Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Over the Great Wall of Israeli Bureaucracy and into Gaza Foreigner Housing
At present, there are only two ways to enter Gaza: through the Erez checkpoint on the Israeli side, or the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian side. While IDF soldiers initially told me that my application to enter Gaza through Erez would take one week, it ultimately took more than five weeks (and almost daily phone calls) before the approval was finally granted.
While I waited for the Gaza permit, I was covering news stories from Israel and the West Bank. I tried to choose topics that were connected to Gaza in some way. For example, I wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review about the degree to which journalists in Gaza felt safe and free to report. I also wrote an article for Global Post about Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza.
Upon learning that my visa was approved, I bee-lined it to the Erez checkpoint, a massive and virtually empty terminal with a maze of hallways and doors that lock behind you as you pass. No Palestinians and only handful of foreigners—all development workers—entered alongside me. It took less than an hour to get through security. I then walked one mile down a narrow open-air passageway with a cement sidewalk and fencing on either side. Bulldozers and cranes appeared to be leveling land nearby. At the end of this long passageway through the desert, I found five taxis that were waiting to drive people to the Hamas checkpoint a couple of miles away.
The Hamas checkpoint consists of a small office with some meeting rooms and is manned by police officers who check bags and passports. The police told me that foreigners are not permitted to stay in civilian homes without prior approval from the Hamas authorities. This derailed my plans to stay with Palestinian friends of friends in Gaza City. After about an hour of discussions in which I declined to stay at a hotel, my taxi was escorted by security to a row of seaside apartment buildings that house many foreigners, including journalists, development workers and activists. The police told me that I could visit families and travel as I wish, but my primary residence should be in an approved apartment building or hotel.
Luckily, an empty apartment was available, with a furnished living room to boot (see picture). The rent is only $350 per month, including internet, water and backup electric generators, which are a luxury in Gaza. My landlord divides his time between Gaza and Canada, where his children and grandchildren live. While I had hoped to have a more authentic and integrated community experience, I’m going to stay in this posh building and avoid drawing unnecessary attention to myself. I also don’t want to make any problems for this family that had planned on hosting me; I had a lovely visit with them yesterday, and I will continue to visit them.
Today I coffee chatted with Palestinians from various NGOs, went to the market, and visited the Islamic University of Gaza, where I made arrangements to sit in on history and English classes next week. Despite my bumpy landing yesterday, I feel quite safe and free to move about, and I’ve had no further interactions with the police. As I’ve found throughout the Arab world, people are warm, welcoming and eager to talk. However, the conflict with Israel and the ongoing blockade color every conversation— already, I’ve heard dozens of stories about loved ones killed, families separated, and lost dreams of seeking opportunities outside the “prison” of Gaza.