Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 May 2008
Issue No. 897
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dying a slow death

Egypt opens the Rafah terminal for three days but the siege of Gaza persists, reports Serene Assir

While Egypt's General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman was in Jerusalem meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an apparent bid to secure a truce over Gaza the Egyptian authorities opened up the Rafah terminal for three days, allowing a trickle of movement in and out of the Gaza Strip. The majority of Palestinians who managed to enter Egypt during the three-day relief period are in urgent need of medical attention.

According to Ibrahim Elewa, who has close ties with the Cairo-based, Muslim Brotherhood- dominated Arab Doctors' Syndicate, 140 Palestinians in need of medical attention have arrived in Cairo since Saturday. "Those who managed to come through did so with the permission of the Egyptian state. Many of them are cancer patients needing chemotherapy," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Others have been injured in recent Israeli attacks."

The Arab Doctors' Syndicate regularly takes responsibility for the medical treatment of Palestinians allowed through the Rafah terminal.

Under a US-brokered agreement in November 2005 Rafah is supposed to operate independently of Israel, under the supervision of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Egypt and monitored by European Union officials. On 9 June 2007, days before Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, however, Israel insisted on the closure of the Rafah terminal. The terminal has been effectively closed ever since, with the exception of a week in January-February 2008 when Hamas breached the border enabling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents of Gaza to move in and out of the besieged territory for at least a few days.

"Part of the reason why Egypt may have decided to allow the terminal to be opened for a few days is to avoid a new political confrontation between Egypt and the Palestinians which would occur should Hamas breach the border again," believes Mohamed El-Sayed Said, a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"It is good that some of us have been able to come through, but the fact is that many more Palestinians need to travel urgently and for a number of reasons," says Mohamed Salman, a journalist from Gaza who managed to cross safely into Egypt. As he prepared to enter Egypt on Monday he reports that there were 30,000 Palestinians at the terminal hoping to travel for medical, academic or professional reasons.

During the first two days the terminal was opened movement was both to and from Egypt. Among those arriving in Egypt were Egyptian citizens stranded in Gaza since February. By the third day, however, only Palestinians stranded in Egypt were being allowed to cross back into Gaza. At press time it was unclear whether any new crossings would be allowed.

It is a positive sign, says Salman, that the Egyptian authorities opened the border, even if only for a few days. "That the border opens for three days, and that some of us manage to get through, this is good. We are drowning, and any respite for a drowning man is good."

The only real solution to the plight of Gazans, though, is an end to the siege and to Israeli occupation. "Israel is to blame for the siege, as are those Arab states that do nothing about Israel's crimes," says Salman. He adds that even if Egypt were to unilaterally open the border terminal on a more permanent basis, without agreement from the US and Israel "the Israelis would close it straight back... they have tanks deployed very close by."

"The siege is strangling Gaza, and we are collectively dying a slow death. The Israeli siege targets each and every one of us and we live conditions that no human should have to live."

The tightened siege, says Salman, has made conditions in Gaza "desperate".

"Israeli incursions and attacks continue to kill Palestinians. There are days when we can't cook because there is no gas, nobody is working, Israel has total control over our lives and it ensures they are barely sustainable."

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