By Jennifer Loewenstein
A clear and warm November evening; sun sets in a violence of color to the west over the sea and a full luminescent moon on the rise over Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. As if on cue, the buzz of the pilot-less drones overhead begins as their nightly circling ritual gets underway. The taxi driver’s hands grip the wheel of the car more intently as we speed along the winding road to Erez past the village huddled in the shadows a few hundred meters away to our right. At the Palestinian side, the driver gets out of the taxi, my passport in hand, and takes it into the shack of an office where a handful of scruffy, uniformed security figures are sitting. Darkness is creeping in from the East.
There is a problem, the driver explains to me in broken English. They won’t let you through. On the other side of Erez where the gatekeepers sit in their park-rangers’ office with the neon lights and the coffee-machine, my number isn’t blinking approval on the computer. Or something like that. A furious volley of phone calls on my behalf commences between the driver, friends in Gaza, PA security and the masters in Israel. Sorry, not coordinated. Sorry, it will take a while; sorry, you can’t leave. Sorry, no. An American citizen in the Gaza Strip will stay with the prisoners for now because the keepers are not ready to let her out of the cage. Revenge for your audacity, I think. Live with the others since you like it so well; eat their dust and shower in their sewers. You wanted to go to Gaza, no?
Darkness covers half the sky and the drones sound hungry. The driver shouts into the phone to my friend, Khamsa Daqa’iq! Khamsa Daqa’iq! (Five minutes! Five minutes!) He’ll wait only 5 more minutes, he says, before returning me to Gaza City but I know better. He’ll wait until his life is in danger trying to help me get out. And sure enough, it is 45 minutes later when he looks at me beseechingly and says we must return. The wardens are not cooperating. My number is not approved. Now it is night.
Drones can’t tell a taxi from a car full of ‘militants.’ In the darkness on the road they won’t know who we are-or at least it will make matters easier when the explanations for two dead civilians come in the next day, one of them an ‘international’. It was dark, you see, and they were ‘suspicious.’ The suitcase might have been full of explosives. Therefore no investigation will be necessary. Therefore it was OK. Therefore it was our fault for being out. Therefore you should not go to Gaza. Is the message clear?
The trip back is a roller coaster ride with the wrong kind of thrills. Friends meet us on the curbside outside their home and we all tip the driver better than he’ll ever get again in his lifetime. He is breathing again; an old man with white hair, looking apologetically into my eyes.
In the tall apartment building teeming with prisoner families of Gaza, friends call back and forth to Israel for me in their Hebrew and English. The ghosts of Kafka and Lewis Carroll are hovering about us bemused and mocking: prisoners of the Gaza Strip trying to arrange the release of an American citizen. They all have to give the Israeli authorities their names. I finally take the phone to speak to the boss and, for the first time in the history of my excursions to this god-forsaken land, an Israeli apologizes.
Sorry. Forgot to give your number to Security at Erez. You can leave in the morning.
What a blessing: Six-thirty in the morning I am ready again, suitcases in tow, just in time for the explosion down the street; just in time to view the melted mess of a once-automobile and four once-human beings smoldering in the middle of Gaza City, boys picking at the wreckage and ambulance sirens closing in. State-of-the-art incineration tactics: a gleaming helicopter gunship straight off the defense industry’s spankingly efficient assembly line and loaded with glimmering precision-guided missiles. Tourist attractions are never-ending. If they’d only let more people in who would need Hollywood?
This time on the Gaza side of Erez I am free to go, pulling my wheeled suitcase behind, concrete walls on either side of a cavernous tunnel covered by a canvas roof. My steps echo, there is nothing in sight but the tunnel and the first row of steel bars that segment the crossing into sections. Security cameras hide in the corners and a Voice from nowhere directs:
Please push open the gate.
I’m past the first jail doors and clacking on toward the second set. Here, a steel-barred revolving door interrupts the even, steel-barred gates. The Voice sounds again.
Go through the turnstile.
Monotone, passionless Voice.
Put your bags on the belt.
Don’t even think about disobeying.
Step into the glass x-ray machine with your arms outstretched and your legs apart.
The glass doors spin closed, high-tech sound like the elevators in the Mall of America. I am x-rayed along with my bags as they inch through the baggage tunnel.
Please step back.
Please step in again.
Please step forward.
Please take your bags.
Please walk forward.
What a polite Voice. It says "please".
