High-tech border crossing serves as monument to Mideast gridlock

McClatchy NewspapersMay 17, 2007 

EREZ CROSSING, Israel—At the end of a dusty road, cleaved into a scratch of desert on the border that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, a high-tech terminal of glass and steel has become a costly icon of the region's stagnant political process.

As the main link between Israel and Gaza, the complex is a monument to years of deadly attacks and new realities that have prevented all but a few people from using it.

To prevent attacks, Israel has made it so that Gazans using the Erez crossing terminal have no direct contact with an Israeli until they reach a passport control booth at the very end. Before that, they pass through an elaborate series of steel gates, metal turnstiles, narrow passageways, advanced body scanners, identity checks and remote-controlled doors. A team of Israeli security officials lodged behind a protected bank of windows monitor the process from their second-floor offices.

The complex cost $35 million to build.

Yet almost no one uses it. Israel prohibits the vast majority of Gazans from coming out, and almost no one from Israel goes in. These days, many simply call the high-tech crossing point the "terminal to nowhere"—a costly icon to the region's stagnant political process.

On any given day, in a cavernous terminal meant to handle 15,000 daily travelers, no more than 300 Palestinians are allowed through the labyrinthine, depersonalized process.

"It's kind of Kafkaesque," said John Viste, the acting regional director for JumpStart International, an American-run international aid organization.

Viste, who uses the crossing regularly, described it as otherworldly. "You don't talk to anybody, you go through these endless series of corridors and you have strange machines swirling around you. Everybody remarks on what a strange experience it is."

The surreal nature of the experience is something even Israelis are willing to concede.

"I know it looks very funny, like we spent a lot of money for nothing," said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel's Civil Administration. "But, in the future, I think things will change."

The terminal was conceived in the run-up to Israel's historic 2005 exit from Gaza and was billed as ushering in a new era when Israelis and Palestinians would travel easily between Gaza City and Tel Aviv, as they had decades ago.

That never happened. Israel routinely shutters Erez and a cargo terminal a few miles to the south at Karni. Gaza militants fire rudimentary rockets into southern Israel almost daily. Palestinians loyal to rival Hamas and Fatah factions battle one another in the streets, making it dangerous for local Palestinians, journalists, aid workers and United Nations staff to enter Gaza.

A push by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to persuade Israel to open up the border in exchange for Palestinians' cracking down on militants has gone nowhere. A November 2005 agreement, signed two months after Israel removed the last of its civilians from Gaza, fell apart.

Now few people make any use of the most elaborate crossing point in Israel, if not the world.

Over the years, Erez has been the target of at least nine major attacks. Three years ago, a female suicide bomber killed four Israeli soldiers when she blew herself up at the crossing. More recently, Israeli soldiers killed two Gaza Strip militants who tried to storm the crossing in February 2006.

So isolating potential attackers from the Israelis who must screen potential entrants became a priority. Gone from Erez is the scene experienced elsewhere in which armed guards working out of neglected buildings coordinate passage via walkie-talkie.

In its place is a lengthy crossing process that entrants largely traverse on their own.

First, there is a sixth of a mile walk through a long, dingy tunnel of concrete blast walls, topped with a corrugated metal roof. At the end is the first Israeli barrier—a remote-controlled metal turnstile set in a tall metal fence.

Once through it, the visitor faces a thick steel door. That door opens onto a covered outdoor passageway monitored by a series of surveillance cameras. Travelers then confront a group of sliding steel doors set in towering blast walls that mark the entrance to the new terminal. Using external cameras, guards inside decide when to open the doors.

Next, travelers encounter a metal detector, then a second remote-controlled turnstile that leads to yet another bank of turnstiles. Here is where travelers have their first face-to-face contact—with a Palestinian worker manning the luggage check.

People are required to put all their luggage on a metal detector, which funnels the baggage to unseen security guards for possible hand checks.

Travelers then are buzzed through a glass door and enter the crossing's most sophisticated security check: an advanced body screener created by a California company.

The scanner is so sensitive, officials say, that it creates a complete holographic image of the traveler and allows the screener to see even a tissue or penny stuck in a pocket.

Travelers step into the scanner through a plastic portal and raise their hands above their heads. The translucent plastic doors close and a scanner whizzes around them in a complete circle.

The scanner's manufacturer, L-3 Communications Inc., declined to discuss its work with Israel, though an official indicated that the company has fine-tuned the process so that, in theory, body images that Israeli security guards see wouldn't be sharp enough to offend modest Muslim culture.

The company said that the machine's radiation is less than what one is exposed to using a cell phone.

After the body scan, two more remote-controlled glass doors lead to the baggage claim area, where luggage often emerges with a note indicating that it has been examined by unknown inspectors.

Once travelers claim their luggage, it's off through another turnstile and onto passport control, where inspectors sit in enclosed booths with thick, blast-proof windows.

One last turnstile, and travelers emerge into the parking lot in Israel, from which they go on their way. The process has taken them through nearly two dozen gates, scanners, doors and turnstiles.

"The worst thing is that you begin to think it is normal to live like this," said Munir Badran, a Palestinian from the West Bank who travels to the Gaza Strip to visit his fiancee. "It's not a normal life."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Need to map

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service