It is 1pm and the terminal building on the Palestinian side of Gaza’s only crossing into Egypt – Rafah – is empty. The desks at passport control are not even manned. Outside the terminal, a small group of Palestinians sit on benches shaded by trees waiting for the border to open. They have been waiting for three and a half hours.
Among them is Samer, a pharmacist who works with Médecins Sans Frontières in Gaza. Her son Anwar, aged five, has rickets. He has a referral from Gaza’s ministry of health to see an orthopaedic surgeon in Cairo. She explains that the restrictions on the health service imposed by Israel’s blockade mean they have to travel to receive the treatment he needs.
They arrived early in the morning anticipating crowds but found none. They passed through Palestinian passport control quickly and have been waiting for the Egyptian border to open since 8am.
“It doesn’t make any difference that I work for an international health organization or that I have a huge file of papers proving that Anwar has referral for treatment in Egypt. I’m still worried we’ll be turned away,” Samer said.
According to a deal brokered by the USA in 2005 when Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza, this crossing should only operate when European Union (EU) monitors are present. The EU monitors withdrew when Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 and the border was closed to Palestinian travellers.
Following the deaths of Turkish protestors on board the Mavi Mara flotilla in May 2010, the crossing reopened to humanitarian cases on the orders of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Only those with a medical referral outside Gaza, students with places at foreign universities, foreign visa holders and foreign passport holders have permission to pass. Humanitarian organizations, including the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), say the border is still effectively closed.
Hamada Al-Bayari, OCHA’s humanitarian affairs analyst in Gaza, said: “Not all medical cases are allowed to cross the border, only those with a thick wad of documents proving they need treatment outside Gaza. And even if they do have referrals from the ministry of health, they can still be turned away. At least 30-50 people are sent back every day."
“The crossing should be open for all civilians to come and go freely – that is a human right,” Al-Bayari said.
“Regarded with Suspicion”
This is the second time Samer has come to Rafah since it was reopened. The first was to attend a training session for her work in Paris. Like all Gazans coming into Egypt, she discovered she needed clearance from Egyptian security to enter the country, which she did not have. For 72 hours, from the time she arrived in Egypt until her flight left Cairo airport for Paris, she was held in a “transit room”.
“I said to the Egyptian officials, I’m a Palestinian, I’m a woman, you can’t ask me to stay in this one room with men, without food and water, without a bathroom, with no privacy for days. But they refused to let me pass into Cairo city even for one day. So I sat on a chair for 72 hours. A male guard had to accompany me whenever I needed to use the bathroom or to get water or food," Samer said.
“Once you pass through to Egypt, every Palestinian is regarded with suspicion. They make you feel like you’re not a human being. The officials are very, very tough,” she added.
Hossan Zaki, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denies Egypt is failing to meet the humanitarian needs of Gazans attempting to cross through Rafah: “The data demonstrates very clearly that the crossing has been an open valve for the population of Gaza. Since June 2010 when the president of Egypt decided to open it indefinitely, a little less than 200,000 people have crossed. If one or more people don’t like the way the crossing is operating on the Egypt side, that is their problem.”
“Any claim that there should be free movement for all Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt is a joke. People speaking in these terms must have no idea of the background to this issue,” Zaki said.
According to data collected by OCHA, 60,139 people have passed from Gaza through Rafah since June this year, and 63,323 have crossed into Gaza from Egypt, making a total of 123,462.
“People Wait for Hours”
Like Samer, Husam Abadin is hoping to travel to Egypt to seek medical treatment for a ruptured disk that presses on his spine. He also works for an NGO. He has been waiting for the crossing to open for three hours.
“Can you call this crossing open?” he asks, nodding in the direction of Egypt. “Things just aren’t moving on that side. There’s a four-month old on a bus over there who has a face like a tomato he’s so hot. He and his mother have also been waiting since early this morning.”
Listening to Abadin describe his experience, a Gazan border official smiles ruefully. He is familiar with the story. “It’s better here now the border is open but every day people wait for hours. Sometimes it’s because they [Egyptian officials] are praying, sometimes they’re having lunch and sometimes they just close the border without giving any reason at all," he said.
“After people have waited here for hours they often get turned away. Sometimes the Egyptians say it’s because there is no security coordination; sometimes they say they suspect the referrals are fake. There’s never any way of knowing whether you will make it through to the other side,” he said.
According to Zaki, Egypt runs Rafah crossing according to the country’s rules and regulations. “Not every single case that applies for crossing from Gaza into Egypt will be automatically accepted. This is our sovereign right,” he said.