When we arrived at the Rafah border entrance, the policeman handed us the passports and said, in a very poor English: “Go back to Brazil,” pointing his index finger towards the exit.
Sometimes it takes one shocking visual image or clip to finally shake even the laziest, most apathetic, self-absorbed person out of an all-encompassing ignorance. In the case of the unnamed narrator of a group of Brazilian filmmakers’ insightful debut No Way to Gaza, a 152-page graphic exposé of Egypt’s unconditional support for Israel, the wake-up call comes when their exploits consist of crossing paths with Palestinians who risk the abuse with which they are routinely met from the Egyptian authorities simply in order to get into their homeland.
This is a travelogue entirely without a destination.
Repeatedly during the journey across Egypt, the filmmakers place themselves in danger in this tragedy of a place, whether it was heading to a checkpoint at the command of an anonymous VIP, or sneaking into a tiny store in northern Sinai’s largest city, El-Arish, where alleged Daesh militants operate with impunity.
For those of us who have never been to Gaza, the lengthy, harrowing journey by Renatho Costa, Rodrigo D.E. Campos and Lucas Bonatto Diaz across the Sinai Peninsula lets their readers know all we have to know about the life of Palestinians trapped in the besieged territory.
It is fair to assume that many Palestinians try to use the Rafah Border Crossing in the hope of going through less hardship than if they were allowed to pass through Israel. However, as the Brazilian authors demonstrate, it is quite the opposite. One of the team nearly died from a stroke en route.
Although there is no mention of any Israeli presence, the accounts of abuse, mockery and demands for bribes by Egyptian border officials make us wonder if the Egyptians are actually worse. Their sole purpose in life seems to be to make it as difficult as possible for Palestinians to leave and return to their homeland.
Testimonies from Palestinians met on the journey provide insights into how Egyptian intelligence officers and soldiers abuse the travellers, reserving a more intense level of hatred for the Palestinians. One such account comes from a university professor returning to Gaza with his wife and two daughters:
“We’ve been traveling for days. Maybe we will travel another week to arrive in Gaza… When we came from abroad, the Egyptians put my family for two days in a room in the basement of the airport together with common prisoners. That’s how things are here my friend, we get used to it, you pay the price to leave or return home, apart from the usual bribe we are forced to pay.”
The Rafah crossing is Gaza’s only route to the outside world not controlled by Israel, at least in theory. It is opened or closed at will by the Egyptian authorities, and provides endless opportunities for them to oppress the Palestinians and strengthen their own relations with Israel. In this Egypt is complicit in the Israeli-led siege of the territory.
While a flight to Cairo from any part of the world takes hours, the overland journey from Cairo to Gaza can take Palestinians days or even weeks. Numerous checkpoints along the way — some just metres rather than kilometres apart — increase the suffering of travellers, with humiliation a matter of routine.
As the Brazilian group entered El-Arish under curfew, they noticed a dozen figures dressed entirely in black, including the obligatory masks, in trucks and what looked like Special Forces vehicles. It was in this setting, at around midnight, that by far the most disturbing encounter with the Egyptian army unfolded.
“I am not Palestinian, I am Brazilian!” Rodrigo insisted, repeating it several times in English.
The soldier interrupted him and started shouting, placing one hand near Rodrigo’s face, as if he was about to slap him. Rodrigo dodged, while Ronatho, Lucas and the driver started to protest. The multiple voices screaming at the same time created an anarchic atmosphere, soon interrupted by the soldier who abruptly opened the door and removed Rodrigo from the car, dragging off by the arm. The rest of the soldiers demanded we get out the vehicle, throwing our luggage out the car and searching our belongings.
The abuse of authority deriving from paranoid suspicion worsened when, stunningly, another soldier pointed an AK-47 in the air and fired two three-round salvos into the sky. All of this had taken place within a few seconds and we believed that we would be executed at any time.
The Egyptian authorities play the Israeli game and cite “security” to justify the blockade of the Gaza Strip. The journey across Sinai, however, illustrates how it amounts to collective punishment and deepens the humanitarian crisis on the other side of the Rafah crossing.
Readers of No Way to Gaza will learn about “deep Egypt”, the version of the country rebooted since July 2013, when Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, who paid a heavy price for his practical, political and moral positions in favour of the Palestinians, despite a presidency that lasted less than a year.
What was once relatively quiet military cooperation between Egypt and Israel is now collaboration in northern Sinai, controlled tightly by dozens of army checkpoints and military installations. It is the most dramatic evidence yet of the rearranged politics of the region due to their shared hatred of the Palestinians.
Long before they took off from Brazil, Renatho, Rodrigo and Lucas decided what they thought about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Everything they went on to experience reinforced their belief that Zionism is a colonial disease that lives only to spread its poison.
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Even more sinister was the fact that they had been tracked all along. They realised that long before they had even embarked on their journey it was decided by unknown forces that they were never going to be granted access to the Gaza Strip.
Although the detail of life in Gaza was intended to be the core of this book, we are provided with much more. Its pages are filled with accounts of the suffering of the people they encountered: the deaths, the life-threatening injuries, the constant fear, the powerlessness, the vulnerability and the sinister thought that no one in this orchestrated journey has been spared.
This is an important book with an ambitious theme: the blockade of Gaza and the Egyptian government’s significant role in perpetuating it.
To some extent, then, Egypt does the dirty work for the Israeli government, keeping Gaza enclosed and isolated from the world, so that foreigners cannot portray what life is like for Palestinians in the “captivity” Egyptians help to preserve. All with the complicity of the so-called “democratic” West and the so-called international community.