Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gaza: Day 1

I woke up early on Monday morning. I had already packed my bag the night before. My colleague, Julia, and I were in the car and ready to go by 8am, and by 9:15am, we were at the Erez checkpoint on the northern border of the Gaza Strip. We would have been at Erez 15 minutes earlier, but we had to stop and get q-tips and chocolate. These items are unavailable within Gaza, so we brought them as provisions to the ANERA Gaza staff.

Erez is like no other border crossing I have previously experienced. Granted, it is not known to be as intense as the Allenby crossing, but since the end of the war in January, the Israelis take every possible security measure.

Before even arriving to Erez, a traveler must have approval to cross from Israel into Gaza. Since January, only UN employees and aid workers are granted access to Gaza. Palestinians living in Jerusalem or the West Bank cannot cross the border, and Israelis sure as hell cannot go through. If the Israelis had some inclination that I was Jewish, they likely would not have allowed me to enter.

The next step in the process is creating coordination, which must also occur prior to arriving at Erez. Coordination is, in basic terms, the traveler telling the Israelis when he/she would like to cross into Gaza, and for how long.

Julia and I submitted our passports to a guard stationed in a booth outside of the Erez terminal at 9:20 am. She was a blonde Israeli who spoke little English, and whose voice was projected at 100x its normal decibel range by a loudspeaker fashioned on her booth. At this point, all we could do was wait while the Israelis further checked our qualifications, ensuring that we had both approval and coordination on this specific date.

I took a seat on a curb and watched the desperate gaggle of taxi drivers squawking at any rare soul who happened to come out of the Erez terminal. They all spoke over one another, and tried to undercut the competition by walking to the front of the pack. Of the two people I saw exiting Erez, both had rides waiting for them. They drove away with the gaggle smoking a dejected cigarette.

A group of 6 tourists approached the passport submission booth spouting loud French. They were dressed inappropriately if they were hoping to pass into what would later be described to me as the “Islamic Republic of Gaza.” The women were wearing tank-tops (no shoulders!) and the one man I saw donned an obnoxiously red Gilligan hat (Why draw attention to yourself in Gaza?). They were quickly turned away without coordination.

An older Palestinian couple sat farther down the curb. I tried to read their facial expressions, but they were stoic. They must have been waiting there in the Erez heat for several hours, and I wondered if they remembered what it was like to travel in and out of Gaza before 1967, before January 2009.

Finally, after an hour of waiting for the Israelis to discover our coordination we were allowed to enter the Erez terminal. Walking from the passport submission booth to the entrance gate, a very prominent banner hangs on the chain-link. “Gilad Still Lives,” a reference to Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier who resides in captivity at the hands of Hamas. Arguably the terrorist organization’s only bargaining chip when it comes to a negotiation with Israel.

We flew through passport control. My nice, navy blue, eagle-clad American passport now has an “Erez Terminal Exit” stamp right next to the Israeli tourist visa. I now think the only way to avoid a strip-search at Ben-Gurion Airport in August is to wear my brand new kippah and fabricate a desire to make “aliyah.” That is my round-about way of saying, Erez will certainly not help to expedite my checking-in process when I leave Israel.

After leaving the interior of the Erez terminal, there is a “buffer zone” of about 1 kilometer that separates the building from the Palestinian Authority coordination station. Maintenance of the buffer zone is not on the priority list of any governing faction. The canopy overhead is shredded tarpaulin that waves with the wind. Broken road-blocks are placed randomly along the walkway. Sewage trenches run along both sides of the path and former industrial fields now simply house crumbled concrete. A glance behind will reveal the towering smokestacks of the Israeli town, Ashkelon.

Julia and I met up with the ANERA Gaza staff member, Amar, beyond the walkway. He ushered us into his car, and although Julia is technically my supervisor, she still ceded the front-seat to me. Confused, I inquired about this action. “It’s unacceptable for a woman to sit in the front seat of a car, especially if it would require a man to sit in the back seat.”

The last step in the Erez security process is getting through the Hamas checkpoint. This checkpoint is rather a rusted out cargo box with holes for windows and a door. There were at least 5 men inside of this box, and only 1 of whom was actually checking passports. The rest of the men just sat and lounged, sending streams of Arabic back and forth.

