Monday, February 25, 2008

The Road to Palestine

The Road to Palestine
When the Impossible Happens

By Marwa Elnaggar


Short bursts of light flashed out in the night sky. Behind the shouts of the crowds and the insistent sirens, shots rang out. I couldn't tell where they were coming from, and to tell the truth, I couldn't care less. After all, I was only a few meters away from stepping into Gaza.

For a brief week, the road to Palestine was paved with dreams and dozens of parked relief trucks. I set out before dawn on January 25 from Cairo, driving through a fog as heavy and relentless as the Israeli siege on 1.5 million Palestinians
in Gaza.

The distance between Cairo to Gaza is approximately a 7-hour road trip, but for many Egyptians, it is a practically unthinkable journey.

The Furthest Point on the Planet

After the 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, the streets of the city of Rafah were literally split in two by an arbitrary border. Families were separated, and Egyptians found that what used to be a holiday and shopping spot became a distant dream. Despite its geographical closeness, Palestine became politically the furthest point on the planet.

Camp David made a trip to neighboring Gaza an impossibility for Egyptians. As an Egyptian, it is easier for me to visit Denmark than Palestine.

According to the treaty, any Egyptian who wanted to enter Gaza could do so through Israel only, requiring a visa. On the other hand, Israelis could travel to Sinai for up to 15 days without needing any visa. The entire arrangement speaks volumes about Egypt's so-called sovereignty over the peninsula.

Palestine holds a special and almost magical place in the psyche of many Egyptians and Muslims. Egypt sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers and endured several wars with Israel fighting against the occupation of Palestine, and later, the occupation of the Sinai peninsula.

The Qur'an mentions it as a land that is blessed by God, and to even see an inch of that land is an aspiration that most can not achieve.

Storming the Gates

On January 22, the impossible happened. Unable to concentrate on a report I was writing, I watched the news in awe as hundreds of Palestinian women broke through the border gate, opening the way for a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to escape the crippling Israeli siege on Gaza.

Soon almost 7 miles of the border were open, and the difference between families and neighbors were wiped out. Palestinians flooded into the Egyptian side of Rafah and into El-Arish to stock up on goods and return home to Gaza.

After hearing of Egyptians traveling into Gaza, two days later, my friends and I decided to travel to the edges of Palestine by car, following a relief convoy that was to leave the morning after we took our decision. We packed no clothes with us.

I have always talked about traveling to Palestine "one day", but I had never imagined that day would actually be realized. As soon as our travel arrangements had been made, I called a journalist friend in Gaza City to tell him that I was finally coming to Palestine.

In previous communications I had talked to him about how much I had wanted to visit Gaza, and he would repeatedly invite me, but we both knew that the day may never come. When I called him to tell him the good news, it took him several hours before my giddy announcement finally sunk in.

Although we had thought otherwise, we soon discovered that traveling with a relief agency is much more of a hassle than traveling alone. We were constantly stopping to make sure the trucks carrying the food, medicine, and other necessities were proceeding as planned.

Despite the heavy fog, in which visibility did not exceed one meter, we faced few problems until we reached the Mubarak Peace Bridge that connected mainland Egypt with Sinai. There we found hundreds of pickups, cars, and trucks, all carrying people and goods, many headed undoubtedly toward the Egyptian coastal city of El-Arish and Rafah.

Sunglasses and Potato Chips

We were not officially affiliated with any relief agency, and that fact made us uneasy. Although we were journalists, we were living in Egypt, and can never be sure how Egyptian security would react to our crossing into Sinai considering the chaos on the border.

Egyptians have a peculiar relationship with their undemocratic unelected government and its violent crackdown on dissenters, demonstrations, and anyone who poses any kind of opposition. Rules can be arbitrary and often the ordinary Egyptian citizen is under the mercy of unwritten laws of oppression.

We decided that our safest bet was to play on the fact that we were three women traveling alone. If asked, we would say that we were going to El-Arish, which is a popular holiday spot in Sinai.

To complete the image, we all made sure we had our sunglasses on, and brought out packets of potato chips, munching on them nonchalantly and laughing like schoolgirls as we neared the security police.

"What are we going to say?"

"We're going on holiday."

"With 3 sacks of rice, at least a dozen jars of honey, and the other stuff in the trunk?"

"Umm… Maybe they won't check the trunk."

"But what if they do?"

We couldn't think of any excuse we could give if asked about the food in the trunk of the car, as it didn't exactly fit our holidaymakers story. We decided to wing it.

No one stopped us and for the first time in my life, I crossed the Suez Canal and entered Sinai. We were now a little over 200 kilometers away from Rafah. After the exhilaration of crossing had died down, we soon had to stop, as the 11 relief trucks that were with us had been held up by Egyptian security police.

