An Oct. 2 Outlook article by Abdallah al Salmi, describing life in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal, stated incorrectly that there are 1.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza refugee camps. That figure is the estimated number of Palestinians in Gaza, of which 961,000 are registered as refugees with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). An estimated 471,000 live in refugee camps, according to UNRWA.
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza
"The border is open?" I cried in surprise and disbelief. "Won't they shoot at us?"
For as long as I could remember, it had been dangerous, even lethal, to approach the heavily guarded, shoot-to-kill border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. But on Sept. 12, Israel had pulled its last troops out of Gaza. Now, a few days later, my brother Ahmed was telling me that some militant Palestinians had managed to break through the 25-foot-tall border wall, and a flood of eager Gazans were heading south to visit the Sinai. Ahmed wanted to go, too.
These were exciting days. Desperate and frustrated by years of occupation, we Gazans saw the Israeli withdrawal as a historic moment, and listened eagerly to minute-by-minute radio reports of the evacuation and its aftermath. In our highly factionalized news media, every party attributed "victory" and "liberation" to its own heroic militants.
Amid the fanfare and hurrahs, Ahmed and I made up our minds: We would temporarily escape five years of entrapment in this narrow strip of land. We would make this fantastic trip to Egypt and see what the taste of freedom is like.
We knew the trip would be brief. We should also have realized how short-lived our excited optimism would be. When we got home, "liberated" Gaza would still be overcrowded and poor, and there would still be no jobs for most of its people. * * *
Going to Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, had been difficult since the Israeli crackdown that followed the start of the intifada five years ago. For most of this time, Israel not only closed Gaza's borders -- particularly to Palestinian men like me, between the ages of 15 and 35 -- but also imposed tougher curbs on movement within the territory. The mere thought of getting through the obstacle course of checkpoints had been infuriating and depressing. Now that the Israeli settlements and military fortifications had become history, the road to Rafah was open and secure but still bumpy and suddenly overcrowded.
At dusk, we got out of my brother's jeep about 400 yards from the border fence. The scene was joyfully hysterical. A human tide of Palestinians -- men, women and children -- flowed into Egypt from Gaza, and back, through breaches in the fence. Leaving the jeep behind, my brother and I walked from the Palestinian side of Rafah to its Egyptian side. We felt happy and free.
There weren't enough cars and taxis for the huge influx of people, but we managed to squeeze onto a small pickup truck with 20 other Palestinians, and headed for the northern Sinai resort town of El Arish. Though it was more than 25 miles away, we saw many people trying to get there on foot, enchanted by the fact that no one was ordering them to stop. We rode past them in the dark, a truckload of Gazans overflowing with released emotions. Hussein Abo Amra, 22, told us he'd never been outside the Strip in his life. He kept saying "Great God!" and "Gone are the days when I had to wait three days to get through the Abo Holey checkpoint!" Ecstatic and slightly dazed, he was half-hanging from the rear of the pickup, and more than once he almost fell off.
El Arish did not turn out to be as exciting as the idea of visiting it. A small town, it was soon overwhelmed by the deluge of visitors. Shops were soon out of food, water and even cigarettes, consumed by the crowds of Gazans eagerly absorbing new experiences and different conversations. Ahmed and I came back to Gaza before dawn. By the end of that week, the fence at Rafah was repaired and the border was again closed, this time by Egyptian and Palestinian authorities.
The excitement lingered, at least for a couple of weeks. People in Gaza talked about their visit to Egypt, what they did, what they bought. Some of them were able to bring home beloved wives or children who had left Gaza for some reason and, lacking documents that would satisfy the Israeli occupiers, had not been permitted to return. Inside Gaza itself, there were holiday-like crowds on the Mediterranean beaches -- especially in Khan Younis and Rafah, where Palestinian access to the shoreline had been blocked for years by Israeli settlements. A better future for Gaza seemed to be waiting.
But the energy and enthusiasm of ordinary Palestinians has not been matched elsewhere in the world, not even by our own leaders. Now, only a couple of weeks later, Gazans' yearning for a better future has all but ended. A feeling of hopelessness has returned.