The day Gaza’s Berlin Wall came down

Cigarette cartons, overladen suitcases and oily jerry cans bobbed at shoulder height on a sea of euphoric Palestinians as Gaza enjoyed the day when its Berlin Wall came down.

For years local Palestinians have stared forlornly at the six-metre high skirt of grey concrete and corrugated steel erected by occupying Israeli forces to separate Egypt from the Gaza Strip.

But the wall was blown away in at least eight different places and through the breaches swept a tide of Palestinians, ecstatic at the sense of release from Israel’s swingeing blockade.

First came the teenagers, curious to see what would happen to them on a border where, until very recently, they could expect to be shot on sight.

Then came the smugglers, aware a good turn was to be made on cigarettes bought in Egypt for £9 a carton but sold in Gaza for nearer £25.

Finally came crowds and crowds of normal Gazans, men and women, old and young, some on bicycles, a few being pushed in wheelchairs, simply enjoying the rare sensation of freedom.

And somewhere in the teeming crowd, came people anxious to exploit the day for their own less innocent purposes.

Fertiliser, broken down into half bags for lugging through the many tunnels that arms smugglers normally use for delivery into Gaza, was to be seen as it was manhandled overland.

It was white, oily, crystalline and a dab on the tongue left a sharp, burning sensation.

In most countries fertiliser has a perfectly innocent function but in Gaza militants use it to make explosive.

“Hey, hey, hey,” shouted a man as I took a photograph of a pile of fertiliser half bags.

His aggressive tone jarred with the mood the crowd as he grabbed my camera lens firmly.

Over on the Egyptian side of the border, Ahmed, an Egyptian Bedouin had manoeuvred his rusty pick-up through a field of prickly pear cactus plants and was selling cigarettes by the carton.

“It is good business but you have to be quick,” he said, his dark-skinned face hidden by a kefiyeh wrapped tightly around his head against the winter cold.

“The Hamas men have started to demand taxes of £10 a carton so you have to make sure they don’t catch you.”

Through the legs of the crowd ran bleating goats, being led back to Gaza to play a central role in some family’s feast.

Of the Egyptian border guards who normally patrol the frontier there was little sign.

One small jeep of border police could be seen churning through the sand but its occupants were in no mood to tackle the advancing hoard.

But a few miles south of the border the Egyptian authorities had set up a more organised line of defence and were turning back Palestinians trying to reach Cairo.

Heja Rissein, a 50 year old portly lady wearing a hijab, could be seen struggling her way through the sandy cactus plantation manhandling a vast suitcase crammed with possessions.

“We live in Abu Dhabi and we came home to Gaza for a holiday in June last year but we got trapped,” she said referring to the fighting when Hamas routed Fatah and took over full control of the Gaza Strip.

“The border has been closed ever since so when we heard about today’s events we packed our bags and went over to Egypt hoping to make it to an airport to fly back to Abu Dhabi.

“But the Egyptians stopped us and so we must go back.”

With that she continued lugging her luggage, helped by her 24 year old son Hazem, an electrical engineer also anxious to get back to his job in the Arabian Gulf. For most the thousands of Palestinians who flooded through the border breaches, it was the Eastern Mediterranean version of the British Booze Cruise to Calais.

They made their way to shops in nearby Egyptian communities and bought as much as they could carry of things not available so competitively priced in Gaza.

Boxes of soap powder, fuel for cooking and fuel for vehicles was all dragged back, as much as each person could afford or as much as they could carry, to their homes in Gaza.

Cement, an innocent enough item that Israel routinely blocks from entering Gaza, was dragged across by the sack load.

And even as the ‘Booze Cruisers’ clambered back through the breach in the border, more Palestinians arrived on foot to take their place.

From across the entire Gaza Strip all roads led to the border at Rafah, as lorries were crowded with people making the V for Victory sign with their fingers, sounding their horns and grinning from ear to ear.

They all wanted to have a story to tell future generations of what they did on the day Gaza’s Berlin Wall came down.