By that time, reports had been coming in that Egypt was closing the border and had given a 1300 GMT deadline for all Palestinians who had crossed into Egypt to return to Gaza. Accompanying relief workers were frantically calling their contacts and security officials in a bid to allow the relief trucks to cross the bridge and journey on to Rafah.

Panic that we might never make it set in, but we were determined not to give up. After traveling all this way, I was not about to turn around and go home.

As we waited, I counted no less than 35 Egyptian national security trucks passing by, carrying hundreds of security forces, headed towards the border.

After two hours, one of us glimpsed a police car heading toward where we and a couple of other cars carrying relief workers were parked. Unwilling to be questioned by the police about our presence in a relief convoy, my two friends and I rushed to the car and bolted.

This is when the three of us decided that we would go ahead with or without the relief. The chance to enter Palestine was one that we were not willing to sacrifice.

Gas Worries

Eventually, the other relief workers caught up with us, as we all had to refill our gas tanks, knowing that gas was more and more scarce as we neared El-Arish and Rafah. We were warned that there was no fuel to be bought anywhere near those two cities, so we decided to stop at the first gas station we saw.

After filling our tanks, we asked about the possibility of buying extra gas just in case we ran out. We were heading into unknown territory and an unpredictable situation. Unfortunately, there were no available containers to hold any extra gas we might have bought, so we went on without, hoping we wouldn't need any.

We were stopped several times at police checkpoints. Every time we put on our sunglasses, chattered nonsense, and munched on our chips. Every time we passed with no hassles.

When we first entered El-Arish, nothing seemed amiss. However, the further in we moved, the scene quickly became utter chaos. Dozens of pickup trucks were flooding into the city, filled with Palestinians in the back. Cars and taxis were carrying entire families either into or out of El-Arish.

Suddenly, instead of being home with our families watching the news of what was happening, we found ourselves smack in the middle of events.

Reaching Rafah

We had already contacted friends inside Palestine, and they had assured us that as soon as we reached Rafah, they would come to pick us up. By that time, we had entered Rafah and soon found that many of the streets had been blocked by Egyptian security forces.

Eventually we reached the furthest point we could and, not knowing at the time that I was making a mistake, I parked my car.

After what seemed to me forever in my impatience to get inside Palestine, our Palestinian friends found us, and each of us carried a box or bundle of goods we had brought with us and headed toward the border by foot.

They brought with them a young boy who like many others, had seized the opportunity presented by the chaotic situation and employed himself as a package carrier, using a push cart to carry heavy goods to the border wall.

Over the Wall, Into the Dream

The couple of kilometers we trekked towards the border were the most crowded and chaotic in the entire trip. Thousands of Palestinians were either heading back to Gaza or into Egypt. There was a power outage and the night was pitch black. The only light came from street side vendors selling odds and ends.

Men herded sheep, goats, and cows toward the border, while others carried sacks of food on their backs. Mattresses, soft-drinks, biscuits, and other goods were carried by hand, by push carts, or by donkey carts. A black market currency exchange business thrived as hawkers called out rates and currencies.

As we neared the border, the anarchy became complete. Sirens wailing, ambulances carrying injured Palestinians tried in vain to part the crowds. Soon, I saw flashes of light, and probably for the first time in my life, heard gunshots in a potentially dangerous context.

"What was that?" I asked Ahmed, one of the Palestinians with us.

Utterly unconcerned, Ahmed said, "Probably the Egyptian security forces." They had been firing in the air, and according to Ahmed, sometimes they had fired at the Palestinians, trying to scare them back across the border.

No one else seemed aware of the gunshots, as we were all focused on not losing each other in the crowd. We pressed on and soon found ourselves at the border wall. In the dark, we could make out cranes carrying barrels of fuel across the wall.

From what I had seen in the news, I had imagined that the entire border wall was leveled to the ground, and that we would simply walk over it. Seeing a wall that was higher than me was not something I was expecting.

"We're going to have to jump the wall." Ahmed told us. "Usually we just jump it, but because you girls are with us, we'll find someone with a ladder."

At the wall, we found another thriving business. A boy held a wooden ladder to the wall, charging one Israeli shekel per person for the use of the ladder. We climbed over and jumped down to the ground on the other side.

We were inside Palestine. The impossible had come true.


The Road to Palestine
Under the Olive Trees


The heart of the Palestinian dream beats in shadows under the olive trees. Its scent lies under patient boots standing on a satin soft ground that is saturated with the perfume of an unfaltering belief in freedom.

The eyes that watch from the shadows, beneath the olive branches, have seen a heaven we have only known in words.

The commander of the area, who was to be our guide that night, drove us through unlit streets, talking to us and all the while communicating through a walkie-talkie with his men. After a short 15 minute drive, we reached our destination.

