GAZA CITY, Gaza - The Egyptians are world famous for their soap operas. As a student in Cairo nine years ago, I remember seeing glitzy billboards all over town and trying to make out the drama of the background noise they provided in almost every household I visited. This Monday, I accidentally ran into one of these productions in full swing. It turned out to be a soap opera within a soap opera.
I arrived at the Rafah border Monday on the heels of a twelve-hour flight from New York and a six-hour bus ride across the desert with an assortment of documents and support meant to aid in entering Gaza. This included a letter from the U.S. Embassy, a personal invitation from UNRWA, and official papers from the Egyptian media. I had followed all recommended procedures for getting into Gaza and was feeling pretty confidant having been successful in March.
A friend and I had met up with a student-organized mostly U.S. delegation in Cairo to make the journey to Rafah where we joined a Canadian delegation. The Canadians were on their third day in a row attempting to cross the border, understandably frustrated and close to exhaustion. Besides the 47 international visitors at the crossing, there were also a few Palestinians trying to reach home. (Many Palestinian refugees in Egypt are not allowed past the network of checkpoints leading up to the Rafah gate.)
The border officials presented us with a series of catch-22's to block our passage, despite the fact that all of our names had supposedly been cleared in advance. We received conflicting information all day, one minute thinking that we were clear to move forward and the next feeling that there was no way we would ever get in. By the time morning turned into late afternoon, we knew that it was not looking good. However, at about 4:00 p.m., we were told that we had security clearance from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and would be in passport control within the hour. A half-hour later, the guards said that the border was closing and all of the workers were going home but promised to let us through first thing in the morning.
Part of the impossibility of crossing into Gaza was the bona fide soap opera unfolding at the border that entire day. A full television crew was setting up their gear at the Rafah gate, all the time people squeezing past them (including myself) to try different tactics with the guards. We were told that they were shooting an episode about a family that was reunited thanks to the open border.
Once the cameras started rolling, the Egyptian security literally opened the border gate. No one was allowed anywhere near it except the immaculately dressed actors embracing each other warmly upon being 'reunited'. When those of us who were there to actually cross the border got too close, the guards asked us not to disturb the production and stay out of the way.
A Palestinian father was at the end of his ropes trying to bring his young injured son home. The boy had one mangled arm, the other in a cast, and he walked with a horrible limp. Pleading with the officials to no avail, the father broke into loud sobs.
I returned to the nearest town in Egypt, Al Arish, that evening with the delegations to wait for morning and try it all over again. In the middle of the night, some of the organizers got a visit from the secret police, telling us not to return to the border in the morning. Morning came and we weighed our options. Sources in Cairo informed us that the police who visited were only tourist police trying to harass us and presented no real threat. We decided that it would be worthwhile to go ahead with our plans being that we had the support of the Foreign Minister and people with strong ties to Washington working on our behalf in Cairo. A few kilometers outside of Al Arish and still a considerable distance from Rafah, police surrounded our buses at the first checkpoint. They informed us that this part of the Sinai had been declared a 'closed military zone' and sent us packing back to town.
A few hours passed and another phone call came from the Egyptian government saying that each of us now had the highest level of security clearance and that we were free to leave immediately for Rafah. At the first checkpoint, the same police who had surrounded us parted and opened the road.
Six checkpoints and three hours later we cleared customs and boarded another bus across 'no mans land' to the Palestinian border control. On that side, the border officials handed out individual bottles of water and warmly welcomed us to Gaza. We flew through passport control and customs and finally stepped outside, not quite believing that we were really there. Again, there was a camera crew waiting right outside of the terminal. Thankfully, they were not there to film a soap opera, but to break the news that international visitors had made it into Gaza.