The Palestine Entries: Escaping Rafah, a border story

// Entry #35

I use the word ‘escaping’ because that’s exactly what it felt like. Leaving Gaza, exiting through the notorious Rafah crossing — an experience that only adds to the plight of the Palestinian.

Upon arriving to the Gaza Strip, we were advised to sign up for an exit pass as soon as possible. Days later, we traveled to the Interior Ministry to bargain, quite literally, for an exit date. Our flights back to the United States were scheduled for July 18; we needed to be out of Gaza and inside Cairo’s airport half a day earlier. We produced photocopy evidence of our employment schedules, our school certificates, our American birth certificates, anything we could use to convince the guards that we needed to be out, safe and secure, by mid-July.

Jostling with others to keep her position in front of the guard’s safety-window, my mother managed to secure exit passes for July 14. If anything were to go wrong during our travels, there was still time after July 14 to attempt again to exit the territory. Just days into our trip to Palestine and we were already forced to formulate escape strategies.

Four weeks later, our time in Gaza came to a close. On July 14, we lugged our suitcases to a waiting taxi. It was 6 a.m. and we had to beat the crowd.

Exit passes and passports in hand, we arrived at the Rafah border and positioned our bags on the concrete surface outside a bland registration building. It was still very early in the morning but over three dozen families huddled around stacks of suitcases. A man selling tea and coffee wove between the bags, shoots of mint leaves hanging from his chest pocket as he shouted for sales. Others sold international SIM cards or offered currency exchange services.

At 8 o’clock, policemen opened the doors to the registration building and assembled behind a countertop. The families, numbering upwards of two hundred by now, rushed into the building all at once. Chaos ensued; there was no control. It took almost an hour for the guards to establish some sort of order and begin the process of sending people to Egypt.

Before revealing the grim reality of travel through Rafah, it is absolutely necessary to understand how the exit process is designed to work. Ideally, an individual arrives to the border on the exit date assigned to him. In the registration building, he will be assigned a number corresponding to the coach bus he will ride to the Palestinian and Egyptian border authorities. The Egyptian government allows between 400 to 600 Palestinians through the border into Egypt per day, so as many as eight coach buses are necessary to transport the travelers deeper into the border compound.

Again, in the most ideal scenario, the two-minute bus ride comes to an end outside of the Palestinian Customs authorities where the individual gets his passport stamped. A small walk away is the Egyptian passport registration building where all luggage is subject to searches and passports are collected, screened for approval, stamped, and returned to their owners. Once the individual’s passport is stamped, he has seven days to reach Cairo’s airport and disappear. The entire process without any delays can last six hours. The ride from Rafah to Cairo is another six hours.

But this does not happen in real life.

It was July 14, the day we were scheduled to leave. Among us were over four hundred others also assigned to July 14, as well as at least two hundred assigned to July 11, two hundred assigned to July 12, and the entire batch of four hundred assigned to July 13. The system backfired. Corruption, greed, and siege delayed the process, and the people of Palestine were once again forced to pay the price.

It became immediately obvious that the only way to get through Rafah on time was through connections or bribes. People were paying guards upwards of $600 for a spot on a coach bus. Friends of police officers were walking into back rooms, making deals, and coming out with relieved smiles and new exit passes. I was speaking to one particular guard when he received a phone call from a friend or relative. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you get through. I’ve got it covered,” was his response.

My mother and sister waited in the registration building hoping for their names to be called, for their passports to be authorized for clearance, and for a guard to hand them three slips of paper directing us all to our assigned buses. Meanwhile, I lugged our seven bags to the gate, pictured above, through which the buses passed. People with foreign passports who weren’t required to register for exit passes, such as activists, media persons, and vacationers, were told to wait here. They are not included in the list of 400-600 travelers approved by Egypt to cross so they must wait until the Egyptian commanding officer allows the foreigners in on a separate bus. This happens at random once or twice per week. Even though I used my American passport and managed to find a way to register it, I waited for ten hours at the gate, under the sun, harassed by guards, sweating profusely with about another fifty frustrated men and women.

After twelve hours of waiting, the border essentially shut down and we were forced to return. I was happy to spend another day or two in Gaza City but I was also embarrassed and anxious. The embarrassment came from having said our goodbyes prematurely; the anxiety came from knowing that we may very well miss our flights if the border remains this difficult to get through.

Two days later, we repeated the process and were assigned a bus by midday. We reached the Palestinian Customs authorities, waited for what felt like decades, then passed into the Egyptian passport registration building. An hour later, our passports were stamped and returned to us. We were now in Egyptian territory and the barrier wall cutting through Gaza, built by Israel and maintained by Egypt, shielded us from the heat of the sun. Stepping outside of Gaza was a terribly sad feeling but the struggle of escaping through Rafah had numbed my mind. I just wanted to sit, drink water, and forget.

These experiences brought me to realize that the Egyptian government is a proxy for Israel’s occupation. Sure, the corruption and bribery destroys the system’s integrity and prevents those who travel normally from reaching their destinations on time, if ever. But this is a consequence of being trapped within borders. There is no money to pay the Palestinian guards — funding to the Gaza Strip has been cut in an attempt to strangle the democratically-elected Hamas government — so a bribe may very well end up feeding a family for two months. The people working their connections to get into Egypt feel that their lives are at risk, that if they are forced to spend another week waiting at the border, they will surely collapse. All they want to do is practice one of the many fundamental rights denied to them: the freedom of movement.

It might become easy to blame the people for the failed travel system, but this is a very shortsighted understanding. The people are struggling to survive, and this is absolutely not a dramatization. Nobody wants to spend another unsecure moment at the Rafah border. On the second day I was there, an Israeli sniper fired a bullet that missed a guard by inches but hit a concrete structure behind him. The day after we traveled through, Israel’s Air Force launched an air strike meters from the border compounds. Just because the Rafah border crossing lies within Egyptian control doesn’t mean Israel’s occupation is over. People do die waiting to walk the quarter mile into Egypt.

The ultimate problem lies at the top of the command pyramid: the Egyptian government and its complicity in the occupation. Keep in mind that the revolution in Egypt is still going and that the Egyptian people also recognizes this problem.

Egypt’s quota of 400 to 600 Palestinians is smaller than the amount of travelers Chicago’s international airport, for example, welcomes in half an hour. It is extremely limiting, especially for a Gazan population of 1.8 million. This is compounded by the fact that very few international passports are let through Rafah. Typically, a letter from an embassy will suffice, but most powerful governments refuse to acknowledge Hamas in Israel’s favor. Some governments actually force their citizens to sign waivers relieving them of any responsibility over them while within the Gaza Strip. In essence, you probably won’t find an embassy willing to fax you anything.

In the end, you’re stuck. You’re stuck among thousands of Palestinians praying or hoping for a stroke of good luck. Escaping through Rafah is so physically and mentally taxing that people would rather just avoid it, even if it means having to endure more occupation and siege.

The Rafah border crossing truly is the result of a sociopolitically-backwards and unjustified Israeli occupation, one that operates, in this case, in the Egyptian government’s name.

Sami Kishawi

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