Near disaster on the gazan riviera
On the 10th of june a group of International solidarity activists from the countries of Denmark, South Korea, Sweden, Ireland, US and France went to the Abu Holi (Fardarom in Hebrew) military checkpoint between Gaza City and Raffa in the central area of the Gaza Strip. The checkpoint is situated on the main road south in the Gaza and connects the main city with the refugee camps and other towns in the area. It is placed where the road intersects with another road constructed exclusively for the few settlers who live on a Jewish settlement nearby and is manned by a contingent of Israeli soldiers.
At about 11am the group arrived from Gaza City and found about 3000 people waiting in vehicles and on foot for the checkpoint to open so they could continue down the road. The temperature was about 35 degrees celcius while the area is without shade or any sanitary facilities or amenities. It is barren,
dusty and quite filthy.
Traffic was stopped about 50 meters back from an Israeli concrete bunker and instructions were announced through loud speakers to the drivers. The group of internationals approached the checkpoint walking to the front of the line and continuing towards the bunker while holding up their passports. They were instrructed to stop by the soldiers inside which they did. One was invited forward to talk with the soldiers and explain that they wanted the checkpoint open so they and the others waiting could continue their journy to Raffa.
These communications were friendly and the soldiers agreed, having contacted their officers by radio, to open the checkpoint within 10 minutes which they did.
Some of the local Palestinians waiting had been there for several days. When open, traffic passes without any identification checks or searches through the checkpoint. Soldiers rarely emerge from the bunkers and the area is covered by snipers and at least one heavy machine gun. The check point opens irregularly and seems to serve no security function. About 100 children congregate along the line of waiting traffic, some selling cigarettes and water, and many more at the front of the line between it and the soldiers. Ther are regular instances of drivers and children being shot dead by Israeli gunfire. Orders are shouted to the children to move back from the area between the line and bunker when they encroach and the scene is one of chaos and disorder with children milling around seemingly oblivious to the clearly mortal danger posed by antagonising the soldiers.
The group of internationals waited until most of the traffic had gone on before passing through and continuing to Raffa and the refugee camps nearby.
That evening the group split up, some remaining in the refugee camp and the rest returning to Gaza City. The returning group of 6, along with a driver and guide, again approached the checkpoint planning to use the same strategy once more to get the checkpoint open. It was about 9pm and only a hand full of cars were waiting to cross. Again the internationals approached the soldiers and one went forward to negotiate. Little planning had been made among the group in terms of what their story would be or how they would deal with the situation if the soldiers refused. Unfortunately the conversation between the Israeli soldiers and the negotiator degenerated and became beligerant. Meanwhile the ubiquitous kids became more and more excited as the spectacle of the foriegner arguing with the Israelis unfolded. Emboldened by this they taunted the soldiers who responded with anger and agression, some charging at the kids with fingers to the trigger as tempers frayed. The group suspected that some of the soldiers inside the bunker were drunk judging by their banter and insults.
Ultimately the Israelis allowed through the internationals but noone else. The group were left in a position where they had to either go through or retreat as their continued presence would only have created an even more dangerous situation, particularly for the children who are acutely vulnerable to Israeli bullets. Had someone been shot it would have been in no small part due to the contribution of the internationals. Unquestionably a disaster was narrowly avoided. Leaving the scene with the checkpoint still closed was a total failure.
The following day the remaining members of the group, now numbering 4, returned to the checkpoint intending to return to Gaza City. Again approximately 1500 people waited. As usual at the front were crowds of young boys attracted by the strangers and, presumably, by danger. It was 10.30 am.
One of the group approached the soldiers, as with the previous evening 2 in an armoured jeep. The soldiers refused the request to open the checkpoint citing orders that it remain closed until 3pm. The negotiator asked that they contact their officer in command and pass on the request to open up. They agreed and within a few minutes word came back that the orders would stand at which point the negotiator asked to speak with the officer. He agreed to talk and claimed that the checkpoint could not open for security reasons. When pressed he explained that the terrorists would use the road to transport weapons were it not for the checkpoint with its random opening and closing times. When the negotiator enquired as to why the terrorists would not just wait in line like everyone else given that there was no fear of being searched or identified he replied that terrorists do not wait in line. With this he terminated the conversation.
These communications were civil and calm and fairly reasonable. At this point the group called the internationals who had crossed the previous evening and were now just 10 minutes up the road in Gaza City. It was agreed that they would come to the other side of the checkpoint and try their luck there by appealing that they had to get their friends back to return to Jerusalem. At this point the soldiers called back the negotiator on the Raffa side and enquired whether he intended “o make trouble for us”. Assured that the group had no such intention and reassured that noone had called their embassies he climbed back into the jeep and the negotiator returned to the madding kids and the rest of the group. Immediately the Irish and British embassies were called with a request that they contact the head of the IDF in Gaza and get an explanation of why people were being delayed at a checkpoint.
The three remaining women from the Gaza group then arrived at the other side of the checkpoint about a half mile away where about 1500 Palestinians waited. The road between is walled on one side and well covered by a series of bunkers and sniper nests. There is a small road behind the wall used by soldiers going from one side to the other. Stories were coordinated over mobilke phones. The three talked to the soldiers asking for the road to be opened allowing the rest through. They apologised for the disagreements of the previous evening and talked in a polite and friendly manner with the soldiers who ultimately agreed to their request. While they waited for the answer a mentally handicapped man kept approaching them at the front of the line and dangerously close to the Israelis. He simply had no understanding of the danger and their presence mystified and delighted him. Again the unpredictable effect of the presence of strangers in such a tense situation was underlined. Others were afradi to chase after him to bring him back as this sort of activity has often had unfortunate and tragic consequences.
Finally the group met up on the Gaza side of the check point and waited until sure that the rest of the civilians were allowed passage before proceeding. According to locals this was the first time the road had been entirely clear of waiting Palestinians since the beginning of this current Intifada.
Jim ( IRE ), Sonja ( DK ), Michelina ( F ), Julianne ( USA ), Louise ( DK ).