The Road to Palestine

Part 1: When the Impossible Happens
By Marwa Elnaggar

The Sinai road to El-Arish. Picture by Marwa Elnaggar.
Short bursts of light flashed out in the night sky. Behind the shouts of the crowds and the insistent sirens, shots rang out. I couldn't tell where they were coming from, and to tell the truth, I couldn't care less. After all, I was only a few meters away from stepping into Gaza.

For a brief week, the road to Palestine was paved with dreams and dozens of parked relief trucks. I set out before dawn on January 25 from Cairo, driving through a fog as heavy and relentless as the Israeli siege on 1.5 million Palestinians
in Gaza.

The distance between Cairo to Gaza is approximately a 7-hour road trip, but for many Egyptians, it is a practically unthinkable journey.

The Furthest Point on the Planet

After the 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, the streets of the city of Rafah were literally split in two by an arbitrary border. Families were separated, and Egyptians found that what used to be a holiday and shopping spot became a distant dream. Despite its geographical closeness, Palestine became politically the furthest point on the planet.

Camp David made a trip to neighboring Gaza an impossibility for Egyptians. As an Egyptian, it is easier for me to visit Denmark than Palestine.

According to the treaty, any Egyptian who wanted to enter Gaza could do so through Israel only, requiring a visa. On the other hand, Israelis could travel to Sinai for up to 15 days without needing any visa. The entire arrangement speaks volumes about Egypt's so-called sovereignty over the peninsula.

Palestine holds a special and almost magical place in the psyche of many Egyptians and Muslims. Egypt sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers and endured several wars with Israel fighting against the occupation of Palestine, and later, the occupation of the Sinai peninsula.

The Qur'an mentions it as a land that is blessed by God, and to even see an inch of that land is an aspiration that most can not achieve.

Storming the Gates

On January 22, the impossible happened. Unable to concentrate on a report I was writing, I watched the news in awe as hundreds of Palestinian women broke through the border gate, opening the way for a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to escape the crippling Israeli siege on Gaza.

Soon almost 7 miles of the border were open, and the difference between families and neighbors were wiped out. Palestinians flooded into the Egyptian side of Rafah and into El-Arish to stock up on goods and return home to Gaza.

After hearing of Egyptians traveling into Gaza, two days later, my friends and I decided to travel to the edges of Palestine by car, following a relief convoy that was to leave the morning after we took our decision. We packed no clothes with us.

I have always talked about traveling to Palestine "one day", but I had never imagined that day would actually be realized. As soon as our travel arrangements had been made, I called a journalist friend in Gaza City to tell him that I was finally coming to Palestine.

In previous communications I had talked to him about how much I had wanted to visit Gaza, and he would repeatedly invite me, but we both knew that the day may never come. When I called him to tell him the good news, it took him several hours before my giddy announcement finally sunk in.

Although we had thought otherwise, we soon discovered that traveling with a relief agency is much more of a hassle than traveling alone. We were constantly stopping to make sure the trucks carrying the food, medicine, and other necessities were proceeding as planned.

Despite the heavy fog, in which visibility did not exceed one meter, we faced few problems until we reached the Mubarak Peace Bridge that connected mainland Egypt with Sinai. There we found hundreds of pickups, cars, and trucks, all carrying people and goods, many headed undoubtedly toward the Egyptian coastal city of El-Arish and Rafah.

Sunglasses and Potato Chips

Essential tools for checkpoints.  Picture by Marwa Elnaggar.

We were not officially affiliated with any relief agency, and that fact made us uneasy. Although we were journalists, we were living in Egypt, and can never be sure how Egyptian security would react to our crossing into Sinai considering the chaos on the border.

Egyptians have a peculiar relationship with their undemocratic unelected government and its violent crackdown on dissenters, demonstrations, and anyone who poses any kind of opposition. Rules can be arbitrary and often the ordinary Egyptian citizen is under the mercy of unwritten laws of oppression.

We decided that our safest bet was to play on the fact that we were three women traveling alone. If asked, we would say that we were going to El-Arish, which is a popular holiday spot in Sinai.

To complete the image, we all made sure we had our sunglasses on, and brought out packets of potato chips, munching on them nonchalantly and laughing like schoolgirls as we neared the security police.

"What are we going to say?"

"We're going on holiday."

"With 3 sacks of rice, at least a dozen jars of honey, and the other stuff in the trunk?"

"Umm… Maybe they won't check the trunk."

"But what if they do?"

We couldn't think of any excuse we could give if asked about the food in the trunk of the car, as it didn't exactly fit our holidaymakers story. We decided to wing it.

No one stopped us and for the first time in my life, I crossed the Suez Canal and entered Sinai. We were now a little over 200 kilometers away from Rafah. After the exhilaration of crossing had died down, we soon had to stop, as the 11 relief trucks that were with us had been held up by Egyptian security police.

