The opening of Rafah on 28 May, the only official border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, has created a lifeline for Palestinians living in Gaza, but some, mostly refugees, will still be restricted to their localities because they lack identification papers.
Palestinians were allowed to pass freely from Gaza into Egypt through Rafah for the first time in four years. The decision marked a huge shift in Egyptian foreign policy, introduced after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, and provides a critical valve for the 1.6 million people trapped within Gaza’s borders since June 2007.
The crossing was partially opened in May last year after the deaths of international activists on board a flotilla attempting to break the siege. It operated a five-day week, from noon until 4pm, but was open only to foreign passport holders, Palestinians with foreign visas and medical patients.
The restrictions had made it incredibly difficult for Palestinians to enter Egypt, even on genuine medical grounds. From April 2011 to date, around 2,100 Palestinians have been denied entry into Egypt for unspecified reasons, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Under the new rules, all women, minors and any man under 18 and over 40 will be able to pass freely without a visa six days a week from 9am until 4pm.
Mohamed Matar, 39, a shopkeeper from Rafah, who was among the thousands of people lining up at the crossing on 28 May hoping to leave Gaza, said: “I won’t be 40 until October but I’m still going to try. My Mum is in Egypt and very sick with Alzheimer’s. She is 80 years old and none of her sons are with her. We are all here in Gaza.
“When I speak to her on the phone she sounds very tired and weak. I’m afraid she will die. If I get through the border tomorrow, at least I can sit with her for a week so that she recognizes me again.”
Not Everyone Happy
Not all Palestinians are as optimistic. For men aged 18-40, the reopening makes little difference. Unless they can provide proof of having a place at university abroad or a foreign visa, they will remain stuck in the Gaza Strip.
There are also hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, mostly refugees, without identification documents who cannot leave. While it officially withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel retains control of its maritime, air and most of its land borders. It also retains control of its population registry, including the issuance of Palestinian ID numbers without which it is impossible to travel.
Sana Easa, 39, has not seen her family in Cairo since she moved to Gaza to marry her husband Salah 12 years ago. Both need medical treatment unavailable in Gaza’s hospitals, but even with the new policy at Rafah, they are stuck.
Sana is a Palestinian but was born in Cairo and lived there most of her life. Her parents left Gaza as refugees in 1967. Her Egyptian passport expired in April 2004 but in order to renew it, she must go to Cairo in person. She is still waiting for the Palestinian ID number she applied for 12 years ago.
“The last time I tried to cross Rafah with my husband was in May 2010,” she says. “We got to the Palestinian border at 4am and reached the Egyptian side at 11pm. The Egyptian officials told my husband he and my son could pass through but they told me that because I have expired Egyptian travel documents and I don’t have a Palestinian ID I had to turn back.
“At 1am we decided we would come home together. My husband refuses to go to Egypt for the operation alone. He will be a patient and will need help. It was a disaster. This new opening means nothing to me because I know my case.”
The border opened at 10am local time on 28 May and within 90 minutes 200 Palestinians had crossed into Egypt. Travellers coming in the opposite direction spoke of huge changes on the Egyptian side of the border.
“It’s incredible. Anyone who came to the terminal, they just stamped their passport and gave them entry just like that. I am from Gaza and have a black passport but there were many different passports coming through – yellow, blue, red. There was a huge difference,” Hamad Yusef told IRIN.
Israeli Concerns Dismissed
Dismissing Israeli concerns about increased security threats to their borders, Ghazi Hamad, director of crossings in Gaza, said that Hamas and Egypt had proved – over the past four years, during which they had run Rafah crossing without European Union or Israeli supervision – that they could operate according to international standards. Claims that weapons, drugs and criminals had been smuggled through the border were false, he said.
“This is a very important day for Gaza… For four years we have been living under a siege. Now not all our problems are solved, but it’s better.
“We are in talks with the Egyptians and hope that the restrictions applied to men aged 18-40 will be lifted soon.”
Israeli objects to the reopening believing that Hamas militants will funnel weapons into Gaza through Rafah.