Hostile environments, Part #8: the Gaza Strip
The Gaza Strip is not a particularly dangerous place to visit, nor is it particularly hostile. For the most part you will find only friendly people there. However there are a number of distinct oddities about the Strip that you need to be aware of and prepare for to make your visit tolerably trouble free.
There are two ways of entering the Gaza Strip; and whichever one you use to enter, you must use to leave. One is the Northern Erez crossing from Israel. The other is the Philadelphi corridor smuggling tunnels from Rafah in Egypt. Neither route is particularly straightforward.
To use the Northern Erez crossing you need permission from the Israeli authorities. In practice you should apply for this to your nearest Israeli Embassy before you travel; and not leave the application until you are in Israel. If you do the latter, you may be deported on the grounds that you entered Israel, with an intention to enter Gaza without permission.
The reason stated for your desire to enter Gaza is obviously important. These permits are typically only sought by UN officials, people with family members in Gaza and humanitarian (and in particular medical) workers. Nevertheless each application will be considered on its merits and will be closely scrutinised. Israeli policies may change. Saying 'tourism' is unlikely to get you a permit. (Gaza has no tourist attractions.) Saying you are visiting friends will elicit a barrage of questions about how you met and became friends with these people, who will be checked against lists. Nevertheless in principle, visiting friends is a legitimate reason to apply for a permit to enter Gaza.
You can also cross officially from Rafah to Gaza by making an application for permission to the Egyptian authorities who themselves in theory will coordinate your application with their Israeli counterparts. However in practice we understand that permits to cross legitimately from Rafah are seldom granted.
Actual use of the North Erez crossing is a little convoluted. You are obliged to walk across the territorial frontier; the total walk is perhaps two kilometres. You will be guided through Israeli gated tunnels and the like. A person may shout out instructions to you on an intercom, which you should comply with as there is an Israeli sniper in a guard tower who has his sites on you. You may be asked to empty your own luggage and/or remove a substantial number of your clothes, to check that you are not carrying weapons or explosives. Nevertheless provided you are fully cooperative, the process is not too inconvenient. The whole procedure may take you 45 minutes or less.
If the Israelis will give you the papers, this is far preferable to the alternative.
The Rafah smuggling tunnels, which we do not recommend because using them breaks all sorts of laws, are a rough business. The Israelis and Egyptians periodically keep finding them and blowing them up, although others spring up in their stead. Each one starts in a house or other building in the Egyptian town of Rafah and ends in a house in the south Gazan town of Rafah. They are used to smuggle most supplies and contraband into and out of the Gaza Strip.
You can use them too, but only if you have the most excellent connections in the Gaza Strip, who will connect you with the right Egyptians on the Egyptian side to guide you through. Of course if the Israelis find that you have entered Gaza without permission (i.e. using the tunnels), you will be banned from entering Israel potentially for a very long time. Moreover the Israelis may inform the Egyptians, who will be ready to arrest you when you re-enter Egypt and who knows what will happen to you then. All things considered, this is an extremely dicey way to enter and leave the Gaza Strip. If against our advice you do decide to use it, then keep an extremely low profile while in the Gaza Strip.
The tunnels should not be used by persons in imperfect health. Carry a backpack if possible. The Rafah tunnels are not a luxury option.
When in the Gaza Strip, accommodation, restaurants and shops are all in fairly normal working order in central Gaza, although there is a lot of war damage and substantial levels of visible poverty. This is one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world, and it feels it. Essential infrastructure, in particular sewage, often operates imperfectly.
Nevertheless the Gaza Strip is safe to walk around in, day and night, and public transport is safe as well. Law and order is mostly maintained, save near the frontier with Israel where conflicts can erupt, including ones involving the use of military weapons. Stay away from those areas.
The Gazan authorities might stop you and ask you what you are doing there; but more likely they will be pleased to see you and will want to present their version of events to you. This constant desire on the part of Gazans to present their political position in their conflict with Israel can be overbearing; you may on occasion just have to ask to be left alone while you are walking down the street or eating your meal.
There are no official limits on how long you can spend in the Gaza Strip: but remember that time is counting down on your Israeli or Egyptian permission to stay (depending on which entry method you use) while you are there.
If you enter via Israel, do not exit via the tunnels as you will have no Egyptian entrance stamp or visa and the Egyptians will probably work out what you have been doing and arrest you.
Gaza sounds more intimidating than in fact it is once you are there. Just have your entry and exit arrangements down to a tee.