Hamida Ghafour
The National
January 13, 2009 - 1:00am

The roads from Cairo to the northern Sinai peninsula are patrolled by Egyptian police and intelligence officers and many checkpoints have been set up along the way since Israel began its attack on the Gaza Strip.

At the Rafah crossing on the border between Egypt and Gaza, the Egyptians are allowing through only convoys of medical aid, and accepting Palestinians injured by Israeli attacks. In Cairo the wail of ambulances continues day and night as the wounded are taken to local hospitals for treatment.

In another effort to control visitors, a road sign on the Sinai peninsula reads: “No foreigners are allowed off the main road.”

One of the checkpoints is set up on the road in Balouza, Sinai. I watched two tour buses carrying journalists and political activists who were turned back.

“This is a very difficult checkpoint, there may be trouble for us,” my driver said. Without another word the car veered sharply to the right, across a sandy traffic island, and joined a parallel road about 100 metres away. We drove straight past the checkpoint, in clear view of the police, without being stopped.

It was a rather obvious loophole considering how tight security is. My colleague from a French television network, who was travelling with me, had a more philosophical explanation.

“In Egypt everything is complicated but nothing is impossible,” he said.

* * * * *

Most people flee from bombs and rockets, but at the Rafah border crossing there were several stories of Gazan Palestinians who had returned to the Gaza Strip even as the Israelis continued the shelling. They had been stuck in Al Arish, a resort town 60 kilometres from the border, when the Israelis launched their attack on December 27.

I thought these stories were apocryphal until I met a Scottish-Palestinian relief worker, Khalil Alniss, who has spent the past couple of weeks giving blankets, water, flour, rice and other essential supplies to several hundred Palestinians to take back with them. He bought the goods at the local market and left them at the gate of the border for the refugees to collect before they returned home.

These were ordinary citizens: mothers, fathers, children, sons, and daughters. I met one such woman, in her early 20s, who crossed with her infant daughter on Thursday. There was no time to ask her for details about her life because it was getting dark and we were kicked out of the customs area where she was boarding the bus. I wonder what has happened to her and whether she managed to get home safely – whatever that means in Gaza’s terrible environment.

But the tragic fate of another woman was shared on the walkie-talkie of an Egyptian security official. The woman, a mother, returned to Gaza to be with the rest of her family. Within half an hour of crossing the border she was killed by a bomb.

“This is Palestinian culture, they want to go back and die and I’m not surprised,” said Alniss.

* * * * *

What is also not surprising is that most Arabs are reluctant to give their honest opinions about politics because no one wants to be accused of being unpatriotic, or worse. I spent ages trying to find out what an Egyptian bedouin chief from Sinai thought about Arab politics. He was friendly, but evasive – until he received a text message.

The mobile phone alert was a sound byte from an old speech by the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed to the Israelis.

“We have a message and it has been delivered,” it said.

* * * * *

A British woman recently found a hoard of ancient gold coins in a car park in Jerusalem. She found the coins, minted in the 7th century, near the walls of the Old City during an excavation by an Israeli archeological organisation.

Most evenings I drive around the crowded car park outside my flat in Abu Dhabi in search of a free spot, and usually end up next to the smelly skip overflowing with rubbish. But the stray cats always look as if they’ve discovered a treasure.


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