My adventures as an Arab American journalist crossing in and out of Israel have already been documented here.
But even for someone who goes in expecting delays, aggressive questioning and the occasional strip search, my experience on Sunday leaving the Gaza Strip through the Eretz border crossing was a shock.
About 18 months ago, Israel completed construction of a massive automated inspection terminal at Eretz.
The size of a warehouse, a bewildering high-tech cattle pen built with one primary goal: to ensure that everyone coming out of Gaza gets their bags and their body thoroughly screened long before they ever get in a room with an Israeli.
Dozens of automated doors and gates open and close before you; disembodied Israeli voices tell you where to stand, when to walk into various scanning devices and when to open your bags, display them to the cameras and place them on conveyor belts.
The terminal was built with the idea of screening the many Gazan laborers who used to commute daily to their jobs in Israel. A few months after the opening, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, and Israel (with Egyptian assistance) largely sealed Gaza’s borders.
Now nobody even tries to get out except journalists, Gazans employed by international organizations, those with high-level connections to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah or medical-need cases cleared for treatment in Israeli hospitals.
Eretz normally opens around 7 a.m. I arrived Sunday at 10:30 a.m., hoping to miss the morning rush of medical patients. I found a large group of Palestinians gathered outside the trailer that serves as a coordination office with the Israelis. The border hadn’t opened yet and there was no word on when it would.
We waited. There was nothing else to do. We drank tea and coffee, and swapped cigarettes and stories. Two enterprising youths sold lemon slushies out of a cooler, which tasted and felt fantastic on a blazing day. A small group of presumably urgent medical cases was permitted through around 11:30, then nothing for hours.
Around 1:30 p.m. I started to worry, since the border was supposed to close at 2:30.
I called the manger of the crossing. He first denied there was anything wrong, then said to call him back in 10 minutes, then another 10 minutes. On the final call, he yelled at me to leave him alone and direct my calls to the army, then hung up. (In fairness, he later turned out to be a decent guy having a really bad day.)
Getting desperate, I called the army press office and a senior Ministry of Information official. They reported back that the computer system had fried and the intricate network of automated doors wasn’t working right. Technicians were on the way, but it would take a few more hours.
We waited more. What other choice did we have? (MORE)