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Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Long Walk to Israel

A Palestinian woman carries her infant grandson into the Erez border crossing that connects the Gaza Strip with Israel for medical treatment in Israel

Passing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on foot at the Erez border crossing is an eerie experience. The walk includes a mile or so stretch (no exaggeration here) through an outdoor tunnel of sorts. It’s a cement sidewalk that’s fenced-in on both sides and covered by a metal roof. It feels a bit like a strolling through the passageway in an empty sports stadium. Oftentimes, you don’t pass anyone else in the corridor at all. Just silent security cameras peering down at you every couple of hundred yards. On a recent morning, I crossed into Israel from Gaza with a Palestinian woman and her infant grandson. It was the first time she had been to Israel in 20 years. The baby needed medical treatment for a heart problem. They had an appointment with doctors at a hospital near Tel Aviv.

I brought bottled water with me, prepared for the possibility of a long wait. But everything went very smoothly at the checkpoint. The Hamas officials looked at our IDs and waved us through. Gunshots rang out though, as we gathered up our passports and got ready to start the long walk toward Israel.

They probably came from the remote controlled Israeli guns that sit on top of the concrete wall separating this part of the northern Gaza Strip from southern Israel. The high-tech weapons system can detect movement in the buffer zone that Israel maintains along on the Palestinian side of the border. And they can start firing in an instant.

Odai is the only son of young Palestinian parents from Beit Hanoun, an area 10 minutes down the road from the Erez crossing. The parents came to kiss their baby goodbye. With tears in his eyes, the baby’s father Ali gestured to me, to keep an eye on his boy. I tried to imagine sending my own son off for medical treatment through a militarized checkpoint with his grandmother.

But it’s something I still can’t get my head around. I will be following Odai’s progress for a radio story about the Israeli non-profit that treats kids like him.