As I spoke to a left-leaning starry-eyed youth who told me of his love for football, his disdain for Hamas, and his respect for Che Guevara, it started to make sense. For a day, (now five), the Palestinians had left the occupation behind and claimed what ought to be ordinary, everyday, life: to trade with their Arab neighbours across the border, to step in to Al Arish, for a night out with family and friends.
Lines of Palestinians going back with their goods dominated the scene in Rafah. They stood holding their boxes, their bags and even their bulls (by the horns); they sat on donkey carts and in their cars. The overpowering smell of fuel, carried across in cans, leaking and leaving a trail that could have so easily go up into flames, stood in as an indicator of the tenuousness of the situation at hand. People were trudging their suitcases, herding their cows, as the huge Egyptian military vans stood by.
We made our way through the maze to one of the smaller openings in the border through which Gazans were coming and going. The passage was not as free flowing as we had heard it had been the day before. Riot police were switching modes, at times letting people pass, and at others barricading the border and pushing Palestinians back. We watched a herdsman on a mission trying to control his bulls and get them across the chaos. The bulls were all on heat and jumping on each other and having sex amidst the madness. People were hitting them to calm them down as they charged about.
After watching the mayhem at the first opening, we found our way to the main Philadelphia gate. As we neared the border crossing, an Egyptian guard drunk on power, parading the field, electric baton in hand, insisted that as foreigners we couldn't all go in. At this point, I left my professor and university friends behind and tried again. Armed with my press card and shielded by my shades, I stepped forth. Wesam would use his Palestinian ID card to get into Gaza, and his Egyptian student residence permit to get out. We had covered our basis. Or so we hoped. We approached one of the military police and inquired permission for safe passage. "Israeli or Egyptian press", he seemed to ask. "Indian," we answered. Baffled maybe, he let us through.
We entered the human chain formed by the black uniformed Egyptian riot police, amidst boys and bulls, cement and cigarettes, all making their way to Gaza. We came into the clearing and I felt a sense of disbelief. There I was in Palestine. We jumped up to join a bunch of press reporters and photographers on top of a huge lorry and watch the scene below.
And from that height I stared at the terrific gaping holes in the massive Israeli manufactured obstruction. One part of the wall was just missing; another was split in half; a third swerved to the ground and boys sat along it watching the people pass by. While the wall was testimony to the violence of our time, its collapse stood in as a sculpture of the tenacity of Palestinian lives.
And then the standoff between the riot police and the stone-throwing mob began. As the huge stones came falling down the guards began to exert their authority and the crowd moved back, created a opening between the Palestinians and the police where two minutes earlier there was none. The Associated Press reporter was on her phone, making news while it happened—dramatising the fact that perhaps the Egyptian riot police had encroached, having taken two or five steps forward, onto Gaza territory.
About an hour later, we decided to head back, before which we walked around and took pictures of the bullet ridden apartment blocks. As we tried to make our way from a section at the side, the guards wouldn't let us through. And then we heard bullets being fired into the sky. I tensed up as we walked along the barbed wired wall and found a spot to jump across. We were in no man's land with Egyptian tanks on either side and at the mercy of their arbitrariness of Egyptian orders. Fortunately, this time around, they let us through.
Coming back from Rafah to al-Arish we sat at the back of a mini van, exhausted by the intensity of our adventure. Wesam noticed some Palestinian graffiti: "Al Kassam militants passed through here", written in a barely visible fluorescent orange felt tip on the back of the grey seat. When I asked the boy next to me why he was going to Al Arish now when there was talk of the border being closed, he didn't seem phased at all, and answered, "If Egypt closes the wall, Hamas will bring it down."