Palestinians and Egyptians at the Rafah border tell Serene Assir about politics, money and their own different yet inextricably-linked predicaments
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Palestinians gathered for days at the border crossing into Gaza at Rafah, Egypt, waiting to go home. Although most made it back in, the border is now closed, and saw its last days of activity for many months to come shortly after the Israeli Occupation Forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip
Well into September, the heat in North Sinai was still scorching.
It seemed even more so as the frontier guard appeared, blocking the way into Gaza at Rafah. Though crossing back to Gaza had been allowed temporarily at various points in the week, for the benefit of Gazans who had crossed into Egypt for the first time in 38 years after the Israeli withdrawal, hundreds of Palestinians were still stranded on the wrong side of the border, unpredictably for them and for the Egyptian population of Rafah and Al-Arish.
Shortly before the next brief reopening, indeed, there was little in the surrounding imagery to suggest that this was an international border; the sight evoked West Bank roadside checkpoints more readily, with cigarette vendors lining the way to the large, beige gate and little boys handing out soft drinks. Families had set up pistachio and almond stalls, while taxis waited for homebound Palestinians who, having lined up for long enough, would eventually give up. Notwithstanding the bustle, this and other facts were a constant reminder that, not only were we at an international border with the usual rules, regulations and no-go areas but one that carries uniquely important implications for world politics today: the point of convergence of Egypt, Palestine and Israel; and a place where questions about Egypt's poor and Palestine's refugees come up with particular force.
Still, the place is well within the reach of global capitalism. Try buying a packet of LM cigarettes and you'll be charged LE5.5 instead of LE4.5. Asking why -- the Egyptian vendor and I were barely 20 metres from the border, at this point -- I was told, "Things are different here. I pick up a pack in town at LE5, promise. Things have become very expensive lately." Clearly the man hasn't washed in days, though he lives and works in his own sovereign country; and judging by his hard-done-by condition, it does not sound like he is lying.
An Egyptian, he is in no better shape than the Palestinians, though he has very different problems. Indeed Egyptian- Palestinian debates about who is to blame for whose plight become more heated the closer one gets to Gaza. "Don't talk to the Palestinians," a taxi driver who hails originally from the province of Menoufiya counselled as we approached the gate. "All they'll do is lie to you." Which is not to say that most Egyptians were unsympathetic. Those who originate in Al-Arish, especially -- the Gaza Strip, which borders the latter, was once Egyptian territory -- had an entirely different story to tell.
"Many people here have been talking about Palestinians in a negative way, especially in the last few days," an elderly resident of Al-Arish told Al-Ahram Weekly. "But as far as I'm concerned, people are the same everywhere. Some are good, others aren't. A few Palestinians may have come here to smuggle cheap weapons and drugs back into Gaza; the majority did not."
Abu Khalil, a taxi driver from Gaza now working in Al-Arish, said, "Egyptians and Palestinians get along just fine on a personal level. The trouble begins when there is government intervention or relevant economic changes. That's when people start blaming each other."
The inflow of over 100,000 Gazans within the brief period during which the border was practically unguarded, a fortnight before, followed by closure of the border, was one such occasion. With a low population density, the economy of Rafah and Al-Arish normally functions within a low price range -- affordable to a majority of low-income inhabitants. The sudden rise in demand caused prices to soar, sparing neither economic level nor nationality of resident.
"It's shocking when you see the cost of everyday goods and services going up by a factor of 10 or even 20, within 48 hours." Thus Samir, an Egyptian from Al-Arish says "Don't get me wrong, I do sympathise with the Palestinians. I just don't see how the situation could have eluded the control of the authorities enough for everyone to be quite so badly stung."
"You want the truth?" Atef Haggag, president of Al-Arish city council, asked. "The situation is dire, things have been handled disastrously. This is no temporary price rise that lifts in a day or two: demand was so enormously multiplied that even Cairo suppliers are raising their prices. This means that we are faced with a situation in which, however fast the Palestinians leave, we will be stuck with the inflation for a long time to come."
