No man's land again
Palestinians stranded on the Egypt-Gaza border are now abandoned by all sides, reports Serene Assir from Rafah and Arish, North Sinai
Approximately 5,000 Palestinians have been stranded in Rafah and Arish owing to a sudden border closure imposed, ever since Hamas's seizure of power in Gaza 9 June. Banned by Egyptian security forces from approaching the Rafah border crossing -- where Palestinians have usually congregated despite intense heat during recent and similar closures -- they have for the most part sought refuge in hotels and well- wishers' homes.
"I have been here for 23 days," said Ashraf Mohamed from Rafah, Gaza. "I have been staying with my son at the Safa Hotel in Arish, but I have been unable to cover the expenses of the hotel for the past two weeks. The hotel owners know this; it's just as well that they have kind hearts and are willing to put us up anyway. I have completely run out of money." Mohamed originally came to Egypt with his seven-year- old son, who needed an operation. The rest of the family, Mohamed said, remains in Gaza. "I just want to be with them, the situation there is so dangerous right now. Is that too much to ask?"
Other Palestinians have found refuge in Rafah. Mahmoud and the rest of the Palestinian national boxing team, for instance, have just returned from Algeria where they came third in an Arab boxing championship. "Our trip was paid for and taken care of entirely by the Arab League," Mahmoud told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Now, as you can see, we are sleeping on mattresses out in the open. We are fortunate, I suppose, to have been given these mattresses by the owners of this house, who have proven to be good people. Still, it appears shocking that the Arab League, and everyone else, has abandoned us when we actually needed help."
It is significant though unsurprising -- particularly given US threats to cut $200 million in military aid to the Cairo government, linked to demands to improve security on the Egypt-Gaza border -- that security forces have ensured the virtual disappearance of these stranded Palestinians from the public eye. "Neither the Egyptians nor the Israelis want to know we exist right now," said Mahmoud, who asked that his full name be withheld. "They formulate their policies, and we bear the burden. When they catch us, security personnel call us names, pick us up in their trucks, and drop us off at Arish, as far away from the border as possible. They know we don't have much money, and that it will be difficult for us to come back to Rafah."
Other Palestinians have been more fortunate, however. An estimated 300 members of Fatah, who originally fled into Egypt as Hamas's control over the Gaza Strip strengthened early last month, have been put up in tents and provided with food, clothing and medical treatment at a Rafah Central Security Forces camp. "They are receiving excellent treatment," one police official who identified himself only as Corporal Hisham said, before he proceeded to ask the Weekly 's team to leave the camp grounds. Egypt has openly supported Fatah against Hamas during the escalating political and ensuing military crisis in the Gaza Strip since the election of Hamas into parliament January 2006.
"We, the Palestinians, are paying the price of Israel's goals," said Ibrahim Al-Ghalban, who entered Egypt along with his brother to get his seven-year-old nephew Mohsen adequate attention for blindness in one eye and poor eyesight in the other. Along with scores of others, they are staying at the house of a Palestinian who is resident in Arish. "Not only are we suffering as we share cramped living space in this house, we are also worrying about our families in Gaza, who are under attack. Ongoing Israeli air strikes have killed and injured dozens. Who will treat the injured in Gaza?" Two major raids have taken place over recent days in Gaza, one 27 June and another 30 June. At least 18 people were killed during these Israeli attacks.
Meanwhile, as Egyptian security forces have worked to ensure that the Palestinians lie as low as possible, no humanitarian assistance for them has been forthcoming. "I cannot go to the hotels and the houses to ask whether people need help," said Egyptian Red Crescent General Director Magda Al-Shirbini. "As far as we are concerned, there are no Palestinians in Rafah or Arish."
At time of going to press, there were unconfirmed reports that the Israeli-controlled border at Kerem Shalom would be opened instead of Rafah, in order to allow for the re-entry of Palestinians in Egypt into Gaza. There were also reports of a possible forced reopening of the Rafah border by armed Hamas sympathisers from Gaza. "There is no confirmation of any reopening yet," North Sinai Governor Ahmed Abdel-Hamid told the Weekly. "For the border at Rafah to be opened there needs to be agreement by the Palestinian, Egyptian, European and Israeli sides. So far, no such agreement has been reached."
As for Kerem Shalom, however, agreement might presumably be reached more easily, as the only involved parties in decision-making would be Israel and Egypt. Indeed, it has been an Israeli goal to render Kerem Shalom the only gateway into Gaza, whereas Rafah, where the Palestinians and the EU play a role, would only constitute a way out. Understandably enough, Palestinians have been wary of using of the Kerem Shalom border crossing. "If we start to use Kerem Shalom to enter Gaza, then we would effectively be giving up our control as Palestinians, however small today, over our exit and entry into Gaza," said Al-Ghalban. "At the same time, it seems ridiculous to speak of a Palestinian role in border-control when we don't even have a state."
Further heightening the need to "disappear" the Palestinians was a secret US congressional visit to North Sinai to investigate matters of border security on 1 July, which the Weekly learned of through well-informed sources at Arish speaking on condition of anonymity. In June, the US Congress announced a tentative decision to put $200 million of military aid to Egypt on hold, on condition that Cairo does more to improve human rights, democracy and border security in Sinai.
For the Palestinians, such meddling is tantamount to the denial for their right to exist by Israel and its allies. "It appears to us that the Israelis are again using all means at their disposal, trying to make us beg for any solution, even if it is a bad one," Al-Ghalban said. "But no, we will never accept their solutions. We are human beings! And we demand our human right to live, and to live in dignity with control over our own lives, just like everybody else."