End of summer brings bigger backlogs at Rafah

Corruption and a backlog of 21,000 travelers mean a months-long wait to use the Egypt-Gaza border crossing.

    Dozens of people spent the morning standing outside the gates of the crossing [Al Jazeera]

    Bassim Odeh stared wearily at the police manning the gate outside the Rafah border crossing, wondering if this visit - his third in as many days - would be his last. He stood with dozens of other people under a ragged awning, scant relief from the midday heat, and watched other travelers try to negotiate their way through.

    "I've been trying to travel for three days. First the Palestinians rejected me, and then the Egyptians did," Odeh said, throwing up his hands. "The Egyptians said ‘security reasons.' The Palestinians didn't even say why."

    The man standing next to him, Saleem Abed, an engineer trying to get back to his job in Saudi Arabia, rolled his eyes. "They are idiots here," he muttered.

    The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza re-opened in May, giving residents of the besieged territory a much-needed opportunity to travel.

    But the crossing has been backlogged since the day it opened, thanks to an Egyptian quota which allows only about 500 people to travel each day. And Gazans say the problem has only gotten worse with the end of summer and the Ramadan holiday.

    "It's busy. It's summer, people have come to visit for the holidays, students are going to university," said Ihab al-Ghusain, a spokesman for the interior ministry in Gaza. "We've tried to deal with the crisis as best we can, but it is ongoing."

    'Come back on Saturday'

    Trying to cross through Rafah is, at this point, a months-long process. Palestinians need approval before they can cross the border, and there is currently a list of 21,000 people waiting for permission, according to the interior ministry in Gaza.

    Travelers are rejected for a number of reasons, from visa problems to "security issues"

    A handful of people, most of them with connections in Cairo, have prior approval from the Egyptian interior ministry, allowing them to "jump the line." But the majority of Gazans need to apply for permission to travel through government offices in Gaza and Khan Younis.

    Then they wait.

    "If you apply today, the earliest you can expect to travel is November 3," al-Ghusain said.

    The interior ministry eventually assigns a travel date, but even that does not guarantee Gazans will be allowed to cross into Egypt.

    Travelers go first to Khan Younis, in central Gaza, where buses transport them to the border. Most of them, at least; some are inexplicably left behind and told to come back the following day.

    "We've been here since 5:00 in the morning. And just now they said, come back on Saturday," said Jamal Karam, standing with his family in Khan Younis at 10:30 on a recent morning. "My nephews are supposed to be in school in Saudi Arabia. I don't know if they will get to classes on time! School starts on Saturday."

    Karam said his family would go back to their home in Gaza City, then return to Khan Younis on Saturday - again, with no guarantee they would be allowed to travel.

    "I've spent two months trying to travel," said his nephew Mohammed, sitting dejectedly on top of his suitcase. "The plan was to come visit my family for two weeks, and I got stuck here for two months. So I'm definitely not going to do it again."

    'The Egyptians are lazy'

    After arriving in Rafah, Gazans are again made to wait, first outside the border crossing, then inside the passport control office, and finally in rows of plastic chairs under a tin awning just steps from the Egyptian side.

    Officials in Gaza want the Egyptians to at least double the daily quota at the border

    Each wait brings new opportunities for rejection. Some are unable to cross because of visa problems, or because of vague "security concerns." Still others are turned away simply because they arrived too close to what many travelers say is the border's arbitrary closing time.

    "The Egyptians are very lazy. They start working from 9:30 until maybe 3:00, and that's it, finished," said Odeh's son Samir. "So the people who get here in the afternoon, they are rejected... they have to come back."

    Palestinian officials are clearly reluctant to criticise Egypt; Israel's blockade means Rafah is Gaza's only connection to the outside world. But there is clearly a growing frustration with the daily quota.

    "The problem is from the Egyptian side," said Ayoub Abu Shaar, the director of the Rafah crossing. "But we do not want any problems with the Egyptians, you know? The government in Gaza is working with the Egyptians to resolve it."

    Al-Ghusain, the interior ministry spokesman, said the Egyptians should increase the quota to at least 1,000 Palestinian travelers per day. But he, too, was hesitant to criticise Cairo, and said the military junta in Egypt needed to deal with domestic problems before it could expand Rafah.

    "They have been delayed because of the security situation in Sinai, and also because they didn't have enough staff to work on the border," he said.

    On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, the main complaint is corruption.

    Officials in Gaza say that they prioritize certain groups of travelers, like people who need medical treatment and students traveling to school. But travelers waiting at Rafah say the government actually prioritizes those with good connections to Hamas, which rules Gaza - or to those who can pay.

    A man waiting at Rafah said he paid a bribe - $500 for each member of his family - to skip the months-long wait. The man, who asked not to be identified, said he paid the money to a middleman in Gaza.

    "They give the opportunities to people with good connections with Hamas, otherwise it's delay, delay, delay," Jamal Karam said. "If people have money, they pay bribes. But we don't have enough money to get on the list. So we wait."

    All of these problems - the corruption, the delays, the unexplained rejections - have left travelers furious, and tempers flared easily in the summer heat.

    "There is no procedure here, no respect for the traveler," said Ismaha Suleiman, waiting for more than an hour inside the passport control office.

    "The Israeli border is better," one man said - a bit of hyperbole, since Israel allows almost no Palestinians through the Erez crossing, but an indication of how frustrating the Rafah experience can be.

    "To get a visa to the United States is easier," said Mohammed Abed, waiting outside the Rafah gates for a second day. "You need magic to get through here."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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