The conference we were invited to was important. Called for by the Gaza Centre for Press Freedoms, the event was aimed at addressing and developing the local Palestinian media in Gaza.
I was invited as part of an international media support delegation and all appropriate permits were secured. The Palestinian government in Gaza issued everyone individual visas with their photos and passport number, the Egyptian authorities were notified and the necessary coordination was established.
The Egyptians were informed that a nine-person delegation that included individuals with British, Danish, American, and Croatian passports would be entering Gaza via Rafah.
Because Israel destroyed (physically) the Gaza International Airport that had been opened with a visit by US president Bill Clinton shortly after the beginning of the second Intifada, other routes had to be found. The most convenient way to get to Rafah is through the city of Al Arish, often described as the capital of Sinai. But because the only days Palestine Airlines flies in from Amman did not concur with our conference days, we had to drive in from Cairo.
We set out at 6:30am from a hotel near Cairo airport and drove by minibus to Sinai. On the way, we passed gas station after gas station with long lines of cars and other vehicles waiting to fill up diesel and gas.
Distribution problems had caused major problems and the run for gas in preparations for the June 30 demonstrations made the situation difficult.
Opponents to Egypt’s president had declared that date, which marks one year since he was elected, the day when they will begin mass demonstrations calling for his resignation or for an announcement of early elections.
The minibus we were travelling on had a tank full of diesel and a few containers with extra fuel. Getting out of Cairo and driving past the green Nile delta areas, we arrived at the crossing point between African Egypt and Asian Egypt.
After showing our passports, we drove up on Kobri As Salam (Bridge of Peace) and crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai.
Five and a half hours after leaving Cairo we arrived at the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing. We were so close to Palestine that our phones were picking up the Jawwal phone signals. But our Egyptian contact at Rafah was not smiling when we arrived. It appeared that we would have to wait some time to find out if we could enter Gaza.
The June 30 opposition deadline seemed to have affected the way Egyptian border officials were thinking.
After a few frantic phone calls, we were told to wait and see if somehow we could overcome the decision of local officials not to allow any foreigners that day.
The problem, according to the officials, was that the border crossing might be closed as a precautionary measure any time. The Egyptian officials were concerned that if we entered and the crossing was declared closed, we would be stuck. They were not willing to be responsible for such a situation.
Our assurances that we would take that risk failed to impress them.
This problem was not only restricted to us. Neither was a Palestinian Danish family allowed to enter. Only the members that had Gaza ID cards were allowed in.
A few passersby offered to get us into Gaza through the tunnels for $100 per person, but were ignored by our group. If you go in through the tunnel, our Palestinian coordinator said, we would have to return the same way. It was never really considered by anyone.
By late afternoon and after all attempts to enter failed, we began our long journey back to Cairo. A stop at a local beach front restaurant and a dip in the Mediterranean cooled our frustration, but did little to ease our anger at the plight of the Palestinian people.
The following day, we took part in the conference from our Cairo hotel by Skype; the event was dealing with issues such as the need for professionalisation, developing and adhering to a code of ethics, and the problems of unemployment among media studies graduates.
We held our own meeting coming up with ideas to help nurture and develop the media scene in Gaza and ended our day with a collective vow to return to Gaza in the fall, in the hope that we would be able to cross the border then.