The travel difficulties of Gaza residents has been a common issue in the news and blogging sphere. Most stories remain untold. My experience may remind people to stand up for the forgotten Palestinians in the coastal territory, not least our neighbours in Egypt.
The border crossing at Rafah is the only possible exit from the besieged Strip for 1.9 million people. Since the beginning of this year, it has only been opened by the Egyptian authorities for 19 days. According to the local media, this is the worst year in decades for the crossing to be closed so much. In 2014 it was open for 124 days; in 2013 the figure was 264 days.
I managed to leave Gaza on 14 October, 2014, six weeks after the ceasefire ended last year’s Israeli offensive. Ten days after I left, the crossing was closed by the Egyptians yet again after an attack against an army checkpoint in Sinai which killed 33 soldiers. Since then, there have been exceptional openings for “humanitarian-profile” cases, including patients, students and foreign visa holders.
I have now experienced real freedom for a year and value being able to travel as and when I want or need to. The people in Gaza are only half-living. A student might travel through Egypt-controlled Rafah or, in exceptional cases after a protracted application process and security checks, through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing. Many students miss out on opportunities to study abroad. Some seek other ways to get out and die while trying.
When you are free you cannot imagine what it is like to have the powers that be claiming authority over your life to such an extent. I can’t help but compare my own situation with that of a man I got to know on a training course; Muhammad was about my age. He was drowned while trying to get to Germany to complete an MA course.
Since the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords which created some degree of autonomy for Palestinians, we have been issued with a quasi-normal passport document. In 2013 I was selected to participate in a seven-day training course in El-Arish, a coastal town in Sinai, along with a group of new graduates and university professors. The university had to coordinate our travel two months ahead of the course; it was a “miracle”, according to the programme coordinator, that the Egyptians agreed to let our group cross through Rafah.
A year ago I was selected for five weeks’ training for Palestinian journalists at the UN in New York; there were two of us from Gaza. My cousin hinted to me that I should try to get advance security clearance from the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah. It took three weeks of email and phone contacts to get it. I was then short-listed by the Ministry of the Interior to leave Gaza on 11 October.
When the great day dawned everything was normal on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border. Most of my fellow travellers were student visa holders, elderly and ill people or “coordinated cases” (those who had paid bribes to get there). Despite my embassy clearance, the officer in the Egyptian transit hall turned me back. That happened again two days later. Along with some others, we were kept waiting until 6pm and then put back on the bus to return to the Palestinian border post. When I called the embassy to complain that the “clearance” had been ignored, the staff were surprised.
On the third attempt, after a wait of five hours the Egyptian immigration officer called me over. “It’s done,” he intoned. “Go home.” There was no explanation.
In desperation, I asked a clerk to take my papers to one of the intelligence officials. The person in question looked at them and disappeared into a side office. After a short wait, he came out to declare in his Egyptian Arabic, “You will go.” At first I thought that he meant that I should “go home”; I sat down and wept with frustration.
Two hours later, the hall was almost clear. A few like me were waiting, dozing on the uncomfortable benches, to get our passports back. “Congratulations,” the Egyptian clerk said as he threw my passport to me. I was through. Little did I know that the two-month trip would last much longer.
As the UN course ended on 5 December 2014 there was more uncertainty. The Rafah crossing was sealed again after more Egyptian soldiers had been killed in Sinai. Although it was partially re-opened for 48 hours on 21 December, with just one hour’s notice it was impossible for me to get there.
My brother lives in Dubai; his two week holiday in Gaza was extended to two months when the border closed. He got out during that 48-hour window.
I was stranded in New York for 40 days and 40 sleepless nights, concerned about my job and pressured by the training coordinators to leave as arranged. They organised a petition signed by Egypt’s UN ambassador to facilitate the return of my colleague and I. Even that failed to satisfy Egypt Air, which refused to let me board the flight to Cairo. The airline relented when I was finally able to show a visit visa for the UAE, obtained for me by my brother.
Palestinians are not really welcome in Dubai as too many want to work there. Still, it was nice to see my brother and his family. In any case, by this time my sights were set on studying in Britain. My student visa was issued and I was admitted at the start of this academic year on the MA Media and Communications course at the University of the Arts London. My new home, UAL, allocates a lot of funding to attract overseas students, encouraging a globalised education and cross-cultural understanding. It has carved out a new world for me.
I have been able to see at first-hand the growing support for Palestinian rights around the world, most recently the massive “Protest for Palestine” demonstration in Central London. The Palestinians in Gaza are looking out for louder voices and more action. They want this systematic Israeli blockade dismantled, so that the world can see them at their best. When that happens, as I am sure it will, the travel difficulties that Palestinians including myself have faced will surely be a thing of the past.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.