We trudged single file through dark and winding paths bordered by a dense growth of prickly pear cactus. Although we had come almost directly from the border wall, the exhausting trip from Cairo into Palestine was quickly forgotten.

Like Millions, Like Very Few

The night was still except for the sound of our shoes. The only light came from a scattering of distant stars.

We were going to visit the men who spend their nights on the borders between Gaza and Israel, watching and waiting. These are men who know that they are fighting an army with immense technological, material, and financial advantages.

They stand in the cold, in the rain, during storms, and under fire. When Israel strikes, they are the first to die.

These men, mainly in their 20s and 30s, spend most of their time away from their families and loved ones. Their commander, we were told, sees his wife for a maximum of one hour daily.

Every night, they pick up their weapons and merge into the shadows, resuming a 60-year struggle for freedom.

Like millions of others, they have a dream that one day they will be free, that one day, the land of their grandfathers and ancestors will return for their children and grandchildren to run and play in. They dream that the now bulldozed fields of olive trees will one day be replanted with hope and peace.

Like very few, they know and have come to terms with the fact that they will be killed in pursuit of this dream. To them, their own death is a certainty, the only unknown is when.

Lightening-Quick Eternity

We finally reached the front line, or at least the most advanced position we could safely be taken to. The ground was soft beneath our feet and the air was crisp.

In the faint light of the stars, I could make out the bulky shape of a fighter standing quietly underneath an olive tree. His face was covered, and I could only see his eyes.

He turned to us in greeting, and seeing us crowding near his chosen position, politely stepped back to allow us room to move freely in.

At a modest distance, we could see the wire fence separating Gaza from Israel. Red lights blinked near the fence.

I could scarcely breathe. It was approximately 10 pm and I had only been in Palestine for a little over 3 hours. I felt like I was standing at the edge of the world, between the pages of history.

The moment was a lightening-quick glimpse of eternity. My friends and I fell to the ground in prostration. I touched my forehead to a softness I had never known before. The fighters surrounding us sensed the private emotions that had engulfed us and gently, without a word, turned aside and talked quietly amongst themselves.

This blessed land that had welcomed into its depths thousands of its children killed by the rhetoric of politicians and the arms of an unyielding occupation welcomed my own simple homage.

The touch of its hospitable smoothness echoed the generosity of its people, and their eagerness to make sure our trip to Palestine was one we would never forget.

I inhaled deeply the fresh yet ancient scent of a beloved land. Never before had the earth smelled so pure. I thought of the blood that had been spilt on this soil in the Palestinian fight for freedom. Is this what dignity smelled like?

Posing With RPGs

I could have stayed forever with my face to the ground underneath the olive tree, but realizing we couldn't occupy such a strategic position for too long, we got up.

It was time to move on.

We trekked back through winding paths and the cacti until we reached paved streets and hit the jackpot.

At a t-section in the street, we met at least 10 fighters, all with their faces covered. They greeted us cheerily and seemed eager to show off their arsenal.

"This is one of the mines we use," said one, showing us a black, ominous looking contraption about the size of a woman's small purse. "Do you girls want to try lifting it?"

Ever eager to take on a challenge, I stepped forward. Truth be told, I did manage to lift the mine, but only just a few centimeters off the ground.

The watching fighters smiled. "I don't think you should try lifting the one we use for tanks," one of them said, pointing to a much bigger contraption. "It weighs around 50 kilograms." I agreed.

We asked them if we could take pictures of them. They agreed, but would only allow us to photograph them with their faces covered.

For a few minutes, they put aside their duties and humored us. They stood in the darkness and posed with their RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade launchers) and Kalashnikovs.

The commander, whose name we were not told, waited patiently while we took as many pictures as we wanted, then told us we had to move.

We climbed into a four-door pickup truck. The small sedan we had arrived in was nowhere to be seen. The fighters said goodbye to us and stood watching as their commander started up the truck and drove off.

It was a long night. I had been awake since 4 am that day, and it was nearly midnight. Although I am known to my friends as someone who "sleeps with the chickens" because of my early to bed, early to rise habits, I couldn't have been more awake.

As we drove off, I looked back at the men we had left behind. One of them waved to us.

At the end of the day, we were journalists who had entered Palestine and would be leaving it to go back to our comfortable homes and warm beds.

At the end of the day, they were young men who had willingly devoted their lives and forsaken any possible comfort for one cause alone: freedom for their people and their land.

We would spend that first night in Palestine in the warm house of friends.

They would spend that night as they spend all their nights: waiting and watching in the cold under the olive trees.

Marwa Elnaggar is a writer, a poet, and the Managing Editor of the Reading Islam website (www.readingislam.com) on IslamOnline.net. She has traveled extensively throughout Asia, Europe, and the US. She holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo, and teaches Qur’an on a volunteer basis in Cairo, Egypt.

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