Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian
February 10, 2011 - 1:00am

I've been in Gaza this week, and - as always – found the experience of crossing from Israel into the Strip and back again unnerving.

The vast Israeli terminal, reminiscent of an international airport, is almost deserted. It was planned at a time when thousands of Palestinians crossed in to Israel each day to work. Now very few Palestinians can leave through Erez, and no Israelis are allowed to enter. So it's pretty much the preserve of journalists and NGO workers.

The first port of call is a hut outside the huge metal perimeter fence, where you present your passport - and, in my case, an Israeli government press card - for clearance.

Once through, you enter the glass-fronted building to present your documents again at "passport control" and answer questions about the purpose and duration of your visit.

Then begins the long and lonely walk to Gaza.

Since a number of suicide bombings at Erez during the second intifada, the Israeli border and military personnel remain in offices high above the ground level, watching through windows and closed circuit television and occasionally issuing instructions via speakers.

At the end of a high-walled narrow corridor, you pass through a tall turnstile. People struggling with large or multiple cases need to shuffle their belongings through the turnstile before passing through themselves. There are no officials to help or advise.

After another turnstile, you find yourself in front of a remotely-operated solid metal door in the vast concrete wall built along the border. Sometimes there is a wait here; sometimes the door slides open immediately.

You are now in Gaza, but confined to a long caged passage through the buffer zone to reach the Palestinian border control at the other end. For those laden with luggage, a Palestinian worker offers his services for a few shekels; for the elderly or infirm, there are a few decrepit wheelchairs standing by.

The walk takes around 15 minutes for the fit and healthy. In the summer it is hot under the corridor's corrugated iron roof.

Sometimes you hear gunfire, usually warning shots in the buffer zone, access to which is forbidden. This week I saw two men herding sheep and goats into the area, a high risk activity. The surrounding land is filled with rubble and twisted metal from demolished buildings. It can be oddly peaceful; you can usually see wildlife amid the detritus and hear birdsong.

At the other end, there is another tall turnstile to navigate and then you are greeted by Palestinian taxi drivers seeking a fare. A car ride of a minute or so brings you to Hamas immigration, where your passport is checked again and your luggage examined.

There used to be signs warning that bringing alcohol into Gaza was forbidden and if found it would be "poured away in front of your eyes". The notices have been taken down now but their disappearance has not signified a change in Hamas's policy.

The return journey has three additional features. First, your crossing back to Israel has to be cleared by the Israeli authorities before you can embark on the long walk. Second, once inside the deserted terminal, you have to open your bags and cases and lay them on a table for remote inspection, presumably via a camera. A series of red and green lights indicate when you may proceed.

Everything you are carrying - money, phones, laptop, luggage, belts, jackets - is placed in trays to be scanned. Clutching only your passport, legs apart and arms in the air, you pass through a full body scanner. You are reunited with your possessions after a plastic-gloved security official has gone through them in close detail.

Sometimes an electronic arrow flashes, pointing to the right. You go through a further series of doors until you reach a room, the floor of which is a metal grid over a large empty space. This happened to me when leaving Gaza this week. From behind a glass window, a female Israeli official asked me through a speaker to take off my jumper and t-shirt and pass them twice through a security scanner. She then gestured to me to unzip my trousers and open the fly wide - "we need to see your stomach," she said through the intercom. After a few minutes in this state of undress, she pointed to the door, indicating I could put my clothes back on and go.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017