Imagine yourself taken between the lines of two warring forces into a no-man’s land over which both sides continue to fire weapons and launch missiles at each other.
Now imagine yourself being taken and dropped there on your own with no obvious way out, as shells are falling not far away and bursts of gunfire can still be heard. That was where I found myself Tuesday with 12 other international journalists as we attempted to escape the relentless onslaught of war taking place in Gaza and get to Israel, a relative bastion of calm.
Since Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza last week, it’s been practically impossible for journalists to get out of the Gaza Strip – not unlike the position in which most Gazans find themselves all the time.
On Tuesday, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a division of the Israeli Defence Ministry, organized a bus that would take us from Gaza – past the bombed and abandoned Hamas checkpoint, beyond the deserted Palestinian Authority’s official border-crossing station – to the entrance of a covered walkway that leads 1.5 kilometres across the no-man’s land to the Israeli border facility.
The bus, co-ordinated through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), dropped us off and picked up another group of journalists heading into Gaza. It was already driving off as we approached the entrance to the walkway and, to our dismay, found it locked.
The turnstile, through which the arriving reporters had entered Gaza, only turned in one direction and no amount of our force was able to alter it. The gateway through which people normally exited was locked with one of those padlocks that no thief could cut through.
The prospect of turning back on foot – into the Hamas firing lines – was none too appealing, nor was walking toward the Israeli lines on the road that diplomatic cars used. Without clearance, the Israelis were likely to fire at an unexpected group like us, many carrying large suspicious-looking containers (with TV and other reporting equipment).
More than 600 people, the majority of them Palestinians in Gaza, have already been killed in the fighting. Just the day before, Israeli troops fired on ambulances trying to take casualties from the accidentally shelled hospital in Deir al-Balah to another hospital in Gaza City. Israeli authorities explained later that without co-ordination through the ICRC, Israel would consider any ambulance or other vehicle suspicious in a battle zone.
We made a call to the COGAT folks, but it turned out they hadn’t planned for the possibility of us not being able to enter the walkway and they had no easy answer: Nobody there had the key to the lock and nobody there was about to venture out into the risky no-man’s land to try to do something. “Are you crazy?” was the implicit message.
It was at that moment, in the nearby area of Beit Hanoun, that an artillery shell landed – one of the hundreds of shells Israelis fire each day at various spots on the Gaza Strip. This one landed a bit too close for comfort, leaving us wondering why the Israeli right hand hadn’t passed on the word to the left that we journalists were out there in the moon-like cratered landscape, and to lay off the firing.
There was a bit of nervous laughter in our group when we realized the gate was locked. Three of us tried lifting the massive gate off its locked position, only to find it couldn’t open inward and wouldn’t budge.
COGAT finally agreed to let us walk down the open roadway; the Israeli Defence Forces had promised not to shoot at us.
The long walk in the blazing sun to the Israeli border station – clad, as most of us were, in body armour and helmets, and many lugging gear – left us all soaked in sweat. But at least we drew no fire from either side. A few Israeli shells landed in the vicinity, but none too close.
Inside the enormous Erez Crossing facility, we were treated to the usual security demands of pouring everything out of our bags and having complete body scans. After apparently failing two body scans, I alone was told to enter a special area, where I weaved through a maze of roofless chambers under the watchful eye of several men and women of the security service looking down from an upper level.
In the last room, two men behind a thick blast-proof glass told me to strip down to my boxers. I’m not sure what they expected to find, however I had little choice but to comply. My clothes went through a special X-ray unit and I was allowed to dress again – in my sweat-soaked clothes.
We all got back our various laptops, phones, cameras and clothes and then we breezed through passport control.
I was just about to say goodbye to the other journalists who had made the crossing with me when an alert was sounded on the Israelis’ walkie-talkies: There was an incoming rocket from Gaza. We had a few seconds to run into the VIP lounge for cover.
We at least could leave the rockets, the bombings and the constant fear of death behind us. We were back where it was safe.