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Torment continues at Erez checkpoint, uneasy peace holds in Gaza
Marian Houk
Middle East Times
June 20, 2007

GAZA CITY — There may be worse places on earth, but not many. The Erez checkpoint between the northern Gaza Strip and Israel is designed for hostile crowd control.

Over the past few days, its concrete corridors have become fearful, squalid holding cells where hundreds of Palestinians have been trapped in fear, without food, water, sanitation, or shelter. Adamantly refusing to return to Gaza, they have been barred by Israel from passing through, even if only to reach the West Bank.

Those trapped in this limbo have been traumatized by weeks of horrifying factional fighting that culminated in a stunning Hamas rout of Fatah security forces late last week. Some 300 Fatah security officers leaders fled by sea to Egypt June 15 after prior coordination with Israel. Another 200, whose names were on a list submitted by the Palestinian Authority (PA), were cleared through Erez June 16 and June 17, and bussed to hotels in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the less privileged flocked to the Erez crossing point, and have since refused to leave.

Since June 14, there have been no PA security forces on the Gaza side of the tunnel. Hamas fighters manned haphazard checkpoints approaching the Erez crossing, but they did not come too close to the Israeli side.

Then, after enduring several days in squalid conditions, a number of those waiting at Erez were caught in the crossfire when fighting of unclear origin broke out Monday night and again Tuesday morning, leaving at least two dead and over a dozen wounded. According to witnesses waiting in the desolate zone on the Gaza side of the checkpoints, seven Israeli tanks rushed out and quelled the fighting by a show of force.

By midday Tuesday, Palestinians in the tunnel were “freaking out,” in the words of a journalist who had somehow received the information from an Israeli contact while waiting outside the checkpoint in the summer heat, after having rushed to Erez to take advantage of the sudden announcement by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that the transit point had been opened to the foreign press.

For years, Palestinians – mostly men seeking work as laborers – were herded like cattle daily through Erez corridors before dawn to cross from the northern Gaza Strip into Israel.

Then, during the second intifada that began in late 2000, Israeli security controls increasingly tightened, and new technologies depersonalized the crossing process. An attempted suicide attack on the guards by an apparently-handicapped Palestinian woman was nearly the last straw.

Erez became a fear-inspiring concrete-and-steel transition zone complete with gun towers and one-way observation windows from which Hebrew is blared in a confusing and unpleasant way at would-be crossers.

At one point Tuesday, Erez guards also shouted in broken Arabic, “Yellah, hajj” (“Let’s go, pilgrim” – although, in this context “hajj” is an ethnic/religious slur), to the few, exhausted Palestinians waiting, with journalists, to enter the Gaza strip.

The surprise decision to permit journalists’ entry was taken just hours after Ehud Barak took office as Israel’s new defense minister.

Erez was then temporarily closed again, during Tuesday’s shooting, but reopened several hours later.

Before the re-opening, in an unprecedented move, Israel security entered the bare concrete tunnel packed full of panicking Palestinians, and reportedly managed to persuade the crowd to sit down. Then, they distributed food and water, carried out a medical triage, and began to evacuate the most-seriously wounded.

After hours of being treated with disdain, the waiting reporters were also suddenly showered with unexpected consideration, following the arrival of a man dressed like a construction worker, but clearly in charge.

Recognizing him, one reporter recounted that the man had been involved in the 2005 evacuation of the Jewish settlements that preceded the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza, becoming known for his decent behavior during that fraught time.

The hot and dehydrated members of the press were invited inside a new double-storey tall entry terminal, and then offered bottled water, access to toilets, and clear explanations of the procedure to follow.

As the journalists were bussed around to the far end of the tunnel packed with Palestinians, they began to see the start of the first “back-to-back” medical evacuation that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been able to organize over the past two weeks, despite the recent fighting.

One Palestinian health ministry ambulance per patient would approach from the Gaza side, and then have to unload the patient onto a stretcher, thereafter to be carried to a waiting Israeli Magen David Adom (MDA, Red Star of David) ambulance marked as a donation from Friends of MDA in America, Canada, or Zurich. Beside the stretcher, two IDF soldiers closely monitored the transfer, one of them filming the operation. Journalists were not allowed to take photos.

By late Tuesday, six serious cases were evacuated through Erez to hospitals in Israel for advanced medical treatment, according to Gaza ICRC communication representative, Iyad Nasr.

