Monday, 1 April 2013

Gaza Gazes - Gaza Gates

When going to Gaza with the cross-organisational working group CPS (Civil Peace Service) we counted the gates we had to pass.
Appointed by the working group, I had passed the three weeks prior to this event organising and coordinating our visit. Passport and visa copies from all participants were required, the general approval of the German Representative Office in GIZ of our endeavour to visit NGOs in Gaza, collecting severe scolding from my superiors for my direct approach, getting GIZ approval for involving our security management in order to coordinate permissions for the whole group from the Israeli authorities, while parallely communicating with our partners in Gaza about the permissions from Hamas and the schedule for the day.
First, you enter a compound (through the first gate passport control included) - those on food went through passport controls similar to the ones at the aiport. Those of us who were comfortably travelling on an armoured car were pointed to a VIP "check in" on the left hand of the building. Met a few diplomats from all corners of the world and passed the 2nd passport check as we travelled on. We had left Jerusalem early - around 6ish (am) as we knew it would be a long way through the Gaza checkpoint. Plus if there is no overnight stay included, one has to leave Gaza by 2pm as the checkpoint closes at 3 pm.
Now, at this point of my narration let me go on a short excursion about my abundant use of the word "checkpoint" as it fails to describe the fortress that has been installed by the Israeli military around the Gaza strip.
One hour at least is needed to pass the nine gates including a minimum of six passport controls. In the middle you show your passport into a camera on one side of a closed gate. After remounting the car, the gate opens are you are directed to the side and asked to leave the car again, present your passports once again and proceed through a lugage check before reentering your car. That is if you follow the directions of the security staff at this stage of your journey to take any lugage you may carry out of the car with you. This point was especially interesting to me as the military/private security companies are not allowed to search the cars passing through - the reason being that only cars with a diplomatic status are allowed to pass through to Gaza. If you are not a diplomat (which none of us was, we were all carrying offical passports not providing diplomatic immunity) your bags can be searched when you take them outside the car. Not having any more than smaller purses we still refrained from emptying out the trunk of our car on the way back: it was full of vegetables and mountains of fresh strawberries (our travel was in mid December, when the strawberry harvest is at its peak).
After passing most of the gates - or so we thought - and driving seemingly endless along a fenced footpath, we hit a small kiosk, lots of UN and other diplomatic vehicles were waiting in front. We thought that we had reached our destination and were waiting for our colleagues who had not found space in the car. After what seemed an appropriate time for them to reach us, we got worried and rang them up. The laughter we received from the other end of the phone line was already indicating that we were far from entering Gaza city, before we were told so. So we drove on and finally reached the Hamas threshold, once again presenting our passports and being referred on to the next and last station to present our permissions to enter.  Turned out to be another funny incident as a few names got mixed up and our wonderful NGO hosts in Gaza had to move heaven and earth to get two of us in. The others had already moved on to the first place we were visiting, but that's another story.
So all in all it took us far longer than one hour to pass the overwhelming security installments into the rather modestly sized Gaza strip. It was only a short trip yet there were many lasting impressions; passing the border was certainly moving in a way that I lack the appropriate words for. The last sight I remember when leaving the security compound on the Israeli side was three tanks passing us, headed to where we had just come from.

A few impressions of our experience below.

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