Laila El-Haddad spent the last three weeks in a dismal apartment she was forced to rent in El Arish, Egypt, together with her son Yusuf, who is two years and nine months old. Every few days the two tried to travel to the Rafah border crossing, about 50 kilometers away, attempting to return to their home in Gaza. These were distressful efforts: Together with another 5,000 or so residents of Gaza, who have also been waiting in recent weeks to return to their homes, she was crammed with her toddler for hours in an endless line at the crossing. “Elbow to elbow, like cattle,” is how she describes this in her blog, until being pushed back in shame once again.
El-Haddad, a young journalist who splits her time between Gaza and the U.S., can afford to pay $9 per night. But most of the unfortunate people around her, including cancer patients, infants, the elderly and students, the injured and disabled, cannot allow themselves such luxuries. Some of them rent a tent for 1.5 Egyptian pounds per night. The rest simply sleep out in the open, in the chill of night, or crowd together in local mosques.
These people want to return home. Israel does not even allow them this. They are human beings with families, plans and commitments, longings and dignity, but who cares. In recent weeks, even the Palestinian Minister of the Environment, Yusuf Abu Safiya, was stuck there. El-Haddad tells of how the minister could be seen one evening collecting twigs on the beach of El Arish to light a bonfire. During the summer, at least seven people died of heat and dehydration while waiting at the border. For many of those who are ill, the wait is a nightmare that threatens their lives. For students, it means losing an academic year. There is almost no mention of this cruel abuse in the newspapers: After all, the occupation in Gaza has ended.
Without anyone paying attention, the Gaza Strip has become the most closed-off strip of land in the world–after North Korea. But while North Korea is globally known to be a closed and isolated country, how many people know that the same description applies to a place just an hour away from hedonist Tel Aviv?
The Erez border crossing is desolate–Palestinians are not allowed to cross there, foreigners are rarely allowed to cross and Israeli journalists have also been prohibited from crossing during the past two weeks. Only wheelchairs are occasionally pushed through the long “sleeves” of the security check, leading a deadly ill person or someone seriously injured by the IDF to or from treatment in Israel. The large terminal Israel built, a concrete and glass monster that looks like a splendid shopping mall, juts up like a particularly tasteless joke, a mockery. At the Karni crossing, the only supply channel for 1.5 million people, only 12 trucks per day have passed since January. According to the “crossings accord” signed a year ago, Israel committed to allowing 400 trucks a day to pass through. The excuse: security, as usual.
But there has not been any security incident at Karni since April. The ramifications: Not only severe poverty, but also $30 million in damage to Gaza’s agriculture, which is almost the only remaining source of livelihood in the Strip. According to the UN report published last week, Israel has violated all of the articles of the agreement. There is no passage to Israel, no passage to the West Bank and even none to Egypt, the last outlet.
The Rafah crossing has been almost continually closed since June. During 86 percent of these days, the “passage” was impassable. Last month, it was open for only 36 hours, spread over four days. The desperate masses of people waiting surged toward the fences. The scenes were heart-breaking. And then it was closed again. The last time this happened was when the Palestinian foreign minister crossed with $20 million in his luggage. The collective punishment: Closure for weeks. It should be noted that crossing is only permitted for residents of Gaza who bear identity cards issued by Israel. No weapons pass through, Israel admits. And Israel also admits that the closure is solely intended to exert pressure on the residents.
Rafah is jammed with a crowd of people waiting on both sides, including many who are setting out on a pilgrimage to Mecca. A rumor was circulating last Tuesday that the crossing would open the following day. Israel only announces the opening of the crossing at 11 P.M. the night before–this is also a form of abuse. “There’s only one thing that is certain, and that’s that nobody knows when it will open,” El-Haddad wrote in her blog. She quickly set out the next morning and finally succeeded in crossing this time, but thousands remained behind.
The previous day, she described bits of conversation with her toddler in her blog:
“Why are we still here, in Arish?”
“Because we are waiting to enter Gaza, dear.”
“But then why don’t we go to Gaza?”
“Because the ma’bar [crossing] is closed, my love.”
“Well, who’s closing it mommy?”
“What do I tell him? ‘Some bad people.'”
“You mean like in the stories, like Shere Khan in the Jungle Book?”
“Yes, sure, like Shere Khan.”
“‘But who are they? Who are these bad people? Is it the yahood [the Jews]?’ He asks, mimicking what he’s heard on the border.”
“What do I say? I hesitate. ‘Look, there are some people; some are good, some are bad. And the bad ones are closing the border.'”
“But why? What did we do?”
“I wish I knew, my dear. I wish I had all the answers, my love, so I could answer all your questions. I wish I didn’t have to answer such questions to start with.”
El-Haddad then writes an open letter to Defense Minister Amir Peretz: “- what can I tell a 2-year-old–of borders and occupation and oppression and collective punishment? What would YOU tell him?” And, indeed, what would we say to 2-year-old Yusuf? What could Peretz say in response? “Israel’s security”? What memories will the toddler harbor from the three weeks of waiting in a crowded line with his mother on the border, humiliated and sad on the way home, to incarcerated Gaza, withering in its poverty? And who will be brought to account for this in the end?
GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz.