Stopped at Rafah Crossing: Shades of Checkpoint Charlie
On Monday 30 June,
On the one hand, I had also already asked my university to add my name to the list of academics who intended to travel to
Nevertheless, the temptation was too great and hope triumphed over experience. At 2pm, on Monday, I called the university’s PR officer on Monday. I was told in two short sentences to be at the Rafah crossing at 2. am on Tuesday morning. The reason for this strange departure hour was not explained and I did not question it. If one wants to leave
My mind went immediately to the myriad tasks that must be completed in preparation for a journey: money, packing, goodbyes, tickets - how would all this happen in less than 12 hours? I was not prepared at all and the banks were closed. I allowed myself 10 minutes to think about the steps I should take to ensure that I would be at the Rafah Crossing - 40 km from my home at the end of badly damaged and unlit roads at 2am the next morning.
I then remembered that the bank manager is my neighbor; when I called with my unusual request outside of normal banking hours, he was so helpful that getting the money I needed turned out to be the easiest step. I then called my niece to help me pack and prepare for my unexpected journey. Dozens of phone calls were made, but I did not call my wife because I did not want to raise her hopes only to have them dashed as has happened so many times before during this siege of
I made another call to our PR officer just to find out what I was supposed to do on arrival at the Crossing. "Wait with the other academics" was the answer. At around 11 pm on Monday night, a colleague called to tell me to delay my departure until morning. His sources at the crossing had informed him that our names were not on the list sent to them by the Egyptians. He suggested I wait for more instructions in the morning. I did not sleep that night. In the morning, I got a call from another colleague, who was also leaving
As it is almost impossible to go anywhere in
Our contact himself then called to get our exact location because he was on his way to fetch us. What relief! Three hours later, we were still waiting and the mobile checkpoint was disbanded. We decided to drive to the crossing itself.
That is when reality hit us: tens of thousands of people were waiting there, children, old people, women, and worst of all, terminally ill people, all sitting under the baking hot sun of this semi-desert area. My heart sank! But we had to try our contact again - how could we not, when the Crossing itself was so tantalizingly mere meters away now? And if we passed, what freedoms awaited us: bookshops, movies, theatre, chocolate, friends, fuel, food, fruits and of course, in my case, my long-suffering partner. Our contact gave us more hope by asking us to move closer to the electronic gate and ask a policeman named Bassam to let us in.
The next problem on this long journey was trying to reach the gate through the masses of people jealously guarding their spots on the way to the gate. Finally we got to the gate which is where we realized that it would not open for us. The authorities would not open to let a small group of academics through - list or not list - simply because the waiting crowd would surge through the gate en masse. In any event we never did find Bassam to open the gate for us. But we waited. The heat became even worse, children cried, and the sick and the elderly sat desperately on the ground - they could no longer stand and would have to sit on the ground to wait for the gate to open. I decided to join them because it was clear that the wait would be a long one.
Worse news was to follow: our names were not on the list - and the crossing was, in fact, closed! We had to wait outside until somebody allowed us to go inside the Palestinian hall to spend the night there. I was so tired and felt ill. I was also desperate for a toilet - as none had been made available to us for all these hours.
Next to me was an old woman talking on her cellphone about the pain she was in. Next to her was the family with seven daughters, all on their way to Jordan. Opposite me was an ambulance with a cancer patient - they had been waiting there for 12 hours. The place was so hot and sticky. After 3 hours I felt a sudden sharp pain in my stomach; I stood up to lean against the wall while yellow circles danced in front of me and a humming began in my ear. Then, everything went blank. I must have fainted. When I opened my eyes, people were giving me water, chocolate, cheese and asking me to eat and drink. Some pronounced it a diabetic episode, others were convinced it was low blood pressure. I was sure it was sunstroke. Whatever it was, I resolved to go back home right away.
On my return home, I was so relieved to see my bed - and my flat felt like Paradise! That night I wanted to cry; cry for myself, for my dignity; cry for the old woman sitting next to me; cry for my cousin's wife; cry for the patient in the ambulance and for the 50 000 desperate people at the gates of the Rafah Crossing.
The horror at the Crossing continued after I left. Many people spent the entire night there, only to be told the following day that the crossing was still closed (!) and that they should leave. It took me almost two days to feel physically better, but every single muscle of my body still hurts. I am angry and sad and do not have the words to express the depth of my feelings about this experience.
The situation that the tens of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children faced at the Rafah border crossing this week was inhumane and unconscionable. Nothing can justify this. Most rushed to the Rafah Crossing in as short a time as I did with similar stories of frenzied activity and hope. More than 3500 of them are terminally ill patients in urgent need of medical treatment in Egyptian hospitals. Others hold residency permits in other countries and have been trapped in Gaza for at least a year. Some are academics and students, traveling abroad to attend conferences or further their studies.
So, instead of giving them a chance to do these very ordinary things: go to a hospital, study, go to a conference or work, go back to other homes and other loved ones, the failure to open the Rafah Crossing, instead, increased their misery. Many of them spent three sleepless nights hoping to be allowed to cross into Egypt. Like me, many fainted, or suffered from dehydration and sun stroke. The failure to open the Rafah Crossing reminded them of their imprisonment and their lack of human rights; it reminded them that they move at the whim of others and it reminded them that the siege of the Gaza Strip has still not been broken.
The fact is that all the people who were at the Rafah border are civilians. Under the Geneva Conventions they are entitled to freedom of movement and protection from collective punishment. During the Cold War, much was made of Checkpoint Charlie as the dividing line: we have a new Checkpoint Charlie today and it is called the Rafah Crossing.
Haidar Eid is an Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at Al-Aqsa University-Palestine.