Don’t touch the glass.
The Voice sees everything I’m doing. It sees through my clothing and my leather back-pack.
You dropped something, the Voice tells me. Hint of humanoid at the other end. I pick it up.
The next set of steel bars appears. The final tunnel chamber is divided into three corrals: one for the sub-humans from Gaza currently not allowed out at all; one for the pain-in-the-ass-visitors they haven’t figured out how to dispense with altogether like me; one wider than the other two- for the VIPs with diplomatic status who still have to be treated like guests. Anyone who has passed through Erez will find no hint of exaggeration in this description. Anyone who has ever raised a question about this sprawling, grotesque steel and concrete military-industrial guards’ complex will have been told it is for their security that this must exist. Anyone who has set foot in the Gaza Strip will know at once what a revolting load of crap that is.
This monstrosity is not for your security. This neo-fascist, Stalinist, gulag Guantanamo is there to keep you out, to keep you from even trying, from even wanting, to go in. It is there so you will not see the torn up streets, and ruined land; the bombed-out buildings and poisoned soil; the bull-dozed houses and bullet-holed refugee camps; the back-up generators chugging away; the destroyed central power transformer, the wrecked factories and shops; the caved-in mosques and unfinished clinics; the pressure-less water pumps; the lots full of rubble and trash; the wretched horse and donkey-carts and beggar-children; the worn out mothers, the humiliated fathers, the unemployed young men; the young girls holding whole families together; the exhausted teachers, the pay-less civil servants, the street vendors with last week’s produce; the heaps of rust and stench of rot, the overcrowded book-and-desk-deprived schools full of troubled youth, bed-wetters, ptsd children; the travesties-of-hospitals; the wards of the sick and wounded; the morgues full of the dead; the merciful, silver-trayed freezers in the morgues where rest finally takes you unaware.
The prison compound of Gaza was built to push half a nation to the brink of death, to suck out its resistance, to squeeze out its breath. They want us to suffer, not to die. The words of the mayor of Rafah sound like a broken record in my head. And they are succeeding, he said without emotion.
Why? Because this blockade on human traffic into Gaza, this travesty of an experiment in collective human torture, is sanctioned, supported, condoned and blessed by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League, the G-8, the corporate masters, the "international community"; by heads of states, presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, kings; by foreign ministers and their trusty delegations; by politicians and diplomats, executives and organizations, academies and institutes, think tanks and centers for the study ofs; by departments of foreign affairs, interior, education and finance; by media lords, newspapers, radios, television stations, journalists, analysts, commentators and publics who don’t dare open their mouths, write out their shock, register their objections, express their disgust, squeak out their "no’s" lest they suggest that Israel’s apparatus of inhumanity is an abomination on the face of the earth.
Servility to power, obsequiousness, righteous barbarism, elitist racism, cowardice, complicity and denial fuel the engine of this dreadful machine, and those with the power to stop it at once refuse to utter a sound.
So outside at the end of the tunnel the soldiers greet me. Standard procedure. All in day’s work. Normalcy. Take your bags over there. Yet another series of x-ray machines and tables. Every item from toothpaste tubes and contact lens cases to dirty socks and tee-shirts, from blue jeans and turtlenecks to embroidered shawls and purses, is dumped onto the table and sifted through with meticulous care as the backpack and suitcase, the handbag and plastic sacks are sent through x-ray machines again. Three and a half hours after my journey began, I am dismissed to the Erez rangers’ terminal where my passport is examined for the 5th time. I have two hours to get to the Allenby Bridge before it closes at ! noon. Good thing I didn’t leave Gaza at 8.
The beauty of the Jordan valley is stunning. The desert hills are white and yellow and amber, swept by winds, patterned and dancing, palm trees at the bottom near the Jordan River. The warm autumn sun bakes out sorrow. Finally, the last security check of the day my presence delays a van-load of VIPs hoping to return to Jordan on the early side. Here we go again. I guess it’s because I was at Erez, I say to the Israeli attendant looking at me quizzically when they take my passport away.
Where? She asks.
A blank stare.
EREZ. The entrance of Gaza, I say.
She doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
-Jennifer Loewenstein is a Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. She has lived and worked in Gaza City, Beirut and Jerusalem and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, where she has worked as a free-lance journalist and a human rights activist. She has also contributed to Ramzy Baroud’s latest book: The Second Palestinian Intifada. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org