Last week, the Palestinian Authority assumed control from Hamas over the border crossings of the Gaza Strip, bringing the promised return of free movement in and out for Palestinians one step closer. Gaza has been isolated by a blockade on both its Israeli and Egyptian borders for 11 years.
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The joy was short-lived. The PA announced they'd abide by the agreement struck in 2005 between Israel and the PA, giving them, along with the Egyptians, the right to deny entry/departure for people crossing through Gaza’s only gate to the world, the Rafah border crossing. Most Palestinians are dreading a rerun of the pre-Palestinian unity government "blacklists and blackmail" era, in which Egypt had a starring role.
Over the last 11 years, Rafah has operated as an appalling gray zone of physical intimidation and bureaucratic bullying. But it also provided fertile ground for many parasitic beneficiaries who thrived on travelers’ desperation. Palestinians expect those beneficiaries to desperately try to perpetuate the existing situation.
A year ago, I was one of those travelers, and experienced the reality of Rafah’s sadistic limbo.
One Friday night, Egypt announced news to relieve a beleaguered population of claustrophobes: the Rafah border crossing was to be open for two days after months of closure. An hour later, I found my name listed for the first bus to leave, after 18 months of waiting. Given one night to say goodbye to my family, friends and memories. I was entirely unprepared to leave, but wasting that once-in-life chance was unthinkable.
I walked back home and hugged my mother like never before; she realized, "It’s time." Her anguish transformed into a beautiful smile that failed to hide the deep grief in her eyes. She said, "You shall live for all of us and be the eyes out of which we’ll see the world." My usual calmness wasn’t holding; I knew by the next morning, I would no longer be a ghost stuck in the dark, but all my loved ones would still be trapped there.
At dawn, it took 30 minutes to reach the southern border, that’s how big the Gaza Strip is. On the way, we saw young kids breaking through the rubble to get to school.
Then, we slowly approached the first hall at the border crossing. That's where Hamas personnel - after sending their passports to the Egyptians, who controlled the crossing - sorted passengers into buses. The fear that there was some error in my paperwork made me catch my breath.
The paths in and out were surrounded by dozens of students, dispersed families and cancer patients who hopelessly begged and cried to be allowed to leave before their time ran out. Yet, each one of the six 50-passenger buses scheduled for departure was already overfilled with people whose names topped the waiting lists.
Twenty minutes later, we reached the second hall where the security check was performed by Hamas, and political rivals or dissident activists are sent back.
I was taken into the hidden narrow corridors of the hall for a random interrogation, sat on a small broken chair before a frowning officer who asked if I was affiliated with the PA or Egyptian intelligence, and then asked for my phone to "check for immoralities" (whether I had non-Islamic songs, or girls’ phone numbers).
A friend had told me that Hamas focuses on interrogations at Rafah because they know that passengers’ desperation meant they break easily under pressure, so they might trade some information - to be used by Hamas' internal security services - to be allowed out. I saw young people handcuffed in the corridors to the interrogation room and sent back for no given reason. I myself had prepared my phone in advance, because I knew the Egyptians also performed a similar and harsher check on some people.
I barely caught the bus after I walked out of the hall, and in no time, we reached the formidable Egyptian black gate, where a free life lay ahead. We peeked at the Egyptian soldiers and tanks. The atmosphere on the bus lightened up when an Egyptian officer, dressed in whites, walked in, to check the names.
However, in no time, the light of hope faded away as the temperature inside the stationary bus went higher and higher, as we waited for the gate to open.
The aisles of the bus were overcrowded, so were the chairs, there wasn’t an empty inch. We drowned in sweat, while the oxygen was running out. We desperately closed the curtains to shield ourselves from the desert’s boiling sun. It was October back then, but the temperature in Rafah was about 30C. Passengers were shouting at the Egyptian officers: "Yalla! We’re dying here!" Only the word "Order!" was shouted back.
A fellow traveler poured water on my face, as I almost passed out. I was lifted above people’s shoulders to reach the small opening at the top of a window. I held on for dear life by imagining the freedom that lay a few meters away. Then at last I heard the noise of the engine starting.
We were allowed in only after Hamas complied with the Egyptian stipulation of first letting in the "coordinated passages" and the "Egyptian citizens" buses.
In the Egyptian entry hall, a man called a few names every hour and sorted them in three queues. An Egyptian intelligence officer interviewed the first queue of Egyptian citizens, stamped their passports in five minutes and let them out. The second queue was the "coordinated passages," a sugarcoated word for those who pre-emptively offered bribes (the going rate was between $2000-$10,000, paid to Egyptian intelligence through local networks in Gaza). They also had their passports stamped in no time and left.
