Amran Lubbad lay sleepless in Gaza early in the morning of Jan. 23. Lubbad, a darkly handsome Palestinian, was going to be united with Hiba, his fiancé in Egypt. He had treated himself to a sharp new haircut. The pair have been engaged for two years, but Israel and Egypt sealed off the border with Gaza in early 2006, and Hiba was trapped on the other side. At last, Lubbad had scraped together $1,500 to smuggle her through a sandy tunnel under the border fence.
It was a huge risk: tunnels at the Rafah crossing often cave in. At other times, Israel bombs the tunnels, which Hamas militants use for smuggling weapons into Gaza. So when Lubbad's cell phone rang at 5 a.m., he feared the worst. But the news couldn't have been better. "No need for the tunnel or your money," a friend told him. "The wall is down. Exploded. Now your fiancé can walk across. Gaza is free."
Free for now, that is. Gaza militants did breach the wall—and Lubbad met up with his fiancé, who returned with him to Gaza. But Egypt has begun repairing the holes in the wall, and the wild exodus from Gaza, which included more than one-fifth of the territory's 1.5 million people, was just a brief respite from the reality of life under Israel's blockade, which had been tightened on Jan. 17 in response to rocket attacks from Gaza soil.
Still, the breach was a chance to complete all manner of desperate errands. A Gaza waiter named Maher Sheikha carried his 12-year-old son Femeh through the mob, balanced across the destroyed metal fence and then climbed through barbed-wire tangles. Femeh was dying of a blood disease, and the only chance of recovery was rushing him to a Cairo hospital.
The boy made it to Cairo; the family had friends who led them along Bedouin trails across the Sinai desert, past the roadblocks of Egyptian police, whose orders were to turn back any Palestinians fleeing Gaza. Others weren't so lucky. Egyptian authorities stopped dozens of ailing Palestinians at the town of el-Arish because they lacked the proper visas. The patients remain there, camped in mosques and in the doorways of el-Arish, tended by relatives who are pleading with Egyptian riot police to let them pass.
For most Gazans, though, shopping was the key. I saw a poor woman haggle over a single bulb of garlic as though it were a Manhattan town house. Goats and camels, prized for their meat, were on many shopping lists. So were commercial goods. On the Gaza side, an unemployed mason with nine kids was hoisting bags of cement off an Egyptian flatbed truck. The Israelis had banned the import of cement, so all construction had stopped. But with the opening, the price of a sack of cement fell from $60 to $12, he told me, so he was happily back at work.
A shopping spree may have lessened Gaza's crisis, but many say the long-term solution rests with Israel. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which feeds as many as 850,000 impoverished Gazans, says, "A few holes in the wall don't relieve Israel of its obligations. We can't have a situation where Gaza continues to hover on the brink of catastrophe." Israel, for its part, continues to blame Hamas—and the constant threat of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians—for the blockade.
For my Gaza friend Azmi Keshawi, though, the brief liberty meant two things: Cairo and chocolate. "I'm taking my wife and kids in the Jeep," he told me when the wall was breached, "and we're driving all the way to Cairo, maybe farther. Just because we can." Actually, Azmi was gone only overnight. He couldn't find any gas in el-Arish, so he turned back. El-Arish's shops had also been picked clean by Gaza's hordes, so Azmi could find no chocolate either, just four big bags of potato chips and a couple of Cokes. No regrets, says Azmi. "Driving back, eating snacks, with the car window down and the desert breeze of Sinai on my face—what can I say? We were happy. This was freedom, man."
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