Sunday 12th June.
What a day (and a half) this has been! One of the most emotionally draining in my life. We are eight students, seven Goldsmiths and one SOAS, our goal is to reach Gaza to meet students and activists, and to be eyewitnesses to the continual seige and brutal violence metted out by the Israeli army on a near daily basis.
Everything had gone to plan, meeting the group, landing in Cairo airport, meeting the drivers there at midnight; we even arrived at Al Arish early, meaning we could crash at the drivers’ uncle’s house for a quick hour’s sleep. Then we headed from Al Arish (the nearest town to Rafah) to the crossing. The Sinai is heavily militarised, as we found out, and the main road is littered with checkpoints, normally accompanied by tanks on either side of the road. We must have passed half a dozen until we came to the last checkpoint before the Rafah gates. A young soldier, probably my age, pulled us over and radioed to his command. We weren’t to go any further. We protested and eventually were taken to the office of the head of the Secret Police of the area. He had a typical tin-pot dictator air about him; plush office, friendly manner, fat, and talking absolute rubbish. He quite literally made up the rules as he went along; the long and short of it was we were not getting in, and certainly not today.
We phoned the British Embassy who were absolutely useless, more than useless. What we needed from them (apparently) was a letter stating they would take no responsibility for us and had warned us not to go. They would not even do this. They were rude, patronizing, and certainly not representing their nationals abroad. We took a depressing journey back to Al-Arish, staring at the sea which, barely a few miles further, would take us to Gaza.
After a few hours of quiet depression we brought ourselves back together and decided that it was the British Embassy who should be the target of our protest. Phone calls, texts, twitter callouts and facebook: all demanding that people ring the Embassy and demand to know why 7 British nationals were being stranded at the border with Gaza. It worked a treat and we were overwhelmed by the response from our friends, families and comrades back home. They got so many phone calls that the Embassy in Cairo closed early for the day!
The time by now was gone 3pm, and the Rafah crossing ‘closed’ (was it ever open?) at 5pm. We thought we’d hopelessly give it one more shot before camping out in a motel in Al-Arish to try again the following morning. We headed through the scattering of checkpoints again, and slowly drew up to the impassible one that had halted us six hours earlier. With drawn breath we watched the soldier check the driver’s ID and lazyily wave us through. It really was as simple as that. We saw the Rafah gates ahead with a crowd of cars and people, and of course a string of Egyptian soldiers and tanks. Myself and Joseph (a SOAS student with us, who had perfect Arabic) walked up to the soldiers, they were friendly and seemed completely unawares of the stringent rules their boss had concocted for us just a few hours previously. We were waved through and approached the gates themselves. Again we were told to wait and Joseph, as the Arabic speaker of the group, was summoned into the gate office. After 10 minutes he came out, we were going through. I wanted to cheer but we were still on the Egyptian side and I was reminded of a friend who last year had got as far as his passport being stamped but was still turned away at the last minute. We were inside the crossing complex and headed for a large hall to be processed. We went through the scanners avoiding eye contact and I panicked when a security officer approached Joseph, who turned to me to ask what we had in our bags. The brief panic over, we handed 100 Egyptian pounds for a passport check, then gave our passports over to the control desk. We were in a large hall, with maybe a hundred other people, waiting to be processed and our names to be called out. The hall slowly emptied and we were the last ones left. Finally we were called up, and with our passports stamped, headed towards the exit. Another ‘exit fee’ of 105 Egyptian pounds and we then had to wait for a coach to take us through the final checkpoint and onward to the Palestinian side. We waited for at least half an hour, watching a bus-load of Palestinians being held all the while; it was ridiculous, a form of torture. Constantly waiting, constantly unsure whether you would reach your destination, this was the reality for Palestinians, something they all hold in common, whether residing in Israel, the West Bank, or refugee camps. Life cannot be planned, it is always arbitrarily in the hands of someone else. Finally the coach left, and after purchasing a ticket for the 2 minute journey, we went on our own coach and headed through the final checkpoint, the last barrier, and in hopped two Egyptian police, asking for passports. If they were in a bad mood they could have ruined our plans there and then. But lucky for us, they had woke up on the right side of the bed, and we were ushered through, our spirits raised when we saw border police emblazoned with the Palestinian flag and a sign stating “Welcome to Palestine”. We jumped off the coach, and were greeted by our good friend, and Goldsmiths Alumni, Rawad, and our host from the Islamic University of Gaza, Husam. It was a huge, huge relief, and a wonderful feeling to finally be in Gaza, despite our exhausted state. We relaxed for a while in the lounge for guests into Gaza, and were soon heading into a van taking us into Gaza City at night-time. After eating we split up and were taken to our different families’ homes where we would be hosted for the week.
A symbolic moment took place as we drove home. We crossed the Gaza Valley, a river that used to take water form the Hebron hills all the way to the Gaza strip. Approximately 20 years ago Israel stopped the flow of the river, which then dried up and people began building around the land. Then four years ago, around the time of the siege, Israel began pouring its sewage through this lake. Every time you drive over this new sewage lake the smell is gut-wrenching, and I found out later that some of the people who had built near this lake had died from diseases contracted from the Israeli sewage. Here was the land we had come to, where unspeakable, humiliating, pointless brutality by an occupier was the daily struggle of life for ordinary people.