Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year Gaza!!!

I spent the last few days at Egypt's border with Gaza, in a town called Rafah.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Gaza, here are a few facts:
1. With around 1.5 million residents squeezed into 139 square miles, it is one of the most population dense areas in the world.

2. Although Gaza is ruled by Hamas, Israel controls Gaza's borders, airspace and territorial waters, which allows Israel to control the flow of goods and people into and out of the strip. This includes food, fuel and medical supplies, as well as weapons. Since Hamas took full power of Gaza in June 2007, Israel has severely limited its exports to Gaza.

3. Egypt is the only country besides Israel that shares a border with Gaza. To the consternation of the Egyptian government, which is trying to control its own widely popular Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas enjoys widespread support throughout the Egyptian populace. Egypt's border at Rafah has been closed for all but select humanitarian aid since June 2007.

4. Yes there are probably Palestinians who would like to bomb Israel off the face of the earth (with their homemade rockets), just as there are Israelis who actually are bombing Gaza off the face of the earth--and neither side seems to care if non-combatant civilians are killed in the process. The fact is, Palestinian civilians essentially have no place to go. They can't flee to Egypt. They certainly can't get into Israel. They are trapped on this tiny island with bombs falling all around them.

I arrived at the Rafah border crossing on Sunday, Dec. 28, a day after Israel's air strikes began. I hired a driver to pick me up at 5 a.m. and make the 4-hour jaunt to the Rafah border post. I arrived around 9:15 a.m., just minutes after the first bombs of the day fell on Rafah, I was told by the cadre of journalists lined up outside the gate.

Incredibly, the Egyptian officials allowed all of us journalists past the front gate to the actual border crossing area. We merely had to give them our passports and press cards, as assurances that we wouldn't be able to cross into Gaza. (See Mom, I couldn't even get in to Gaza if I tried.) That's pretty amazing access from the Egyptian government, which more often than not obstructs the work of journalists here.

I understood why we were allowed inside when I saw the 50 or so ambulances and 15-20 trucks packed with donated medical supplies from around Egypt. Since Egypt has refused a complete opening of its border to refugees and supplies, its important for it to be seen by the Egyptian citizenry and by other Arab nations as helping the Gazans somehow, at the very least allowing humanitarian aid to pass through the border.

It's all political.

Bizarrely, the ambulances were sitting there empty and no wounded people were being allowed in to Egypt. The trucks full of medical supplies were sitting there not being allowed to cross into Gaza. We waited all day for something, anything to happen. Hamas officials came, gave interviews and left again. Palestinian Red Crescent workers could be seen pacing through the open gate on the Gaza side of the border. An Egyptian official showed up mid-afternoon, stating that the Hamas officials hadn't "coordinated" enough with the Egyptian government to allow the humanitarian aid process to begin. Hamas left in a huff.

Finally, around 4:30 p.m., the supply trucks began to line up. It appeared they suddenly had the green light to unload and that the transfer of medical supplies was about to begin.

It's a bit of a blur now, but as I remember it, my back was turned away from the border gate, toward the trucks, when I heard, and felt with my whole body, several massive explosions. The ground shook. I turned to see the smoke rising from an Israeli air strike just on the other side of the border wall. More explosions followed, and just when I thought they would stop, there were more. I could barely lift my camera to my face. The bombs felt so close. People were yelling and running.

A total of 20 bombs were directed at Gaza's system of underground smuggling tunnels leading into Egypt. The tunnels are used to import all kinds of goods into Egypt--food, electronics, livestock and, Israel claims, weapons.

The bombs seemed to jar the many volunteers and police on both sides of the border to action. Since the Egyptian supply trucks were not allowed to drive into Gaza, all of the medical supplies had to be unloaded and carried or rolled, box by box, across the border. Men frantically stuffed ambulances with pharmaceuticals and syringes. Even the Egyptian police were lending a hand, running boxes and beds to the Gaza side. Within an hour, the trucks were empty.

The next afternoon, more trucks of supplies were transported across the border.

In January 2008, the Rafah border was breached when somebody in Gaza exploded a hole in the barrier. A mass of humanity swelled into Egypt to buy all kinds of goods--everything from food to televisions. The government decided it didn't want this scenario to be repeated, so in preparation for the transfer of injured Palestinians into Egypt, the riot police stood in formation near the gate, and truckloads more waited outside the border crossing in case of emergency.

Over the next couple days, I shot the wounded being transferred to Egypt for medical treatment. The first day I saw nine Palestinians transported to Egypt. Gaza's medical facilities have been crippled by the inability to get adequate supplies, among other things. And the hospital in Rafah was not well-equipped enough to deal with the most critically injured.

Shooting this was not fun. The crowd of photographers and television cameras was extremely aggressive. There were also a bunch of random people crowding around gawking, taking pictures with their stupid cell phone cameras. It was really strange. Sometimes the paramedics could hardly get the injured person from one ambulance to the other. All anyone seemed to care about was getting their pictures, instead of caring about the people they were photographing.

I asked one of the wire photographers if this was the norm, if it's always such a feeding frenzy when wounded people are brought in. He confirmed that that behavior was typical in the Middle East.

It's also pretty interesting that nobody, from the families of the injured to the police, volunteers and journalists, seemed concerned with patient privacy. Of course this transfer was happening within a public space, but still. People wanted us to take pictures. They wanted the world to see what was happening.

However, in the U.S., it doesn't matter how big of a story it is, you still need release forms and spokespeople and lawyers to make sure it's all right to take such photographs. Nobody wants to get sued. Just an interesting cultural side note.

The emergency volunteers treated the patients with care and compassion.

Women, children, and men were among the wounded.


FWickeham said...

Thanx for another great picture story...a perspective which we would otherwise not see here.
Stay safe.

chas said...

wow! great photos and great story. it was really interesting. i didn't think i was actually going to read all of this, just sceme through..but i lied to myself. i read everybit of it. you captured all of this well!


Erin said...

Wow Holly! I can't say anything but... WOW... and thanks again for another great & important blog entry! Oh, and, you are AMAZING!

Erin said...

OK. One more thing: Happy New Year Holly! From Jim & Erin -- we miss you!