Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Saturday, 20 December 2008

Eerie crossing into Gaza

By Jeremy Bowen
Middle East editor, BBC News

Gaza map

The crossings from Israel into Gaza have been closed much more than they have been open recently.

I managed to get in the other day.

When I first came through the Erez crossing almost 18 years ago, there was a wooden hut where a bored Israeli soldier would glance at your passport and wave you through.

A lot of people have been killed on both sides since then - more Palestinians than Israelis - and now Israel has a great, echoing terminal on the border.

It echoes because it could handle thousands of people - but for what Israel says are pressing reasons of security, almost nobody is allowed to cross.

'World's biggest prison'

I was the first that morning. A sign pointed to a door marked Gaza. It was locked. I tried the one next to it. That was locked too.

I went back to the passport barrier, and a security guard came trotting over, apologising.

An armored vehicle containing Israeli currency enters the checkpoint before its transfer to Gaza at the Erez crossing

The guard, a man in his mid 20s, worked for a private security company.

He had sunglasses perched on his head, and a fancy-looking short-barrelled M16 assault rifle bumped against his hip as we walked to the gate.

He took out the keys to Gaza, unlocked the door, smiled, and wished me a good day.

Past that first door you do not see any more Israelis, even though you are still in the terminal.

They see you though, through CCTV cameras. Sometimes they give orders through loudspeakers, as the traveller navigates a concrete ramp and enclosed steel turnstiles on the way to the final gate.

When you get there, it slides open, controlled by some remote button.

Usually it reveals a Palestinian, offering to carry your bags.

Residents of Gaza always call it the world's biggest prison and, going through the Erez terminal, it feels like that.

The Palestinians who are allowed to come to the gate to help with the luggage are like prison "trusties", the kind of people who get the plum jobs.

Helping with camera equipment and flak jackets is a money-maker. Usually I tip them about $10 (6.50).

Imports blocked


As always in sieges, most people are doing very badly, while a few get rich

According to the UN, 80% of Gazans are below the poverty line, which is defined as living on less than $2 a day.

The Erez porters are in a strange position. The ones who come to the sliding metal door would not be able to do the job if they were not acceptable to Israel.

Yet they also would not be able to do it if they were not acceptable to Hamas, which has run Gaza for around 18 months, tightening its control every day.

The porters earn their money. The gear is heavy and it takes the best part of 10 minutes to walk across a rutted strip of blasted, sandy land that used to contain factories and acres of orange groves.

Israeli soldiers bulldozed it flat, to make it harder for anyone who wants to get up to the border to attack them.

In doing so, they also removed the livelihoods of the farmers and factory workers in this part of Gaza.

As we trudged across, I saw the garbage had changed. Soft drinks cans had Arabic instead of Hebrew lettering on them.

The new rubbish is because Israel has blocked the import of everything but the bare minimum of the most vital commodities since Hamas took over.

Now most of what is in the shops comes through tunnels from Egypt.

The trade is so established that Hamas taxes the importers, and the tunnel owners run a compensation scheme for the families of men who die when tunnels collapse.

Israel says they are used to bring in weapons as well as food, fuel and cigarettes.

For the recent Muslim feast of sacrifice, they even brought calves, sheep and goats through the tunnels to be fattened up and slaughtered.

Gunfire

As always in sieges, most people are doing very badly, while a few get rich.

The entrepreneurs who own the tunnels are the closest Gaza has to financial oligarchs.

Half way across the bulldozed strip, towards the first Hamas checkpoint, about half a dozen shots rang out behind us.

Some young boys who were scavenging in the rubble, hacking out the steel bars that reinforce the concrete, had got too close to the border wall - which at Erez is more than seven metres high.

The Israelis were scaring them off with warning shots. Despite the danger, you always see people there, smashing concrete slabs with sledge hammers. They make about 50 cents (35p) an hour from the scrap.

My Palestinian colleague was waiting at the barrier, next to the tea stall, with a broad grin on his face.

"Welcome to Gaza," he said. "The Israeli gunfire was just to impress you."

He led the way to the BBC's armoured Land Rover. I saw they still had not fixed the old bullet hole in the windscreen, and we drove into town.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 December, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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