By that time, reports had been coming in that Egypt was closing the border and had given a 1300 GMT deadline for all Palestinians who had crossed into Egypt to return to Gaza. Accompanying relief workers were frantically calling their contacts and security officials in a bid to allow the relief trucks to cross the bridge and journey on to Rafah.

Panic that we might never make it set in, but we were determined not to give up. After traveling all this way, I was not about to turn around and go home.

As we waited, I counted no less than 35 Egyptian national security trucks passing by, carrying hundreds of security forces, headed towards the border.

After two hours, one of us glimpsed a police car heading toward where we and a couple of other cars carrying relief workers were parked. Unwilling to be questioned by the police about our presence in a relief convoy, my two friends and I rushed to the car and bolted.

This is when the three of us decided that we would go ahead with or without the relief. The chance to enter Palestine was one that we were not willing to sacrifice.

Gas Worries

Eventually, the other relief workers caught up with us, as we all had to refill our gas tanks, knowing that gas was more and more scarce as we neared El-Arish and Rafah. We were warned that there was no fuel to be bought anywhere near those two cities, so we decided to stop at the first gas station we saw.

After filling our tanks, we asked about the possibility of buying extra gas just in case we ran out. We were heading into unknown territory and an unpredictable situation. Unfortunately, there were no available containers to hold any extra gas we might have bought, so we went on without, hoping we wouldn't need any.

We were stopped several times at police checkpoints. Every time we put on our sunglasses, chattered nonsense, and munched on our chips. Every time we passed with no hassles.

When we first entered El-Arish, nothing seemed amiss. However, the further in we moved, the scene quickly became utter chaos. Dozens of pickup trucks were flooding into the city, filled with Palestinians in the back. Cars and taxis were carrying entire families either into or out of El-Arish.

Suddenly, instead of being home with our families watching the news of what was happening, we found ourselves smack in the middle of events.

Reaching Rafah

We had already contacted friends inside Palestine, and they had assured us that as soon as we reached Rafah, they would come to pick us up. By that time, we had entered Rafah and soon found that many of the streets had been blocked by Egyptian security forces.

Eventually we reached the furthest point we could and, not knowing at the time that I was making a mistake, I parked my car.

After what seemed to me forever in my impatience to get inside Palestine, our Palestinian friends found us, and each of us carried a box or bundle of goods we had brought with us and headed toward the border by foot.

They brought with them a young boy who like many others, had seized the opportunity presented by the chaotic situation and employed himself as a package carrier, using a push cart to carry heavy goods to the border wall.

Over the Wall, Into the Dream

Cranes carried barrels of fuel over the border wall and into Gaza. Picture by Marwa Elnaggar.

The couple of kilometers we trekked towards the border were the most crowded and chaotic in the entire trip. Thousands of Palestinians were either heading back to Gaza or into Egypt. There was a power outage and the night was pitch black. The only light came from street side vendors selling odds and ends.

Men herded sheep, goats, and cows toward the border, while others carried sacks of food on their backs. Mattresses, soft-drinks, biscuits, and other goods were carried by hand, by push carts, or by donkey carts. A black market currency exchange business thrived as hawkers called out rates and currencies. 

As we neared the border, the anarchy became complete. Sirens wailing, ambulances carrying injured Palestinians tried in vain to part the crowds. Soon, I saw flashes of light, and probably for the first time in my life, heard gunshots in a potentially dangerous context.

"What was that?" I asked Ahmed, one of the Palestinians with us.

Utterly unconcerned, Ahmed said, "Probably the Egyptian security forces." They had been firing in the air, and according to Ahmed, sometimes they had fired at the Palestinians, trying to scare them back across the border.

No one else seemed aware of the gunshots, as we were all focused on not losing each other in the crowd. We pressed on and soon found ourselves at the border wall. In the dark, we could make out cranes carrying barrels of fuel across the wall.

From what I had seen in the news, I had imagined that the entire border wall was leveled to the ground, and that we would simply walk over it. Seeing a wall that was higher than me was not something I was expecting.

"We're going to have to jump the wall." Ahmed told us. "Usually we just jump it, but because you girls are with us, we'll find someone with a ladder."

At the wall, we found another thriving business. A boy held a wooden ladder to the wall, charging one Israeli shekel per person for the use of the ladder. We climbed over and jumped down to the ground on the other side.

We were inside Palestine. The impossible had come true.

Read Part 2: Under the Olive Trees

Marwa Elnaggar is a writer, a poet, and a former consultant to both IslamOnline.net and one of its projects, the Reading Islam website (www.readingislam.com). She has traveled extensively throughout Asia, Europe, and the US. She holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo. She has been studying Islam in Cairo, Egypt for the past eight years and currently teaches Qur'an on a volunteer basis. You can contact her or sign up to receive her articles at marwa[dot]writing[at]gmail[dot]com.

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