It's strange to see it rising out of a desert landscape of scrub growth and barbed wire. It looks like a piece of O'Hare Airport dropped out of the sky. It's the newly completed terminal at the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza, and it sits nearly empty (no photos, sorry: we were asked not to take any). Built to accommodate some 4,000 crossings a day, the terminal currently handles about 400 on a busy day. Hamas, which doesn't recognize Israel, will let through only individuals (like people needing medical treatment in Israeli hospitals) and the massive shipments of aid on which Gaza's 1.1 million residents rely.
Before visiting the terminal, we are ushered into a low concrete building on the adjacent military base. Air conditioners are snarling furiously. Inside the building, the snarling sound is muted to a hum and whisper. We crowd into a whitewashed room and sit around a square of tables, where Israeli soldiers have placed sweating pitchers of lemonade and plates of cookies for us.
We are briefed by two officers of the Coordination and Liaison Administration of the Israeli Defense Forces. These people are in charge of a task that must be peculiar to this part of the world, explained, in a question, by the young officer in charge: "How do you work with a partner who is completely dependent on you, but who refuses to recognize you?"
And the first thing you notice about these officers is how young they are. They look scrubbed and untroubled: if they'd been born in the US, they'd be the college friends of your sons and daughters. But they're dodging bombs and moving massive amounts of food, water, medicine and other goods to a neighbor that would gladly kill them. One of the solders tells how a mortar shell missed him by three feet, just the previous week.
They brief us quickly on the structure of the administration, the types and amount of aid moved; they show a video-clip of a local UN representative praising their work (and we all appreciate how unusual it is to hear a UN representative praise Israel).
Then we board the bus for the short drive to the actual Erez terminal. Once there, we stand in the unforgiving afternoon sun as a woman in a full-length black hijab rushes past us: her son has passed through security on a stretcher and is being loaded on an ambulance that will take him to an Israeli hospital. We pass through the glass doors into the large, air-conditioned hall to almost total silence.
The man in charge of security is introduced to us by his first name only. He looks like he might just have sneaked over the border from Baja into greater San Diego. The difference, you quickly learn, is that he is a veteran soldier and security expert, and he's armed to the teeth. In fact, every Israeli within sight has either a concealed weapon, a semi-automatic rifle or something similarly straightforward -- at the ready.
The scruffy guy in charge of security explains that the security system for people crossing in from Gaza is designed to scrutinize them electronically: they enter Israel without anyone laying a hand on them. Still, no security system can prevent confrontation. Bombers are caught, gunbattles erupt (the phrase "shit happens" must have been invented for this place).
The hair on the back of my neck stands up: for the third time today, I realize that any second, something could whistle out of the sky and explode.
Soon enough, they say, that feeling goes away, only to be replaced by a vigilance, a pervasive distrust, and a howlingly dark sense of humor.
In this part of the world, where every nerve ending detects the presence of the sacred, it turns out that the fewer nerves you have, the better.