Friday, July 21, 2006

Evacuating Amcits from Gaza

Our morning yesterday started REALLY early as we all met at the consulate in Jerusalem at 4:30 am to head to the Erez Crossing, one of the northern exits from the Gaza Strip. Our plan was to evacuate some 117 Americans from Gaza and take them across the country to the Allenby Bridge, the border crossing with Jordan. The trip to Erez took about 2 hours, and included two officers from American Citizen Services, the consular chief, three members of our local staff, and a whole passle of security guys. We took a couple vans and a couple armored vehicles. The buses, arranged though a local travel agency.

We arrived at Erez at about 6 am. The place was eerily quiet. I am told that during the last evacuation, you could hear gunfire and bombs, and that the place was covered with IDF soldiers and their very angry looking-dogs. But not yesterday. I think I heard an Israeli drone flying overhead once, but otherwise it was pretty quiet. By about 7:30, the first Americans appeared at the gate that marked the end of their treck through the crossing. That gate is pictured below (the small sign says in arabic that you are not allowed to take photos, but I can't read Arabic so I figured it didn't apply to me!) The IDF allowed one family at a time to come out, be checked in by our staff, checked off by the IDF and handed their permits to exit the country. Each family was then escorted to the bus. Once the luggage arrived and was piled up behind the buses, one family member was allowed off to claim their luggage and load it onto the bus. At no time were any of the Americans allowed to go anywhere unescorted. I even went with them to the bathroom. It was very clear to us that while these people held American passports, the IDF considered them Palestinian and it was better not to give the impression that we did not have the situation under control.

The situtation was a sad one. While I question the wisdom of taking your summer vacation in the hot garden spot of Gaza, especially since we had been warning people not to go there for a year and a half, I understand that people wanted to see family. One guy I met was one his way to see his fiance', who because theirs is a traditional muslim semi-arranged engagement, has only seen her a total of 19 days in the 3 years they have been engaged (though he assures me that they spend lots of money on phone bills!). He was convinced to stop in Gaza for two days for a family wedding. He was trapped there for more than a month, and because his finace' is in Beirut, he now can't go see her. Each person I talked to spoke of the endless bombings, of sonic booms that were wrecking the foundations of their homes, and of garbage piling up in the streets because the municipalities can't get fuel for the garbage trucks. One father told me he had tried to convince his sons that the noises they heard were fireworks or thunder. Another father fretted, looking anxiously at the soldiers as his young sons darted to the soda machine and were fishing shekels out of their pockets to get a drink. "They don't understand. They're Americans. But this isn't America. There are rules here and if you don't follow them, there will be trouble."

In the end, 104 Americans showed up at the crossing and we were able to take 103 with us. The final American, a 17-year-old girl, couldn't leave because she didn't have her passport. Her father, against the advise of the ACS section, had the pasport sent to him by courier instead of letting our staff bring it, and the courier never arrived. Sadly, there was nothing we could do. But at least we got out another 103, gave them food and water and got them to Jordan, where ACS folks from the Embassy in Amman accompanied them into Amman and one step closer to home.

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