Twenty days in limbo
Last week's closure of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza did more than strand thousands of Palestinians. It reinforced the humiliation regularly perpetrated on them by Israel, reports Reem Nafie
Two months ago, Samia Fatouh, a 45- year-old mother of three, left her southern Gaza town of Khan Younis to seek professional medical treatment in Cairo. When Fatouh -- who has cancer -- headed back to the Egyptian town of Rafah to cross back into Gaza two weeks ago, she discovered that Israel had closed the border on 18 July.
She and her husband were stunned. Already exhausted from two-months of chemotherapy treatment, Fatouh looked pale and tired as she told Al-Ahram Weekly of the conditions that she had been living in for the past two weeks. "We were shocked when we found the border closed. I was looking forward to seeing my children, whom I miss so much." To make matters worse, Fatouh had spent all her money in Cairo, and barely had enough left to buy water and sandwiches for the first few, "awful" days.
Fatouh and nearly a thousand other Palestinian men, women and children had been stranded at the Rafah border because they either had no money on them, or no way to get back into Egypt. Many of them, like Fatouh, only had a one-entry visa for a specific visit purpose -- to receive medical treatment not available in the Gaza Strip.
Another 2,500 Palestinians wanting to head back home to the Gaza Strip were just a bit better off; having managed to flood the small local hotels, as well as those in the nearby city of Al-Arish, as they waited anxiously for news of the border being reopened, so they could go back home.
The Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza was finally reopened last Friday, 20 days after Israel -- which controls all access points to Gaza with fences and military patrols -- had first closed it. The 3,500 Palestinians whose families, jobs and lives had been put on hold by the move were finally allowed to head home.
Egyptian officials at the border said that even though it was not the first time the Israelis had shut the Rafah crossing, this was the "longest period the crossing had been closed for". Usually, the Israelis only shut it for a day or two, they said, most often claiming that they were trying to prevent militants from digging tunnels to smuggle weapons and explosives into Gaza.
When the border was closed on 18 July, Israel said it was investigating an alleged plan to blow up the crossing point itself.
Within a week, the situation at the border had gotten so chaotic that Egypt, the US, France and dozens of human rights activists had warned of a potential humanitarian crisis if the issue was not resolved. Egypt had also spoken to European Union officials and written a letter to United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan, urging their assistance in sorting out the issue.
A day after US National Security Council Mideast envoy Elliot Abrams met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel finally agreed to reopen the crossing for eight hours daily, beginning at 8.30am.
By 10am on Friday, an Egyptian official at the border told the Weekly that pregnant women, the elderly, and those who were sick and had been waiting the longest, were being allowed to cross over first.
As they sat in the buses that would take them across the border to their homes, many of the women shed tears of relief. Their children -- anxious to reunite with family and friends -- were jumping around in the aisles.
As they gazed at the makeshift tents that had been set up near the border, many of those who had been stranded recalled the hardships of the past weeks. Twenty-two-year-old Rana Asaad, who is pregnant, remembered how, "as more and more people continued to arrive at Rafah, thinking they were going home, within a week nearly a thousand people were scattered everywhere."
At that point, Egyptian officials had diverted the growing crowd to an empty, mid-sized storage room close to the border. As the number of people continued to increase, the room became extremely cramped.
The Egyptian government, with the help of Egyptians living in Rafah, soon began setting up tents in the desert. Although many were thankful for the tents, which helped to shield them from the blazing 35-degree heat, they also brought back humiliating memories. "Sitting in tents just reminds us of everything we are going through," Asaad said.
It probably didn't help that every day Egyptian officials assured them that the "Israelis said you would be going home today."
The heat ended up being exceedingly dangerous for many. Sabah Habbal, 40, lost her baby two weeks ago due to delivery complications, and remained in serious condition in a hospital on the Egyptian side of the border town of Rafah. Two other women, Najah Ezzeddin, 29, and Sabah Abdel-Wahab, 32, also lost their babies that same week, under similar circumstances. Israel refused to allow the corpses entry into Gaza, and the three babies that died were buried in a cemetery on the Egyptian side of Rafah.
A fourth woman was luckier. According to news reports, while waiting at the border she actually managed to give birth to a son, whom she promptly called Manfaz, which is Arabic for "Crossing".
As the situation became more desperate, the Egyptian Red Crescent Society (ERCS), along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) arrived in Rafah to help provide the stranded Palestinians with tents, food parcels, pest control devices, hygienic materials, and fans. ERCS also set up a small clinic, with two ambulances at the ready.
Despite the help from the ERCS, many were still forced to sleep on flattened cardboard boxes surrounded by mountains of luggage. Blankets, water and toilets were scarce, and there were no showers or cooking facilities available. Farouk Hassan, who had headed for Cairo a month ago to attend his daughter's wedding, said, "although the ERCS provided us with a daily hot meal, for many of us, this meal was not enough." According to Hassan, it was especially hard for children to understand that there was only enough food for one meal a day. At night, he said, the children would complain about being hungry. Many found the sound of the children's hunger pangs "devastating" and "depressing".
Everybody agreed the "most unbearable thing" about the whole ordeal was the feeling of "humiliation" it provoked. "Can you imagine being imprisoned, and not able to go home?" asked construction worker Ahmed Mohamed, who had gone to Al-Arish to vacation with his family.
Since many of the consumer goods sold in Gaza come from Egypt, the border closure affected the livelihoods of people on the other side of Rafah as well. An Egyptian passport control employee at the crossing, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had received countless complaints from vendors in Gaza saying they were running out of supplies. "We supply everything to Gaza -- flour, rice, oil, cement -- and now Gaza is like a huge prison, and nothing can enter or leave the city," he said.
The situation also brought Palestinian concerns about Sharon's oft-mentioned proposal to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza into sharper focus. It remained unclear whether Israel would continue to occupy a thin strip of land along the border between Egypt and Gaza, thus allowing the Israelis to seal Gaza off anytime they want to.
"We will always live with the threat that this could happen again anytime," said Naela Sobeih, a woman in her mid- 20s who was running to catch the bus going across. "While countries make plans, the Palestinian people are the victims."