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Gaza passengers await the unknown
Despite Egypt "opening" the Rafah crossing, Palestinians living in Gaza have seen no change in border restrictions.
Last Modified: 22 Jul 2011 11:06
Palestinians in Gaza remain frustrated by the ongoing lack of access into Egypt [GALLO/GETTY]

The morning sky is blue and bright at 7am in the southern Gaza Strip. More than 30 people wait patiently at the door of Lieutenant Colonel Ayyoub Abu Shaar's house - their suitcases, duffle bags and gear strewn haphazardly at their feet. Abu Shaar is the man in charge of the Rafah Crossing and, thus, the man in charge of each person's fate. Collectively, the small crowd turns as they see his black government Hyundai vehicle approaching. Restlessness descends. Tentatively, they move forward holding their passports, visas, medical records and flight reservations.

Abu Shaar sees this scene everyday. Families, students, those seeking work outside of Gaza, the elderly and the infirm - silent, waiting and hoping. As the day progresses, the summer heat becomes unbearable. However, leaving the queue is not an option for those hoping to exit via the Rafah Crossing. They must wait for the security forces to approve them, and even then there is no guarantee of transit. 

In March, Egypt announced the easing of restrictions at Rafah by allowing men between the age of 18 and 40, and women of all ages into Egypt, though Egyptian security officials say the reason for not increasing the total number of people allowed in is due to the "intense traffic of passengers" and "insufficient staff to work at the crossing".

"At that time, those were very good policies", Abu Shaar explains. But after Egypt announced the new rules, "more people showed up to our gates within these categories and wanted to travel", he said. Three days after that announcement, Egypt revised its restrictions again, and reduced the daily quota from 650 to 400.

Reem Ghelani, Deputy Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said: "Despite announcements by the Egyptian authorities that Rafah crossing is open, the main change that we have seen is a slight increase in the hours that the crossing is open. Rafah is only a crossing for people, it is not used - nor is it set up to be used - as a crossing for goods."

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas de facto government in Gaza, issued a statement calling for greater access at the border crossing. "The suffering of the Palestinian passengers goes on," he said. The crossing "has the capabilities to allow the easy flow of 1,000 passengers" each day.

No certainty

People wishing to leave Gaza must first register with the Palestinian Ministry of Interior. Abu Shaar's office estimates it will be the end of September before they can process the 25,000 people currently registered on the waiting list. 

The restrictions on travel are not limited to Palestinians alone. Laila Noureldeen Ramez and her 13-year-old son are both Egyptian citizens who came to Gaza for two weeks in early May to visit her husband in the Rafah hospital. She is now stuck.

"I come here every morning early and wait until the end of the day," she told Al Jazeera. "And then I have to go back home."

Abdelhamid Al Bintaji, also waiting to cross, accuses Egypt of not acting in accordance with its promises. He had to postpone his flight to France for the fourth time. "I have a son in France whom I have not seen for over 10 years," he says. He was told he could leave July 10. He was still waiting on July 20. 

Medical nightmare

The Rafah Crossing, given the Israeli control and lockdown of Gaza's sea and land ports, is the region's sole avenue to the outside world. Some waiting to leave are not critical medical cases and simply seek to visit family or to escape factional fighting and Israeli air bombings of the coastal strip. But due to Israel's blockade on supplies, equipment and medicines, Gaza's hospitals continue to function under severe shortages. 

Among those needing surgery is 23-year-old Loai Al Najjar. Loai had both legs amputated following Israel's Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza in 2008-9. Shrapnel remains lodged in his skull, threatening brain damage. He needs treatment for this in Saudi Arabia, as well as prosthetics, yet he must wait like everyone else. 

"We have been waiting here since six o'clock this morning," states Rajy Al Najjar, Loai's friend and companion. He adds that they've been doing this every day for four weeks, and have yet to be allowed through.

Today, there is hope. The Saudi Embassy sent an official escort who is applying pressure on Loai's behalf.

"I am in constant pain every day, when I speak and when I move," Loai laments. Though bad during the summer, the cold during winter exasperates the shrapnel, intensifying the pain.

Confined to a wheel chair while waiting, Loai reveals: "I feel more pain when I sit in the wheelchair, and I just want to either lie down, or sit on the floor." Though ambulances stand waiting at the crossing, they can only assist emergency cases, meaning Loai must continue to sit in pain rather than lie down on a cot.

Later in the day he tells Al Jazeera: "We have been told by the Saudi embassy that we will be able to cross today, and we are still waiting". 

Al Najjar's body language tells a less optimistic story. He knows his name is not listed among today's 400 registered. Shrugging, Al Najjar admits: "It's not everyday that an embassy offers humanitarian help, but I am afraid that we will still not be allowed through today." 

A strategy of collective punishment

The overt strategy behind the closure of the Rafah Crossing by Israel and Egypt was to alienate Hamas. In the eyes of many analysts, it has not succeeded. Rather, the tactic, which has now been in force for as long as it took to fight WWII, has created severe economic hardship by limiting shipments of goods and the movement of people in and out of the Strip.

Palestinian officials estimate at least 25,000 people are waiting to enter Egypt from Gaza [GALLO/GETTY]

Egypt's decision to ease the restrictions on the Rafah Crossing came after the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak and 18 days of massive street protests. At the time Abu Shaar described it as a "very courageous decision". Now, Abu Shaar quips, "it's still not enough".

As the day continues, the crowds grow. Alongside those seeking an exit for medical treatment are students in danger of losing their overseas residency permits, professionals with jobs, and a variety of people with responsibilities needing attention outside Gaza. For each, their quest is critical.

Future on hold

Student Ramzy Al Moghrabi and his mother are stuck. He pleads with the police officer at the gate, telling him he must get to Malaysia to start his International Business Administration studies. This isn't the first time his future has been in question. Al Moghrabi missed the 2010 academic year due to border closure - and prior to that he missed an opportunity to study in Egypt due to similar obstacles. This time he registered on June 4 and was assured he would travel on August 31. Regrettably, for him this is too late. The university requires he attend preparatory classes prior to the fall semester commencement.

"I was here yesterday; we were all put on a bus and had to wait at the Egyptian gate for six hours," he says. "Our bus was number six, so we were surprised to see that buses eight and nine were allowed through before us. Those people who went ahead of us are either those who have [prior] co-ordination or have connections to border officials." 

Walking toward the gate and dragging his suitcase through the dust he grumbles with frustration: "This border crossing can turn your dreams into nightmares. I feel as if I am chasing my own shadow."

Slumping into a squat, he and his mother take refuge in the shade of a bus and continue to wait. After a minute or two of silence he adds: "The revolution managed to get Mubarak out, but his regime is still sitting there."

As the afternoon heads toward evening Ayyoub Abu Shaar pauses and glances up. A member of his staff hurries toward him with a woman in tears. Her husband just sent her a text message stating that if she can't make it to her children in Egypt today, he will divorce her. 

Abu Sahaar says he regularly requests more people be allowed through. Egypt, however, is steadfast: 400 people each day and no more. He finds this frustrating given that his team receives thousands of requests for travel each day and yet the answer remains the same. "Most of the time we prioritise the humanitarian cases brought to our attention," he explains. "It becomes hard for an official to decide whether to prioritise a cancer patient, students, foreign passport holders, or others."

Follow Mohamed Omer on Twitter: @MoGaza

Source:
Al Jazeera
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