I handed my passport to the Israeli soldier working at the VIP desk at Erez border, the only crossing point for internationals to move from Israel into Gaza. She checked if my face matched my photo, then moved to the computer to ascertain if I had Israeli army permission to enter Gaza.
It was almost five years to the day since my first trip to Gaza. In January 2002, I only had to present my passport and wait a few minutes for it to be returned with a slip indicating that I had permission to pass through the terminal. The border crossing was quiet even then, as Palestinians were no longer receiving permission to enter Israel to work, but there was a steady trickle of international visitors: aid workers, journalists, people who wanted to see and understand for themselves what was happening.
Internationals’ access to Gaza, however, has been severely limited for the last three years. In order to cross from Israel, an organization that is already preapproved by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has to request permission on your behalf–and then you must obtain individual clearance as well, a process that can take up to a week. I was alone at Erez that day, aside from the Israeli soldiers behind the desk and a few Israeli men and women on the tarmac outside, wearing civilian clothes and sporting black uzis with bright yellow markings.
“Who are they? Private security or something?”
“Yes,” the soldier answered as she handed back my passport and entry slip. Amazing. Private security to protect an army outpost. Looks like the IDF has been taking a page from Bush’s book on the occupation of Iraq. Or vice versa.
Ra’ed met me with his taxi on the Palestinian side of the crossing. I had climbed randomly into Ra’ed’s cab back in January 2002–and over the years we had become friends. I called him whenever I was coming to Gaza and he would meet me at the border, taking me all over the Gaza Strip; north to Jabalya camp, south to Khan Younis, Rafah or Gaza City. During my last trip to Palestine and Israel, in June 2006, my application for permission to enter Gaza coincided with the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The permission had not been processed until I had already left the country; therefore, it had been a year and a half since I had seen Ra’ed.
“Wallah, it’s good to see you!” Ra’ed said as we headed toward Beit Hanoun to pick up my friend Ahmad.
“How are you? How is your family?” Ra’ed’s wife had been pregnant the first time I met him, and I always tracked time by the growth of his youngest daughter.
“I guess you heard about what happened. Maybe you saw me on television?”
I felt a pit in my stomach immediately. There could be no positive reason why I might have seen Ra’ed, who lives in Beit Hanoun close to Ahmad, on international television.
“No, Ra’ed… what happened?”
“The family in Beit Hanoun who was killed. It was my family. My close family. My grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins…”
I knew immediately the incident that Ra’ed was referring to. On November 8, the IDF fired ten-plus shells into a residential street of Beit Hanoun, killing eighteen Palestinian civilians, mostly women and children, and thirteen of whom were members of the same family–Ra’ed’s family, I was just now learning.