The last queue was for "the rest." We were to be interviewed by the fearsome National Security force, infamous for its numerous human rights violations, and its exclusive counterinsurgency role, which often provides a pretext to kidnap Egyptian opposition activists.
Only documented students and medical referrals from the "third queue" were allowed to leave Gaza in transit buses to the Cairo airport, and a minute-long interview decided their fate. Those who failed to convince the interrogator of their reasons for departure where sent back to Gaza and weren’t allowed to sign up to leave again.
Luckily my visa and admission papers were in date, as I’d renewed them repeatedly throughout a year of waiting. But that wasn’t always enough; people were denied departure for no reason and the only guaranteed chance was paying a bribe to cross to the "coordinated passages" room. There were also two delegates from Fatah and Hamas who mediated to help their own people.
As the night came, we gathered in groups on the floor and took turns to sleep shortly on empty cardboard boxes that we bought from the snacks’ kiosk for 50 EGP each.
Every 10 minutes during the night, another person was dragged away for a violent interrogation or sent back to Gaza with no clarification. Every time, the rest of us trembled in panic; physicians, businessmen, academics - we were all in the same situation. I phoned all my connections to make sure I wouldn’t be the next.
Time was passing painfully slowly. We all hoped to stay in the hall and not in an interrogation cell until dawn.
I eventually got a call with a final discount after hours of haggling with several people. "$1,200 and they’ll let you into Egypt," said a friend who’s a PA officer residing in Cairo. Then he asked me to put him through to the Fatah delegate, and said that he’d mediate to ensure I’d be shuttled to the airport if I’d carry a bag that his wife forgot while travelling.
I was relieved and slept shortly before I woke up to a name, similar to mine, being called repeatedly for deportation to Gaza. I was sure it wasn’t me, but no one showed up and the Egyptians eventually came looking for him and checked every face. I was terrified, until they walked away.
In the morning, we were moved to the buses, and my name was on the transit list. I cried; I couldn’t believe that I’d made it. As the bus drove away, we were all too excited. It was our first chance to see an uncaged, limitless world.
The view in Sinai was as devastating, wretched and lifeless as Gaza, due to the ongoing war with ISIS, and filled with numerous checkpoints, where our packages were plundered, and we experienced the same humiliation as we had at the Rafah border.
An Egyptian soldier lost his temper when he saw Hebrew writing on a paracetamol packet in my bag. He shouted: "How dare you smuggle Israeli junk!" and smashed it on the ground. I didn't dare utter a word in return.
After 15 hours in the bus, we reached Cairo airport, and there, standing outside, my dearest uncle whom I haven’t seen for seven years because of the blockade. I rushed through the door and hugged him. I dearly wished this moment would stretch on forever, but seven minutes were all I had before I was forced inside.
We were first left in a transit room, not allowed to leave, then we were taken to the airport dungeons; filthy overcrowded prison-cells that could only be opened from the outside. We were anxious to tell our families that we were OK but our electronic devices and bags were confiscated and only given back when we boarded the plane.
We were treated like trash and had to pay baksheesh to everyone to do anything. A friend’s bag was stolen, although it was guarded by an Egyptian officer. It had cash, jewelry, laptop and all his certificates inside, and after they failed to return it after six days, they said. "Either travel without it, or you’ll sit and molder waiting inside prison."
As I boarded the plane and finally broke free, I thought of those despairing in Gaza, spirits amputated by its giant walls, denied the right to live or leave, escaping incapacitating reality and channeling their accumulating rage through drugs, radical groups, suicides, or gathering on the borders every Friday waiting to get shot by Israeli troops.
I was filled with a survivor’s guilt that after all those years, I had to break a vow I’d made to myself and abandon a futureless homeland that has become death row. I found no solace that I wasn’t the only one seeking to escape; it was, rather, a source of shame.
A Palestinian nation once known for their incredible sumud (steadfastness); holding tight to the soil of their homeland, have been swamped by despair. Escape had became the sole purpose of many of us, particularly the talented, resourceful, enthusiastic yet 'unemployable' youth.
As I inhaled my first breath beyond Gaza’s wall, it didn’t smell sweet, as I had been told it would. That was just a rumor, a legend, a way to imagine that outside Gaza lay heaven, a place of aspiration and space and peace, as a way to endure life in hell.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was formerly the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2