Travel to Gaza has never been easy.
In 2004, my friend and I made it through the Erez Checkpoint between Israel and Gaza only after answering a ton of questions at Ben Gurion airport. Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, a world-renowned Palestinian psychologist in Gaza, was not so fortunate. Israel wouldn’t allow him to travel abroad to accept an international award from his peers, so we journeyed to Gaza to bring the award to him.
My next attempt to visit Gaza came in July 2011. I had an invitation to meet with colleagues at the university and planned to stay only a few days. I wanted to see how Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (08-09) had impacted the Gaza Strip. I thought I was prepared. I’d done my homework and read the entire Goldstone Report. My reading list was growing.
I suspected it might be dangerous. Hamas was now in control of the Gaza Strip. Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian journalist and ISM volunteer, had been abducted and killed a few months earlier. But I wasn’t deterred.
I took the bus from Cairo to El-Arish in the northern Sinai. The 4-5 hour trip passed quickly without interruption. Hopping into a taxi for the final 50 km. to the Rafah border, I found myself sitting next to a journalist, a friend of Vittorio Arrigoni. I offered my condolences. When he heard about my plans to cross the Rafah border, he laughed at my naivety. No security clearance? No official paperwork giving me permission to cross the border? Good luck!
I recall thinking:
“I have permission from the Gaza side to enter, why would Egypt have any control on who LEAVES Egypt?”
I was turned away. لا لا لا No – No – No! The Egyptian border agents spoke very little English but it was clear they didn’t see my name on their list and so I was not going to enter. I could stamp my feet and shake my head all I wanted, it made no difference. So I returned to Cairo and started knocking on government doors. It took about a month, but I finally received the approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a day before my flight was scheduled back to the United States. I was teaching and expected to be in my classroom the following week. So with my “approval” in hand, I returned home, deflated but not defeated.
I signed up for an Arabic Language class at my university and continued with my “homework” to learn as much as I could about the Israel-Palestine conflict. And I made plans to return to Gaza.
In the Spring of 2012, I contacted the Egyptian Embassy in Houston. I sent them my invitation from Gaza to teach a climate change seminar, along with my passport and the fees for a Visa. Several phone calls to follow-up, and I finally received my passport with the Visa and an official-looking paper giving me permission to cross the Rafah border. I flew to Cairo in September 2012 and made an uneventful crossing at Rafah.
The next three months in Gaza were an amazing education for me. I can’t begin to summarize it here but take a look at my blog. I wrote alot about my experience. I was the student, my students were my teachers. In November 2012, Israel launched another military assault on Gaza which I’ve dubbed the Polite War. See here, and here, and here. The active shelling lasted 8 days and nights but the human trauma and scars will last another generation.
Silly me. I decided I needed a break and would spend the New Year holiday in Cairo before returning to Gaza. I left Gaza the day after attending a beautiful Christmas Eve mass in the Holy Family Church in the Old Town in Gaza City. Two weeks later, in early January 2013, I shared a taxi with a Palestinian friend who was returning to Gaza from his studies in Malaysia. On the ride across the northern Sinai, my friend showed me his manuscript that he wanted to get published. When we got to Rafah, I watched him skate through the checkpoint with no problem, while I was told لا لا لا again. No – No – No!
“Wait! You let me cross 4 months ago and I have all the same paperwork. You’re mistaken. I must return to Gaza.”
Nothing I said made a difference. I returned to Cairo and spent the next 4+ weeks knocking on official doors, meeting and having my picture taken with the Egyptian Minister of Interior, the Egyptan Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Palestinian Ambassador to Egypt. Finally, I received a phone call about 10 PM one night in mid-February 2013 from the assistant to the Palestinian Ambassador. She told me that my name was on “the list” and I had permission to cross the Rafah border on Sunday.
I returned to Gaza and solidified friendships, continued to learn more about the reality of Israel’s occupation and siege, and decided I wanted to make a difference … but how? In May 2013, I left Gaza determined to return. I wasn’t sure when or what I might be doing when I got back, but I left my heart in Gaza.
Fast forward to November 2015. I’m back in Cairo trying to return to Gaza.
I’ve packed up my house, put my things into storage and hired a property manager to take care of my home in the U.S. I’ve been a nomad or pilgrim for the past year, living with friends, waiting for the Egyptian Embassy in the U.S. to process my application to return to Gaza. For many, many months, the Egyptian Embassy wouldn’t even accept my application. “No one is allowed to cross the Sinai,” they told me. “It’s too dangerous.” I waited patiently.
In August, I called again. This time they said they would accept my application but didn’t make any promises about whether it would be approved. I submitted all of the paperwork to the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC and held my breath.
Al-hamdulillah! The Egyptian Embassy in DC notified me that my Visa application had been approved with the security clearance to cross the Rafah border. I picked it up on September 11 and left the U.S. on October 14 fully expecting that I would walk across the Rafah border without a hitch. My biggest concern was the weight of my luggage. I’m carrying a ton of books to the library and to friends in Gaza. I had to ditch most of my clothes and personal things to stay within the airline’s weight limit. [Side note: Israel must consider books a threat because these are one of the many prohibited items that Israeli officials will not allow into Gaza.]
When I arrived in Cairo, I learned that the security clearance marked in my Visa was probably not sufficient to get me across the Rafah border. Given the increased tension and violence in the northern Sinai, I don’t want to make an aborted trip and be turned away. I’ve had too much experience with that scenario.
Today I had a long phone conversation with an official in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He received my fax (Visa with security clearance) and confirmed that it doesn’t give me permission to cross the Rafah border. It only gives me permission to enter Egypt.
I complained and told him the Egyptian Embassy in DC said I had permission to cross the Rafah border. I told him I don’t need security clearance to enter Egypt. I can just fly to Cairo and purchase a Visa at the airport.
He said there are new rules since the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, the one Israel dubbed Operation Protective Shield. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo must fax a letter with my documentation to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I told him I would not have left the U.S. and traveled to Cairo unless I was told I had permission to cross the Rafah border.
He repeated that I need to talk with the U.S. Embassy in Cairo about faxing my papers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He said he would expedite my request as soon as he receives the fax from the U.S. Embassy.
Last Thursday I sent an email to the U.S. Embassy requesting a meeting. Today I’m going to send a message to my U.S. Senator asking for his help to arrange the meeting.
I’m also going to try to contact the Palestinian Ambassador in Cairo.
The reality of Rafah: this border was open 264 days in 2013 when I last crossed. It was open 124 days in 2014. It’s only been open 19 days in 2015. Lora Lucero has options. I can sit and wait in Cairo. I can return to the U.S. I can hike the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. But the Palestinians in Gaza have no options. They can’t travel abroad for work, for higher education, for medical treatment or for pleasure, which is the basic right of any human being.
Americans – Ask yourselves if this seige on Gaza (going on 8 years now) is something you want your government and your tax dollars supporting.