Jul 29 2000

Hey, why not visit Gaza?

Published by at 5:38 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

If you have still not made up your mind where to spend your vacation this summer, here is an innovative suggestion: Gaza. All you have to do is hold your nose (both literally and figuratively) as you cross the Erez checkpoint, connecting Gaza with most of the outside world, and within minutes you can be bathing in one of the nicest beaches on the Mediterranean. 

This week, my wife Salam and our 10-month-old baby Dina spent a short vacation at Al-Waha beach resort in north Gaza. Ten minutes after crossing into Gaza, we checked into a comfortable room (with air-conditioning and satellite television). Stepping out of our room we walked into the cleanest beach I have ever been to. Not only does the Gaza shore boast a virgin unpolluted seashore but young men walk the shores a couple of times every day picking up any loose plastic bag that might have washed up the shore.

Our double room with a cot for the baby plus breakfast was $65 a night.

Delicious fresh fish meals in downtown Gaza were also very reasonably priced. In total, an exciting vacation for a fraction of what one pays in Cyprus, Greece or Turkey.

But to get to this paradise on the Mediterranean one has to cross one of the most miserable crossing points imaginable. Tens of thousands of people cross this point every day amid a security system that makes any sane person’s hair stand up.

People wishing to enter Gaza fall into two basic categories: VIPs (which include diplomats, non-Palestinian foreigners, foreign NGO officers, PNA officials and journalists); and everyone else: namely Palestinians – whether from the West Bank, Jerusalem or Israel, as well as Palestinians holding foreign passports.

As a journalist, I had to go the VIP route, my wife and baby, the other route. In the VIP section automatic doors opened up as I came close to them and five well groomed young Israeli soldiers waited on lonely me in a clean, newly built, air-conditioned building. Within minutes I was finished and I spent the next hour waiting for my wife and baby to make it across.

As a Jerusalem resident, my wife had to wait in the special area for Israelis. Not that Jewish settlers or any other Israeli goes through this entrance. I hadn’t been to Gaza for at least five years and I seemed to have forgotten the existence of a smelly sewage river that runs right underneath the bridge that the local population must use.

I asked a friend why the Israelis haven’t at least cleaned the sewage for the sake of the 100 or so Israeli soldiers. My friend rationalized that since the soldiers are on duty their commanders wanted them to feel that they are really suffering.

The effects of the sewage on the Palestinian population or the visitors to Gaza don’t seem to be part of the calculation. Jerusalem residents (or as they are referred to repeatedly, “Israelis”) must apply beforehand for a permit to enter Gaza. Forty eight hours before going one needs only to send the Israelis a fax with a request and a permit is said to be routinely issued. No such conditions are asked of Jerusalemites or Israelis as they enter the West Bank.

But now comes the more humiliating point. After waiting in line a person enters a larger room through revolving doors (unlike those in hotels) and waits again on benches in a large hall with a few ceiling fans. Names are called and every Jerusalemite has to surrender his Israeli ID card, and stand on a stool. A camera takes a digital photo.

Within minutes a special permit with the photo on it was presented to my wife, with the soldier keeping the ID card. The permit, with English and Hebrew (no Arabic), says it is in lieu of the ID card and must be carried at all times.

Crossing Erez took us as much time as getting to Gaza from Jerusalem. After a walk of more than one kilometer we boarded a taxi and were on our way to what turned out to be a wonderful holiday.

The return trip was much easier. We were done within minutes. The Gaza taxi which took us back to Erez was not allowed to go to Jerusalem. Another car that was prearranged to wait for us took our tanned bodies back home.

I don’t understand why Israel has such a security paranoia about Palestinians going into Gaza, over those entering Israel. I am sure that it is not aimed at negatively affecting Gaza’s potential tourism business. I am sure they have no idea what is going on at the Mediterranean seashore just south of their port city of Ashkelon. I am not sure if the declaration of a Palestinian state will make Erez easier or worse. But certainly, when a Palestinian state is declared, tourists from around the world will simply fly into Gaza International Airport and enjoy its beaches and dine on its fish.

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