Palestinians ‘imprisoned’ by Rafah closure

Egypt shut the border crossing more than a month ago, trapping thousands of residents in the besieged Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian army is creating a kilometre-wide buffer zone bordering the Gaza Strip [Getty Images]

Rafah, Gaza – Razan al-Halaqawi was too ill to spend weeks waiting for Egypt to open the Gaza Strip’s main crossing in Rafah.

The crossing has been closed to residents looking to exit Gaza since October 25; in the intervening days, Egypt has opened the crossing just once in one direction for two days, allowing Palestinians on its territory to return to their homes in Gaza.

Razan, 11, died last week, stranded on the Gaza side. Sick with leukaemia, she had been in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant, a procedure that is not available in Gaza or the West Bank.

“There was no way to cross from Rafah,” Razan’s father, 41-year-old Mohammed Salah, told Al Jazeera.

With Rafah still closed, Razan slipped into a coma and doctors shifted their efforts towards transferring her to an Israeli hospital, a process complicated by political and security problems. Within 20 days, the necessary paperwork was in order, but the girl was already dead.

“If you knew Razan,” Salah said, “you’d know how much she loved life; she wrote poetry and she loved to sing patriotic songs”.

RELATED: ‘Rafah has turned into a ghost town’

More than 10,000 medical patients with dire health conditions are currently living in the Gaza Strip, unable to seek adequate care due to the continuous closure of the Rafah crossing and the difficulties associated with travelling through the Israeli Erez checkpoint, Gaza health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said.

“The fate of Palestinian patients is [dependant on] an Egyptian decision to urgently open the border,” Qidra told Al Jazeera.

Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza – which residents refer to as an “open-air prison” – since 2007, with the Rafah crossing frequently closed. Gaza’s gateway to the outside world, Rafah was shut again on October 25 by Egyptian authorities after 33 members of the Egyptian army were killed in Sinai. Egyptian media accused Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, of being responsible for the attack, although Cairo has not officially pointed the finger.

For a month now, I feel like I've been locked in with no way out.

by - Wafa Abdel Rahman, Palestinian trapped in Gaza

The Egyptian army subsequently launched a military operation in Sinai, razing homes to create a kilometre-wide buffer zone bordering the Gaza Strip, and closed the Rafah border crossing, aiming to destroy Gaza’s tunnels.

Last week, dozens of stranded students held a protest in front of the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Gaza City, demanding the opening of Rafah so they can attend their universities.

Mohammed Abu Hajl, 19, got a scholarship to study medicine in Sudan after graduating from high school last year. This is his second year trying desperately to travel to begin his studies. “We’re just students… We are not a threat to anyone,” Abu Hajl told Al Jazeera.

Maher Abu Sabha, the director of the Rafah crossing on the Gaza side, told Al Jazeera that the crossing is seen as the only lifeline for Gazans, and its closure compounds the ongoing siege. He appealed for Egypt to open it in both directions, noting there are not only medical patients desperate to leave, but also students and people who hold residency permits in other countries.

Wafa Abdel Rahman, who lives in the West Bank, was planning to stay in Gaza for two months to see her family and liaise with her office in Gaza, but the closing of the border interrupted her plans, trapping her in Gaza until further notice.

“For a month now, I feel like I’ve been locked in with no way out,” said Wafa, who entered the region three months ago through the Rafah crossing with a delegation of international journalists. “The days I’ve spent here [of] my own choice differed from those I’m spending now while feeling imprisoned.”

RELATED: Rafah crossing provides hope to exit Gaza

Thousands of other Palestinians are stranded in other countries, unable to return to Gaza.

After this summer’s 51-day war in Gaza, which left many without any shelter as winter approaches, international monitors have blasted the slow pace of reconstruction. Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN’s refugee agency, recently said of the reconstruction mechanism brokered by the UN with Israel: “Despite initial results, the process for reconstruction is proving far too slow and is largely ineffective.

“Should this continue, we will reach the winter with no progress in rebuilding the homes of the many still displaced, including those still in UNRWA schools,” Krähenbühl said.

Meanwhile, the people of Gaza are struggling to find hope.

“The border is our right as residents of Gaza … therefore, the border must be open all the time in both directions,” Abu Sabha said.

Source: Al Jazeera