I am now on my seventh week of what was to be a four week visit to Gaza. Getting in wasn't easy, but getting out has been nothing short of impossible. I have been trying to leave Gaza for more than three weeks and have yet to succeed in doing so. In the process I have gained an intimate knowledge of the endless adventure leaving Gaza entails. Since the Hamas takeover the Rafah border has been "officially" closed, but the Egyptians and the local Palestinian governments have agreed to open the borders once every 40 days. Of course, the opening and closing of the borders ultimately depends on the status of the latest Palestinian infighting.
In order to ride on the Palestinian buses and head to the Egyptian side, one needs to get on a list supervised by the local Palestinian government. Since the Egyptians allow only a certain number of buses there is a long waiting list, and the wait can extend for months. I have been told that sometimes Hamas plays favorites, choosing who to get on the bus though I have yet to find solid proof of that; on the days the Rafah gate is open, all key Hamas official turn off their mobile phones to avoid being asked for last-minute favors. In order to organize my own departure, I had to have my family contacts attempt to get to the highest levels of the Hamas government and we were still promised nothing.
Worse yet, on the days the gate is open Hamas actually installs checkpoints near the border crossing to screen out those attempting to cross. When I tried to get though hoping that someone I know might let me get on the bus from Rafah (even though my name has not been cleared for travel), the Hamas police sent me back and told me only employees and certain residents can go past. Keep in mind, Hamas does not place checkpoints on the days the gate is closed.
If you get lucky enough to get on the Palestinian bus to cross to the Egyptian side of the border, the Palestinian port authority stamps your passport and sends you on another bus to Egypt. Once you make it to the Egyptian side, the sorting begins; sick individuals have priority, all others have established procedures. Palestinians who hold a permanent residency in a foreign country and have an airline ticket are gathered and taken to the airport escorted by an armed Egyptian officer. The officer keeps on his person the passports of those he is escorting to make sure no one runs away illegally into the land of pharaohs. Those allowed into the country are the few who have residency in Egypt or those who have contacts with the Egyptians national security apparatus.
There are two ways to get in touch with Egyptian national security forces. The first (and easiest) way is to get a Ramallah big wig to give you a recommendation letter asking the Egyptians to let you in. The second is the more secretive because it involves greasing the wheels of bureaucracy with some cold hard cash. In my travels back home I've often used the first option of to get out; now that I'm stuck in Gaza, I've had to try the other alternative. I went to the Rafah border on the day it was closed, there is an individual at the gate who has a list of people allowed to leave. I was given his number and once I called him to find out if my name was on the list, he told me it wasn't. Had my name been on his piece of paper, I would have been allowed through the borders even if it was closed. It turns out that the Egyptians will call the Palestinians at the Rafah gate and tell them who can pass.
There is one last way to leave Gaza. This will take you to the Eriz crossing where the Israelis are in charge. The only way to pass through the crossing is if you are a heavy foreign national visiting Gaza or if the Ramallah authority under president Abbas (for whatever reason) wants you to make it out of the besieged strip. But before you even make it to the Eriz, Hamas has set up checkpoints to examine each individuals going to the Israelis. If Hamas has a reason to ban you from traveling they will, and occasionally they'll detain you.
Now those are the legal ways one can leave the Strip. Of course, there are always the Rafah underground tunnels, but the trouble using those is the claustrophobia, and all sorts of obvious safety issues. And if the Cairo Airport is your end destination, you'll likely get detained since they will look for an entrance stamp on your passport, something you would clearly lack. For $100 to $300 the tunnel operators can smuggle individuals in and out; I've also heard they now offer injections that will supposedly put underground travelers to sleep and only wake them when they are on the other side (frightening as that may seem). The strangest story I was told regarding the tunnels involved a family that holds American passports and were granted visas to Egypt. They smuggled themselves to Gaza using the tunnels and once their visit was done, they left Gaza the same way they came in. Their Egyptian visas were still good and no one knew they visited the Strip.
It pains me every time I hear those stories. It pains me even more to have to go through these trials and tribulations myself. Every time I leave I leave Gaza to get to my second home in the United States I stop short of crying in frustration and anger; sometimes I find myself swearing never to come back to Gaza again to see my family, the risk doesn't seem worth it. On the other hand, when I do get a chance to come home and see my friends and family, I can't help but celebrate the resourcefulness of the people of Palestine. No matter how hard life gets, they seem to revel in each other's company and make the best of what they have. In the rest of the world when you give them lemons, they are pleased if they can make lemonade. In Gaza, the people are given rotten lemons, and they still make lemonade. And throw in a batch of lemon tarts.