For their part the Palestinians, impatiently waiting, had a range of stories to tell. Of those who had entered Egypt legally, many cannot now go back in the same way. Events developed too rapidly for an adequate entry-exit system to be devised, following the Israeli withdrawal -- which means that they have to wait.
"I can only get more bored as I sit here," Hassan, a businessman from Gaza, told the Weekly in downtown Al-Arish. "I've outstayed my one-month visa to Egypt, I've finished all the work I came here to do, but I don't want to go up to the border and pretend that I don't have my papers just so that I can get on a bus and go home with fellow Gazans. The others came here while no one was guarding the border. No one can prove they're here now. I, on the other hand, have a stamp on my passport showing that I entered Egypt. If I don't go back using the official channels, then I can imagine travelling in future will be even harder for me than it already is."
Nor is he the only one: "There are hundreds in the same situation -- and not just here. You'll find them in Cairo and Alexandria: people who came here on short business or family trips in the summer. Exit into Egypt via Rafah by default requires re-entry via Rafah. There's no other way to get home." Speaking on condition of anonymity last week, an Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official dealing with issues pertaining to Palestinians had told the Weekly, "Our priority right now is to solve the problem of the 40 people who are in Egypt legally." Hassan insisted on refuting the figure the official had cited, however, insisting that "there are many, many more" than 40.
The vast majority of Gazans now in Egypt entered while the border was not properly controlled, and they have neither papers nor stamped passports. "In fact," a young Gazan student told the Weekly while he waited in line, "you'll find that many of us here haven't even brought our IDs with us; some don't even have an ID. They're not asking for them on the buses. All you need to do is say you're Gazan -- you're on."
Indeed, surveying the crowds by the gate, most were men aged 18-45, that is in the age group the Israeli occupation had persecuted most harshly -- by limiting their freedom of movement if not in other ways as well. By Saturday official statements from both the Egyptian and the Palestinian authorities promised that they would be able to return. Still, the conditions in which they found themselves in Egypt were far from accommodating. Al-Arish, for example, were strictly forbidden from renting out rooms to Palestinians who had entered Egypt illegally. "The problem is that the Egyptian authorities did not foresee or deal promptly with a situation of such gravity," Haggag told the Weekly, "and yet, as soon as the situation emerged, they decided to impose grave measures to limit its consequences -- immediately." While official statements celebrated the Palestinians' newfound freedom of movement, in other words, the authorities failed to treat them humanely once they crossed the border.
Many were obliged to sleep out in the open as they waited for the gate to reopen, and consequent problems included lack of sanitation or adequate services. "It's marvellous how the Egyptian people have welcomed us," Abdullah, from Khan Younis, told the Weekly. "They are very generous people. But I have to say that, here at the border, while we have been waiting, the authorities have not been good to us."
Many complained of beatings, of Egyptian officials withholding any information on developments. The situation was thus further complicated by uncertainty as to whether one should wait at the border or seek food and shelter in the town proper or in Al-Arish. The men grew impatient waiting in the sun, and fights broke out among them, only to be broken up by Egyptian police armed with batons. And as security came increasingly under the authorities' control, Rafah began to resemble a military zone excluding journalists even as the politically sensitive location called for constant reporting. "The situation we're in here must be publicised," Zainab told the Weekly as she sat by the road leading up to the border. "We've been waiting in the heat for days, and no one is providing us with any kind help."
The chances are that by now, Zainab and her three teenage daughters have made it back to Gaza. What is less certain is whether she feels any freer now that the Israelis have withdrawn, considering that they will continue to guard the entry border on the Palestinian side. And although her visit to Egypt was brief, it may turn out to be the last such visit: unless she decides to risk not being allowed back into Gaza, once plans to establish a new Egyptian-Israeli-controlled border, only a few hundred metres away from where she was resting, are implemented.