A sickly orange kitten lay near the rusted out box meowing and moaning. I was waiting for one of the Hamas guards to use their automatic weapons to help her be quiet at any moment.

They asked to see our bags. I opened mine, took out my cameras and clothes. Nothing suspicious. “Oh, you’re American?” Go over there.

We shuffled over to another more trailer-looking rusted out box with three men inside. One of these men sat behind a pair of glasses, and a desk poring over a list of figures. This was the swine-flu check. I handed the man my passport, and he wrote down all of my information. “When was the last time you were in the United States? June 1? That’s way before swine-flu. Ok, you’re ok.” 2 minutes later, Amar, Julia and I were on our way after a successful passage through the Erez checkpoint.

Amar noticed as I removed my camera from my backpack. “You want to take pictures?” This was an invitation to a detour. We traveled from Erez through the town of Jabalia. Amar made sure to point out the immense destruction that this area suffered during the 22-day siege.

I saw very few people around Jabalia. One man was using a sledge-hammer to crush the shards of foundation from a former building. The blockade on Gaza prevents construction materials from entering the strip, therefore precluding most rebuilding efforts. Amar explained to me that this man was likely collecting the crushed concrete to apply makeshift repairs to his home. Two other men were collecting steel wire.

The carcasses of automobiles lay in abundant piles throughout the detour. At one point, I noticed a white vehicle frame with the letters “UN” still visibly painted on the driver’s side door. I had never before witnessed such destruction with my own eyes.

Amar proceeded into Gaza City, where the traffic was heavy. The intersection represented to me the epitome of chaos, with dysfunctional traffic lights, and even more strikingly dysfunctional traffic cops. A four-way intersection consisted of arbitrary decision makers inching forward from four directions until one person took the initiative to move through quickly. One cop, who was attempting to regulate the intersection, was talking on his cell phone while communicating through his walkie-talkie while directing traffic. He wore a frustrated grimace.

Every corner housed a pocket of Hamas guards wearing blue and black fatigues, bearing automatic weapons. I raised my camera for a discreet snapshot, but Amar stopped me. We didn’t want any problems on the first day of my first trip to Gaza.

We arrived at the ANERA Gaza office, and I met the staff. Immediately, Mona, the head of ANERA’s Milk for Preschoolers program, and I went to work editing a cumulative report on the effectiveness of providing fortified milk and biscuits to malnourished and anemic children. Amar brought in a lunch of shawerma sandwiches midway through the work day.

The Gaza office closes around 3pm every day, so Julia and I were escorted by the office engineer, Nahid to a pizza place down the street after work. The owner of this restaurant is an old friend of Nahid’s. They grew up together in Gaza and attended Northeastern University at the same time. After mentioning Brandeis’ proximity to Boston, the two men probed my brain for information about Boston in 2009. “Have you been down Huntington Avenue? That’s where I lived.” “Have you ever watched the sun go down at the Christian Science Center Building?” “Have you ever been to [blank] restaurant?” There was a pointed sense of nostalgia floating back and forth between these old friends.

The next stop was the Al-Deira Hotel, which was to be my home for the next two nights. Although Julia had ascribed high praise to this institution, she failed to fully encompass its unique flavor. Al-Deira is an oasis in this strip full of rubble. My room was spectacular. It had a satellite television with 300 channels, a bathroom complete with a bidet, a loft with a couch and tea table. I could not believe that such a hotel could exist in the very same Gaza that I saw in Jabalia. Al-Deira is also located right on the Mediterranean Sea, which allows for a pleasant breakfast ambience as you eat on their large terrace.

I napped and showered, just in time for Nahid to take Julia and I to meet Mona at another Gaza gem; Al Maht-haf. The word maht-haf in Arabic means “museum,” and while this place was a museum, it was also home to one of Gaza’s finest restaurants. The owner is a contractor who did quite well for himself. During construction, he often found pottery and artifacts which he then compiled in order to create his own personal museum. His maht-haf contains ancient Gazan pottery used to carry olive oil and wine across the Mediterranean, and many other artifacts of Gazan history.

After our meal, Nahid dropped Julia and I back at Al-Deira. We had another 2 days of Gaza, and we needed our rest.

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