Israel's announcement that it is closing the three checkpoints around the Gaza Strip in the wake of last Thursday's terror attack at the Karni crossing has created the impression that all the crossings have been open recently. This, however, is not the case.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt - the only link that some 1,300,000 Gaza residents have with a foreign country - has been closed for more than a month. It was closed on December 13, in reaction to the Palestinian attack on an Israel Defense Forces base in the area. Thousands of Palestinians who were abroad at the time are stuck either at the crossing itself, in poor sanitary conditions, or in hostels and hotels in Egypt, which these "involuntary tourists" are paying for with their own dwindling funds. At the same time, a similar number of Gazans are prevented from leaving the Strip.
Under Israeli directives, Gaza residents have been banned for years - starting before October 2000 - from returning from abroad via the Allenby Bridge, Ben-Gurion International Airport or the Erez crossing. In the last month, Israel has allowed some Gazans to return via Erez, but only those who have appropriate connections in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, as well as United Nations workers.
In the middle of last week, Israel allowed a small number of workers and merchants to use the Erez crossing to leave Gaza, for the first time in six months. Before then, people could only use that exit if they were sick, diplomats, relatives of Palestinians jailed in Israel, Palestinian VIPs, foreign visitors and Palestinians who are citizens or residents of Israel and have family in Gaza.
Election observers stuck
For those who aren't VIPs, crossing through Erez takes hours. Last Tuesday, P., a 64-year-old American citizen, came to Gaza to observe the PA elections. At 9:30 A.M. she reached the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing. Around noon, P. informed her friends in Gaza that she and about 30 others were stuck at the checkpoint and prohibited from crossing. Two hours later, half the people waiting were told they could pass through.
The same day, Z., a pregnant woman in her late 20s from Jabalya refugee camp, was waiting for three or four hours so she could go for a medical check-up in Israel due to complications with her pregnancy. She didn't feel well and was brought to the first aid station at the Palestinian police station, where she had a miscarriage. The IDF spokesman later said it had not received any complaint about a pregnant woman detained at a checkpoint.
At around 3 P.M., seven Westerners were waiting at the crossing: two Danes in their 70s, agricultural engineers who had visited Gaza as consultants, and a few doctors from the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland who had given a course in Gaza. They were unable to understand why they weren't allowed to pass the 200 meters separating the Palestinian side from the Israeli one. The reason involves Israeli directives that require a Palestinian police officer to tell an Israeli liaison representative the name of each person arriving at the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. They are allowed to cross only after Israeli approval.
Long wait at the crossing
According to the testimony of people who often pass through the Erez crossing, the first delay begins when the Palestinian policeman has problems reaching the Israeli liaison representative. Sometimes an hour or two pass between the moment people give the Palestinian officer their passport information and the moment someone on the Israeli side responds in order to list the names. Then it takes time until the Israeli official gives the okay.
The IDF said the delay was caused by the Palestinian officials, saying they hadn't transmitted all the necessary information immediately. But the Palestinian police, backed by eyewitnesses, deny the charge.
The army also said Tuesday's delays were out of the ordinary, and that delays generally don't last longer than half an hour. But several people who pass through the Erez crossing on a regular basis - at least when the checkpoint is open - say long delays are not the exception, but the norm.