The Erez checkpoint is a large, airport-like terminal with 12 passport booths, security cameras everywhere and men with guns topped with special targeting attachments. This is the crossing point into and out of the Gaza Strip from the Israeli side. When this writer crossed the checkpoint, the travelers there were a handful of foreigners, a couple of families and one older man who was held up because he had left Gaza using the Rafah crossing point and returned via the Jordan River crossing. It is difficult to get in or out of Gaza. One usually needs a permit, which is rarely given, or must be a foreigner working for an international agency or a recognized media outlet. Entering Gaza is most difficult for residents of Jerusalem and Israeli citizens, even if they are ethnically Arab.
After dealing with all the passport control issues, travelers exit through a metal door that opens on orders from an unseen location. Afterwards, they must make their way through a closed, 1.5-kilometer corridor. A golf cart — with a sign indicating it was donated by a Turkish solidarity group — is available for the trip. When asked, the driver said that he is paid by “Ramallah,” referring to the West Bank–based Palestinian Authority.
At the end of the corridor, travelers are greeted at a small office, where their documents are recorded. The office, No. 55, is occupied by “Ramallah” individuals as part of the Oslo Accords–sanctioned Israeli-Palestinian liaison committees. Once personal details are recorded, travelers are taken by taxi for another couple of kilometers to checkpoint No. 44, which is controlled by Hamas operatives. After a bag search, one presents his or her pass to enter Gaza. (Mine had been pre-arranged a few days earlier.)
This elaborate and bizarre crossing is no accident. It is the result of years of strategic planning by Israel to completely separate Gaza from the West Bank. This separation, made easier by mistakes committed at the Erez checkpoint itself, is part of the failure of the two Palestinian authorities — Hamas and Fatah — which have given up too easily on trying to ensure freedom of movement between the two Palestinian enclaves.
Separating Gaza from the West Bank has probably been one of the more strategic successes that the state of Israel has accomplished in its decades of occupation. It is much easier for a person from the United States or Australia to enter Gaza than for a Palestinian from Hebron or Jenin to do so.
For Israel, this strategic separation denies one of the main prerequisites for a Palestinian state — contiguity. Not only are Gaza and the West Bank separated physically, but the long absence of human communication has resulted in a worrisome state of isolation that is always at the brink of explosion. The Israeli siege of Gaza — preventing or controlling types of goods and the pace at which they are moved in or out (only flowers and strawberries are allowed out) — has been strict primarily in one area: the movement of people. Palestinians from the West Bank are not allowed into Gaza nor are Gazan Palestinians allowed into the West Bank.
Ali, a 35-year-old journalist working for the Doha Media Center, says that he has never in his life set foot in the West Bank. Nagam, a young woman working in the same organization, applied for a visa to visit the United States, but was twice denied going to Jerusalem to be interviewed by US consular officials. She was allowed to travel on her third try, but was restricted to going in a US diplomatic vehicle that transported her from Gaza to the consulate and back. After begging her driver, she managed to see the al-Aqsa mosque from afar as the car drove by it. She was not permitted to leave the car to visit Islam’s third holiest site.
Palestinians from the West Bank have similar stories about not having been to Gaza in years. The most repeated complaint by West Bank Palestinians is that they have never seen the sea, which could be easily remedied if Israel would allow Palestinians from the West Bank to visit the Mediterranean.
The Oslo Accords clearly reference a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. A number of protocols and agreements were reached about reviving the safe passage provision, but the agreements were never implemented. The sad part is that Israel's consistent refusal to allow Palestinians movement between Gaza and the West Bank has been so successful that Palestinian officials have stopped making the demand. The issue no longer appears in the statements of these officials or allies of Palestine around the world. It is as if everyone has resigned themselves to the fact that this is somehow an unsolvable issue.
One group of Palestinians in Gaza plans to launch a petition and gathering the signature of 100,000 ordinary Palestinians demanding the simple right to travel from Gaza to Hebron or Nablus and vice versa. The petition might be ready in time to present to US President Barack Obama during his upcoming trip to the region.
Gaza and the West Bank are the geographic basis of the Palestinian state as agreed to by the United Nations. The entire world — including the Israeli government — agrees that these two areas are the integral part of the two-state solution. There is no reason why people from both Palestinian enclaves should not be able to visit one another, even before a formal agreement on the end of the occupation is reached.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. He tweets from @daoudkuttab.