Kafka at the Rafah border

What should have been a simple border crossing turns into a four-month odyssey through the iron curtain of Gaza.

Travellers forced to bribe to cross Rafah border
Palestinians face a lengthy wait to cross the Rafah-Egypt border, with only 400 allowed to cross each day [GALLO/GETTY]

Any astute observer who has spent any substantial time in the Gaza Strip knows that Gazans desperately want and need freedom of movement and the right to export their  products. This does not diminish the fact that eighty per cent of Gazans receive UN food aid, and despite the media hyperbole on Gaza’s burgeoning economy, only one per cent of the population is able to indulge in the Strip’s “luxury malls, hotels and restaurants”.

Popularly characterised as “the world’s largest open-air prison”, Gaza is a cruel joke for civilians trying to leave its borders. Imagine being in a locked room with no key, and being able to hear someone jangling the keys on the other side. Egypt and Israel are the key holders to freedom, while Palestinians must apply for an exit permit from either government, an arduous and bureaucratic process with no guarantees of a stamped approval.

At the end of May, the interim Egyptian government decisively moved to ease the travel restrictions on Palestinians crossing the Rafah border. Less than a month later, Egypt reneged on its new policy by significantly reducing the daily quota of Palestinians crossing the border from 600 to 400. By some estimates, the Rafah border can accommodate the passage of a 1,000 travellers per day. The severely ill and those students bound for study abroad desperately rely on the opening of the Rafah border. A short narrative of my travails to enter Gaza will illustrate a fraction of the Sisyphean feat facing Gazans attempting to cross the Egyptian and Israeli borders.

The long wait

In the winter of 2010, a prominent community mental health organisation invited me to Gaza City. I spent a galling six weeks in Cairo awaiting permission to enter Gaza. For nearly two months, the Mubarak government had sealed the Rafah border in response to the killing of an Egyptian police officer, which occurred during the same time as the passage of the Galloway aid convoy. I submitted my application seven times to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, and each time it came back unapproved.

When the border finally re-opened, I hopped on a bus to Al Arish, the Sinai town closest to the Rafah gate, in hope of convincing the border officials to let me enter Gaza. The North Sinai is reminiscent of the Wild West – denizens abiding by their own tribal law. That morning on our way to the Rafah border, our Bedouin driver took us off the normal route. We were forced to dole out an extra fare to pay for an armed accomplice in another car who helped our driver to find the main road leading to the border.

While my travelling companion made it through the Rafah border, I did not. I took the next big step to go and visit the mukhabarat (Egyptian intelligence service), the security agency that issues the final authorisation, to enquire about the multiple rejections.

Official mendacity

The mukhabarat is a reputedly sinister place to which very few taxi drivers will drive their customers. Peering into a rust-covered wrought-iron window, I pleaded with the security officials to let me speak to someone inside. Three hours later, they allowed me to enter and directed me to an eight-foot-by-ten-foot sterile, drab gray room to communicate via phone with an unidentified, mid-level intelligence officer. Our discussion concluded with the officer offering me only a 14-day pass to Gaza. The original request was for six months. At the end of the day, it was no surprise that a pass had not been faxed to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry when I arrived there. This was my welcome introduction to the ruthlessly mendacious security apparatus of the Mubarak government – the corrupt regime which received $2bn annually in foreign aid from the pockets of US taxpayers.

By the spring of 2010, I finally gained entry into Gaza through the Erez border, but not bereft of a similarly protracted approval process. The Israeli Defense Ministry initially cleared me as not posing a security threat, but at the final stage, denied me for “not meeting their criteria”. Upon consulting an Israeli human rights attorney, I was told my Arab-descent surname might have aroused suspicions, as commented upon by one major within Israel’s Foreign Ministry. But the real reason, as we later discovered, was that the ministry confused my national identity. They thought that I was a Gazan-Palestinian student seeking to study abroad. After my attorney sorted out my mistaken identity, it took an additional four weeks for the ministry to issue me approval to enter Gaza. Altogether, it took me four months to enter Gaza.

Because of a shared heritage, Palestinians perceive Egypt as being the preferred border to exit Gaza. Egypt’s post-revolution period, however, has not augured well for Gazans in terms of granting them greater freedom of movement. Egypt’s backpedalling on border policy reinforces the normalisation of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. The re-tightening of the Rafah border restrictions does not hamper the arms smugglers, because they, at least, have the tunnels.

Rather, the border restrictions hurt the most vulnerable of Gaza society – the terminally infirm who are in dire need of life-sustaining treatment and medicine. Delays in crossing the border potentially put university students at risk of forfeiting their scholarships to study abroad. A flexible Rafah border crossing becomes even more critical for Palestinian civilians when Israel initiates an escalation of attacks on Gaza. The relatively flat topography of the narrow coastal strip offers no immediate refuge from the sputtering Apache helicopters and the somnolent buzzing drones that can strike anywhere at any time.

Hailed as the “region’s bellwether”, Egypt should exercise moral conscience by permanently opening the Rafah border. In expressing disillusionment with the trivial changes in Egypt’s border policy, one student blogger, Abu Yazan, decried “Please close this gate … we don’t want it. We would be better without Rafah crossing, at least we wouldn’t think about it!”

Diane Shammas holds a Ph.D. in international education and urban higher education, with a specialisation in Arab American studies. She was a university lecturer in the Gaza Strip in 2010 and 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.