Babylon & Beyond

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ISRAEL: Nine hours at Eretz checkpoint

July 25, 2008 | 10:48 am

Ashraf_khalil_2 By Ashraf Khalil in Chicago

My adventures as an Arab American journalist crossing in and out of Israel have already been documented here.

But even for someone who goes in expecting delays, aggressive questioning and the occasional strip search, my experience on Sunday leaving the Gaza Strip through the Eretz border crossing was a shock.

About 18 months ago, Israel completed construction of a massive automated inspection terminal at Eretz.

The size of a warehouse, a bewildering high-tech cattle pen built with one primary goal: to ensure that everyone coming out of Gaza gets their bags and their body thoroughly screened long before they ever get in a room with an Israeli.

Dozens of automated doors and gates open and close before you; disembodied Israeli voices tell you where to stand, when to walk into various scanning devices and when to open your bags, display them to the cameras and place them on conveyor belts.

The terminal was built...

t...with the idea of screening the many Gazan laborers who used to commute daily to their jobs in Israel. A few months after the opening, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, and Israel (with Egyptian assistance) largely sealed Gaza's borders.

Now nobody even tries to get out except journalists, Gazans employed by international organizations, those with high-level connections to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah or medical-need cases cleared for treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Eretz normally opens around 7 a.m. I arrived Sunday at 10:30 a.m., hoping to miss the morning rush of medical patients. I found a large group of Palestinians gathered outside the trailer that serves as a coordination office with the Israelis. The border hadn't opened yet and there was no word on when it would.

We waited. There was nothing else to do. We drank tea and coffee, and swapped cigarettes and stories. Two enterprising youths sold lemon slushies out of a cooler, which tasted and felt fantastic on a blazing day. A small group of presumably urgent medical cases was permitted through around 11:30, then nothing for hours.

Around 1:30 p.m. I started to worry, since the border was supposed to close at 2:30.

I called the manger of the crossing. He first denied there was anything wrong, then said to call him back in 10 minutes, then another 10 minutes. On the final call, he yelled at me to leave him alone and direct my calls to the army, then hung up. (In fairness, he later turned out to be a decent guy having a really bad day.)

Getting desperate, I called the army press office and a senior Ministry of Information official. They reported back that the computer system had fried and the intricate network of automated doors wasn't working right. Technicians were on the way, but it would take a few more hours.

We waited more. What other choice did we have? 

If anything, the Gazans  were far more patient than the foreigners, who are less accustomed to having their movements restricted. There was a Russian journalist and an Austrian man growing increasingly indignant, and I wasn't handling things too gracefully either.

The Palestinians took it with stoicism and the occasional flash of humor.

"If they just sent in one clever Gazan, he'd have it fixed in 10 minutes," one guy told me. "If we can get our cars to run on cooking oil, we can fix their broken doors."

The majority of our group seemed to be medical-need cases and their families. I met a man who had been waiting three months to get his ailing mother to a Jerusalem hospital, and a woman whose infant daughter needed open-heart surgery. One young boy of about 6 seemed to have both physical and mental defects and sported a fresh hospital bracelet on his wrist.

Around 5 p.m., we all received the green light. We hurried across 200 yards of battle-scarred no-man's land, through concrete-walled corridors.  Finally the whole group came to a set of automated doors, where they left us for another 90 minutes with no communications.

Then the doors opened and another mad rush ensued into the mechanized maze of the now-functional inspection terminal.

I emerged on the Israeli side after 7 p.m., almost nine hours after I arrived. Some of the group, especially the medical cases, had been there since 7 a.m.

I was almost too tired and disoriented to be angry, but decided to hold off and calm down for a few days before writing about the experience.

I'm now in Chicago on a break, with the chance to evaluate things in hindsight. And I still have an issue with the way the Israelis handled things.

The problems were real; it's not like they were making up the computer malfunction.
But the decisions made after that  speak volumes about the way Israel views and deals with Gazans.

We were perhaps 45 people, including at least 15 children. Not exactly a huge logistical problem to inspect our bodies and our bags; that'€™s one hour in the life of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport and every other airport in the world.

If the Israelis had sent five soldiers out to pat us down, question us and search our bags, the whole process would have been wrapped up by 1 p.m. at the latest.

Instead they chose to let us cook while the technicians tinkered away.

It'€™s simply not something you would do to people you regarded as people instead of dangerous animals.