Another eight patients were slated for evacuation Wednesday, he said. “These persons are critically injured, and their lives are threatened,” he added. “Their injuries include arterial or nerve damage, and chest, abdomen, and head injuries. They need operations by specialized surgeons, and either this care is not available in Gaza, or the hospitals here are too stretched.”

He estimated that there had been over 160 deaths and 600 injuries in the recent Gaza fighting, and that 50 were in critical condition.

Earlier the same day, Bernard Barrett, ICRC information delegate from Jerusalem who was coordinating the transfer from the Israeli side of the checkpoint said there had been “a significant number of lower limb injuries” in the recent conflict.

A Fatah-linked evacuee in Ramallah told the Middle East Times June 17 that people were being shot through the backs of both knees, and through the ankles, inflicting wounds sure to cause permanent damage to the joints, and paralysis of the legs.

The evacuee added that some people were also being shot through both elbows and wrists, but these claims have not been corroborated.

Meanwhile, Tuesday, by the time journalists had arrived at the Palestinian entry to the tunnel, at around 4:00 pm (1400 GMT), the crowd had been reduced, and mostly young men were left. Despite the squalid conditions, a single vendor was selling lemon ice.

One older couple sat propped up against the concrete walls at the outer approach, clearly too exhausted to move. Speaking in desperation, the elderly man explained that his wife, seated beside him, suffered from cancer and had had an appointment June 14 for chemotherapy at a hospital in Israel. He displayed papers written in Hebrew that would have enabled the two of them to pass through Erez to make the appointment.

He explained it was a very difficult bureaucratic process securing permission to enter Israel for such treatment, adding that if an appointment was missed, it could take weeks to reschedule. On June 14, the fighting in Gaza was reaching its zenith, and the couple could not pass into Israel for the chemotherapy. Consequently, they were in despair, not knowing what to do next.

Nasr said he hoped the ICRC would be able to coordinate with the Israeli authorities, so that such medical treatment, available only in Israel, could once more become available to Palestinian patients.

He also reported that the ICRC had negotiated access for medical teams of surgeons and anesthesiologists who will be heading out from Geneva as of Thursday to perform specialized operations on the recently wounded in Gaza.

This will mean that patients will be able to be hospitalized near their homes and families, he said, and will not need to await Israeli security clearance. Palestinian medical personnel would also benefit from their expertise by having the chance to learn new techniques, he added.

Further, said Nasr, a truck and a trailer loaded with medical supplies were already transiting the Kerem Shalom crossing at the southeast corner of the Gaza Strip, where the borders of Israel, Gaza, and Egypt meet.

The Kerem Shalom crossing is not far from the Yasser Arafat International Airport, whose runways have been rendered unusable by IDF airstrikes. The Israelis have, for some time, wanted to open Kerem Shalom for business, but the Palestinian Authority had hitherto resisted. Now, given the needs of the humanitarian operation, the Israeli preference has prevailed.

Meanwhile, Gaza City was quiet Tuesday. People were out on the streets, but damage from the recent fighting was visible on many buildings – pockmarked by bullets and shells – including the two high-rise apartment blocks where men were thrown off the roofs to their deaths, the first victim apparently killed by Hamas, the second, in revenge, by Fatah.

One building housing a television transmission facility – and, formerly, some Fatah security offices – had bullet holes in the floors of all its corridors and stairwells.

Many intersections had relatively-relaxed, armed security men wearing blue-camouflage uniforms. “These are Hamas militia,” one Gazan resident explained, “wearing police uniforms issued by the now-absent-from-Gaza Palestinian Authority.”

But, he said, no announcement or explanation had been made to the public about these forces.

One young man at the Delice coffee shop Tuesday evening confessed he felt very uneasy with the present situation. “These people say they represent the law,” he said, “but how do I know who authorized them, or which law they mean?”

Meanwhile, Hamas spokesman Samih Abu Zuhri, interviewed in his offices Tuesday evening, told the Middle East Times that: “We don’t have a problem with Fatah, but with some criminals who committed crimes in the Gaza Strip.

“What happened in Gaza [made] the Hamas takeover … a necessity. We had to do it because of these crimes … We asked the President [Mahmoud Abbas] to stop these groups. When he didn’t, we had to do this against them.”

Abu Zuhri confirmed that he did accept Abbas as his president, but added that “since the people got rid of the [Fatah] security forces that were causing this chaos, stability has returned to Gaza … there are no bullets flying in the air now.”

[Originally published here, but link is now broken: http://www.metimes.com/storyview.php?StoryID=20070620-075400-2326r]

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