salamitkom. Look into coming to the West Bank and seeing Ramallah and Nablus.

  3. 48Refugee

    Sub7aan Allah! I travelled to Gaza in 2004 as well! Wasn’t it strange how there’s no Israeli presence at the border this time around? You didn’t have to re-pack your bag and sort between your stuff and other people’s stuff after your bag was searched. It’s great!
    The ma3bar was renovated pretty drastically on the Egyptian side! I didn’t even recognize it as the same building as the one where we spent 3 days in 2004…

    How excited were you to see the checkpoints in Gaza dismantled? (Abu Houli was the main one we encountered between Khan Yunis and Gaza City.) And no Jewish only roads… Such a huge difference!

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