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Wish I was there

I am stranded and can’t get home. I left Gaza early Friday morning, before the border at Erez closed, and thought I would be back at home by Sunday afternoon: but this is turning into a bit of an epic.

Erez Terminal is the border crossing in the north of the Gaza Strip, on the Gazan / Israeli border, and the main pedestrian crossing into, and out of, the Gaza Strip. The only other pedestrian crossing is at Rafah in southern Gaza, on the Egyptian border, which has been officially closed since June 2006. The Rafah border does occasionally open, but the Egyptian authorities allow only a minuscule number of Gazan patients, and students with foreign scholarships, to cross over from Gaza into Egypt. So if they want or need to get out of the Strip, most Gazans have no choice but to apply for a permit from the Israeli Government to cross Erez into Israel.

Erez Terminal is normally open during daylight hours during the week, but it shuts at Friday lunchtime and doesn’t re-open until Sunday morning. So, while Israel enjoys its Shabbat or Sabbath, Gaza is under lockdown. To be honest, this doesn’t make much difference to most people in Gaza, because they can’t get permits to cross Erez Terminal anyway. Israel denies the overwhelming majority of Gazans any freedom of movement, so they remain permanently locked inside the Gaza Strip.

I know 30-year-old men and women who have never left Gaza, and older people who have not been allowed outside the Strip since the second Intifada started more than eight years ago, in September 2000. For all of these people, their entire world has been reduced to a strip of land measuring 360 square kilometres. It is hard to describe what this long-term confinement does to people’s bodies and minds: but basically it slowly drives them sad, depressed and desperate.  

I am lucky: as a foreigner working for an aid agency I can secure a permit to enter and leave Gaza fairly easily. So on Friday morning I crossed Erez and drove to Jerusalem for a meeting, and that evening I met my friends and drank wine and ate great European food.

Was I happy to be out of Gaza for the weekend? You bet I was! Gaza is a wonderful place to live in many ways; but sometimes I need to get out and literally breathe fresh air: there are no bars or anywhere to dance or party in Gaza: nowhere to let your hair down and laugh and cry at the absurdity of life under siege.

I had another meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, but when that meeting was changed to Monday, my plans started to unravel. Erez Terminal, which is a 90-minute drive from Jerusalem, closed at 3pm on Monday because Israel began celebrating its Sukkot festival. As I write this blog, Erez is still closed. The terminal should open tomorrow morning, but I have another meeting in Jerusalem because none of my colleagues have been able to get out of Gaza, and so I can’t get back to Erez before it shuts again for the night. So I will finally get back home on Thursday - unless there is a security problem and the whole terminal shuts for the day or even the entire weekend, in which case I shall have to spend the weekend in Jerusalem again.

Confused? So am I. To be honest, I want to get back home right now, and sleep in my own bed - but my friends in Gaza would be ecstatic if they only had the chance to spend the weekend stranded in Jerusalem, going to meetings, drinking wine, and seeing their friends. Like I said, I am lucky.

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