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.

I had read about the attack when it happened and called my friend Ahmad to check that he and his family were OK. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me to ask Ahmad about Ra’ed and his family. I flashed back to the photographs I saw on websites of relatives of the slaughtered victims kneeling in puddles of their family members’ blood, mourning their fresh loss. I tried to zoom in on the photos in my mind to see if it was Ra’ed’s face. I glanced at Ra’ed sitting in the seat next to me, concentrating intently on guiding his vehicle around obstacles in the road, narrowly missing young boys sitting on wooden carts, legs swinging easily over the side as they held the reins of trotting donkeys lightly in their hands. Ra’ed’s mouth was set, and his eyes were narrowed. I had never seen him look this tired.

“There’s Ahmad, see? Up ahead.”

Ahmad waved to us as Ra’ed guided the taxi to the side of the road. He climbed into the back of the car, smiling broadly. “I thought you wouldn’t be able to come again!”

“Me, too. I only found out this morning that I had the permission. How are you, Ahmad? How is your hand doing?”

Ahmad showed me bullet entrance and exit wounds right below the knuckle of his ring finger on his left hand. The e-mail I had received from him in September played back in my head. “I was in my aunt’s house hanging with friends and relatives,” he had written to me, “when gunshots started and suddenly my hand was shot with live ammunition from soldiers on the border. I slept in the hospital for 2 nights…it really hurts. I’m afraid, Jen, it’s so horrible and painful.” He opened and closed his fingers into a fist, demonstrating the nearly full movement of his hand that he hadn’t been sure he would be able to recover.

Our next stop was Jabalya camp to pick up Rahma. Ra’ed pointed to the husks of burned-out cars on the side of the main road through the camp. “This is where the big fighting was, two weeks ago, between Fatah and Hamas.”

I stared at the remains of the cars. The description of the fighting in Jabalya had been chilling. Gunfire on a besieged house with gun battles raging in the streets, execution-style murders, abductions, beatings, fire opening on unarmed protesters trying to stop the violence. I recalled an article published in October in Ha’aretz by Israeli journalist Amira Hass in which she described Israel’s “successful experiment” in Gaza: “The Palestinians are killing each other,” Hass wrote. “They are behaving as expected at the end of the extended experiment called ‘what happens when you imprison 1.3 million human beings in an enclosed space like battery hens.'” I wondered how Ahmad and Ra’ed felt about the fact that my government was leading the economic blockade that contributed to the internecine violence–and was arming one side.

Ahmad shook his head as he surveyed the damage. “It is worse than when the Israelis attack us,” he said, almost as if to himself. “When we are killing each other, Palestinians killing Palestinians–this is the most painful of all.”

Ra’ed glanced sharply at Ahmad in the back seat and then concentrated on the road again, gripping the wheel and biting his lip. Gauging from the look on his face, I wasn’t sure that he agreed.

Rahma joined us in the car, and we continued to a beachside hotel in Gaza City, where we were meeting a group of young men and women whom I had known as teenagers but some of whom I hadn’t seen for years. As we drove, I kept my eyes on the street outside the car window, trying to find some visual evidence of the reports I had read of the utter humanitarian collapse in Gaza. I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was looking for. Barefoot children rooting through trash cans searching for food or playing with empty tin cans in sewage at the side of the road? I had seen that already in previous trips, before the current humanitarian crisis. I knew I wasn’t going to be in Gaza long enough to get a real feel for how the situation had deteriorated–I wouldn’t have the chance to walk through the alleys that penetrate the refugee camps or visit hospitals, clinics, schools. But I couldn’t help but notice as we drove through the main roads of Beit Hanoun, Jabalya and Gaza City how empty and quiet the streets seemed to be. As if people were hunkered down, waiting for the worst yet to come.

There was a distant boom as we sat in the hotel drinking coffee. I startled involuntarily–it had been awhile since I had been around exploding ordnance. Mahmoud and Ibrahim, sitting next to me, laughed at my reaction. “Welcome to Gaza!” they said. “and Ramadan Kareem!” They were invoking an old joke we had, referring to the practice of setting off firecrackers during Ramadan. “Ramadan Kareem!” we would say to one another, tongue in cheek, as we heard the sound of explosives no matter what season of the year.

“So who is that from?” I asked the young men.

“That’s from the Israelis.” Gazans have long been able to decipher the weapons used against them from the sound–tank fire, spy plane, Apache helicopter or otherwise. Now, apparently, they could differentiate between fire from Israelis and fire from battling Palestinian factions.

Later that night, as I ate dinner by the light of a kerosene lamp (Israel bombed Gaza Strip’s only electrical power plant June 28 in retaliation for the abduction of Gilad Shalit; the electricity shortage remains) with Rahma and her family in Jabalya camp, we heard more shooting. Before I could ask Rahma to interpret the sound of the bullets (was it from factional fighting or the IDF?), she was reminding me of the last time I had stayed with her family, back in October 2004. We had all been wakened at 3 am by an enormous explosion caused by a double missile strike from a spy plane, killing two militants directly outside her apartment building. A group of kids had given me a tour of Jabalya camp the next morning, starting with lifting the remnants of the two men’s scalps on a stick for me to film. Our tour had ended abruptly when an IDF tank high up on a hill overlooking an empty field on the edge of the refugee camp opened fire on us. The kids and I fled, diving over a sand dune and using our elbows to stomach-crawl away, staying as low as possible. By the time Rahma and I finished rehashing that story, the current gunfire had long passed, scarcely registered in our memories.

I crossed back into Israel the next afternoon, going through the terminal that was now divided into different cages, each one created by a series of iron-bar walls and iron-bar gates that swung open and closed by remote control. There were speakers with voices blaring out, shouting instructions that were, to the best of my deciphering ability, sometimes in Hebrew and sometimes in Arabic. In either language, the instructions were unintelligible. There was no human presence whatsoever, just remote-controlled jail doors separating one cage from the next and speakers shouting instructions. I remembered the last time I had crossed through here, in the summer of 2005. An elderly woman stood alone in a narrow passageway to a metal detector, squinting at the speaker that was barking at her, trying to locate a person behind the voice. She walked through the metal detector. It beeped.

“Go back!” The Voice shouted at her. She blinked in confusion. “Go back!” the order was repeated with impatience. She went back, tried again. It beeped again. The Voice shouted some more things at her. She stood there, disoriented, not knowing what to do. Finally, she took off her bracelets, tried one more time, and the metal detector was silent. But her ordeal wasn’t over. Doing her best to follow the commands issued by The Voice, she turned around slowly twice, hitched her skirt halfway up her thighs, and lifted her head scarf to reveal the back of her neck–without ever seeing the one who was scrutinizing her or The Voice that was barking the orders.

This time I crossed into Israel alone. My friend Sami came to pick me up from Jerusalem. “So, how was it in Gaza?” he asked me as I got in the car.

Images from the past twenty-four hours mixed in my mind with previous trips to Gaza over the past five years, witnessing degrees of human suffering that always seem to be as bad as things could possibly get… until they get worse. Dante talks about nine circles of hell. I struggle to ascertain in what part of hell Gazans are currently living, and how the next realm of hell to which they are plummeting will express itself.