Palestinians stuck in Egypt desperate to return to Gaza amid Israel attacks

Time and money are running out for hundreds of Palestinians stuck in El Arish, northern Egypt.

A humanitarian aid convoy for the Gaza Strip is parked at the Rafah crossing port, Egypt, on Tuesday, October 17, 2023.
A humanitarian aid convoy for the Gaza Strip is parked at the Rafah crossing, Egypt, October 17, 2023. Hundreds of Palestinians are waiting to return home to Gaza [Omar Aziz/AP]

El Arish, Egypt – Aylol Abo Elwan was making his way from the Rafah border crossing to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on the morning of October 7 – he was travelling from his home in southern Gaza to see a specialist doctor.

Far from home, a chill went down the 27-year-old’s spine when he heard about Hamas’s attack on Israeli territory.

“It was a time of fear that a war would happen to us in Gaza,” Abo Elwan told Al Jazeera.

“War in Gaza has no mercy, they [Israel] bomb and destroy everything to the ground.”

Israel vowed vengeance after at least 1,400 of its residents were killed in the Hamas attack – one of the deadliest in decades.

As newspaper headlines and TV channels began to suggest a retaliation would soon hit besieged Gaza, he and his 31-year-old brother, who was accompanying him, rushed back to the Rafah crossing to go back home to be with his family.

He was among hundreds of other Palestinians from Gaza who were in Egypt for transit or medical treatment and rushed to the border to try to get back home – but none of them made it through.

“Our passports had been stamped and we were about to enter Gaza when they [Israel] bombed the Rafah crossing. We were there inside when they bombed,” he said, adding that despite hearing the bombing, they never made it far enough to see the damage on the Gazan side.

A difficult crossing – now ‘inoperable’

The Gaza Strip – only 41km (25 miles) long and a few miles wide and home to 2.2 million Palestinians – has languished under an Israeli land, sea and air blockade since 2007. Egypt tightly controls movement at the Rafah crossing in coordination with Israel.

Since October 8, the Rafah crossing has taken a pounding from Israeli air strikes, forcing Egypt to keep it closed to ensure the safety of civilians, and completely closing it on Tuesday, October 10.

An already complicated crossing is now “inoperable”, according to Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

The Rafah crossing to the south of the Gaza Strip and the Beit Hanoon crossing, known as Erez to Israelis, to the north are the only points through which civilians can pass in and out of Gaza, although Rafah is the only one that is not directly controlled by Israeli forces.

INTERACTIVE - What is the Rafah crossing map-GAZA_ISRAEL_Oct 16_2023
(Al Jazeera)

Despite Rafah being technically under Palestinian and Egyptian control, Israel still dictates its terms and it has closed it during the previous assaults as well.

For years, it has served as the main passage for Gazan Palestinians into the outside world, with Egypt serving as a transit point before heading to other countries or as a hub to receive medical treatment.

“This crossing has never been easy,” said Mostafa*, a Gazan Palestinian based in Cairo who asked us not to use his real name.

“Gazans need permission to enter Egypt, which can take up to four months to get if you do not pay someone to let you in faster,” he added. “Especially for males from 18 to 40, it is extremely difficult.”

“Egypt usually requires a document that confirms that we are only in transit through their territory to another country, then we are escorted on a police bus from Rafah to Cairo airport without getting out. And the same happens when we return – they put us in a bus directly from Cairo to Rafah.”

Now, even this procedure has been halted. The Egyptian foreign minister said in an interview with CNN on October 14 that the aerial bombardment carried out by Israel had rendered the roads on the Gaza side “inoperable”.

Likewise, Jordanian officials told CNN that the transit of supplies and people through Rafah would have to wait until they had ensured with Israel that this could be done “without threat of another air strike”.

‘They sent us back in the middle of the night’

Conditions are dire as hundreds of Palestinians remain stuck in El Arish in northern Egypt.

Since the first day of Israel’s bombardment of the Rafah crossing, Palestinians trying to cross back into Gaza to go back home have been sent back to El Arish and Sheikh Zuwaid in Egypt.

“They sent us back in the middle of the night – left us to take our own transport into El Arish,” said Abo Elwan.

He added that, beyond the instructions to stay away from the border until further notice, there had been no communication from the Egyptian authorities, nor any help in finding a place to stay in the meantime.

“They did not help at all. They made us get in cars and pay for the transport to go back,” he said angrily, adding that he and his brother had been forced to pay 600 Egyptian pounds ($16) to make the 45km (28-mile) trip by road.

“Some Egyptian families opened their houses to host us, but we are too many people stuck. The majority of us sleep in the street in El Arish, as we wait to go back to Gaza. There might be 300 of us.”

Mohammed Abu Safia, another Gaza resident trapped in El Arish, had been in Cairo for a journalism conference. The 29-year-old said the Israeli attacks on Rafah also caught him at the crossing as he tried to go back home.

“The Egyptian authorities would launch warning shots, but then they decided to close the crossing to protect our lives and Egyptians’ lives,” he told Al Jazeera, an explanation that aligns with what the Egyptians and Jordanians told CNN.

Palestinians say crossing through Rafah is dangerous, but staying in Egypt is becoming difficult as their money runs out.

Abu Safia, 29, is lucky to be hosted by an Egyptian family in El Arish. “Those who welcomed us were the families at El Arish and Sheik Zuwayed,” he said.

“However, they [our hosts] thought it would be for one or two days, but today is the seventh day. I am currently thinking of going back to [friends in] Cairo, I do not know what to do, things are getting very hard.”

Individuals crossing between Egypt and Gaza are permitted to carry no more than 5,000 Egyptian Pounds ($162) – not enough to pay for prolonged accommodation and food. This means that money is running out fast for many of those left stranded on the Egyptian side who have nowhere else to go.

“The money that we had planned to have during our journey back to Gaza is almost gone. And our families back in Gaza are now unable to make transfers,” Mohammed said.

Abo Elwan said he and his brother had been unable to borrow money. “Nobody has yet helped us,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are tired and want to go back, we have everything ready for when they announce the opening of the crossing.”

In a news conference after his visit to Cairo on Sunday to mediate, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the Rafah crossing between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Gaza would be reopened and a mechanism agreed with Israel to deliver aid. On Thursday, Israel said it would not block humanitarian aid from Egypt but would continue to deny passage of aid from its own territories until hostages held by Hamas in Gaza have been released.

Egyptian sources told Reuters that a temporary ceasefire in southern Gaza had been agreed to begin in the early hours of Monday to facilitate the passage of aid and the evacuation of some foreign nationals in Gaza. But this has not happened.

Meanwhile, those waiting on the Egyptian side of the border to return home to their families in Gaza have still not heard any news about when they may go.

Both Abo Elwan and Abu Safia know that once they do get in, however, things will be far from easy. Mohammed is from the neighbourhood of Rimal in northern Gaza which has come under heavy bombing since last Friday, October 13. Thousands of Gazans there have been forced to evacuate to the south. As a result, he has no idea yet where he will see his family if, indeed, he does manage to cross back into Gaza.

“My family told me that half of them have been able to go to the South, others are each one in a different area,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Our house was in the city, we do not have anything here [south Gaza], so for the moment, we will stay with some friends. I ask the Palestinian Embassy in Egypt to do something. Where are you for your brothers trapped at the crossing?

“We want to go back to our families, and to our country, where we shall be able to keep living.”

*Name has been changed.

Source: Al Jazeera