By Philip Rizk- Cairo
In the past weeks the families living in Egyptian Rafah have faced similar fears as their neighbors and relatives on the other side of the border. Although they have been out of the direct line of fire many families fled the border areas due to the ongoing bombing and occasional shrapnel that landed near them.
Abu Yusef said that a week ago six bombs had fallen on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border and that the military had covered up the incident. The day before another three unexploded bombs had landed in Dihneyya, a neighborhood in Rafah, “the army came, dug them into a hole and blew them up,” Abu Yusef said.
As none of the injured military personnel are from the area few details are known about the incident. One resident of Egyptian Rafah explained that the inhabitants of Northern Sinai were considered the “the Jews of Sinai,” were not called into army service and thus had no information about military affairs.
Another local, Yaser, told me that in the past week an officer had been killed and another two soldiers injured by an Israeli bomb that had dropped close to the unknown solider in downtown Rafah. Mostafa Singer, a local teacher and journalist, confirmed that at least two officers had indeed been injured by Israeli shelling and taken to a military facility to which the press has no access.
Om Mohammed and her family live just a few hundred meters away from the Rafah border. She told me that originally she is Palestinian but had now taken Egyptian citizenship and was considered an Egyptian. Many of her relatives live on the other side.
Over the course of the past many weeks her children and grandchildren have been suffering under the continuous Israeli fire across the border. “We don’t sleep because the situation is so difficult, the house shakes and throughout the night long the children wake up screaming,” Om Muhammed said.
Shrapnel had killed some of their goats while the continuous shelling shattered many windows. When a young boy suggested showing me the destroyed windows in the nearby mosque he was warned, “don’t show them or else we will all be arrested.”
The streets of Rafah are crawling with military and security personnel and the town’s inhabitants certainly know what can be shown and said and what can’t. The area most closely guarded is Salah Aldin Street where the Rafah border was breached on January 23rd just one year ago.
Tunnels that just three weeks ago used to transport food, clothing, kerosene, petrol and diesel among other things into the Gaza Strip are now mostly at a standstill. Only a very few tunnels are still functioning as the Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian Rafah has caused wide destruction for the tunnel industry.
Although the tunnels were not a viable alternative to the opening of border crossings into the Gaza Strip they did provide some breathing space for trade into Gaza. This begs the question, what will happen next.
In Sheikh Zweyyid, a town 15km away from the Rafah border Mostafa Singer, teacher and journalist told me that the last two times the border was breached was in coordination between Hamas and the Egyptian authorities.
38 days prior to the incident in January 2008 the journalist received word from Fatah officers being housed in Egyptian military camps that the border would be toppled. Despite this prior information the governorate of Northern Sinai was far from prepared for the flow of people following the border opening.
“When the border was breached in 2007 Rafah, Sheikh Zweyyid and Arish ran out of water and prices tripled… many Palestinians were sleeping in the streets,” Singer said, “in [Egyptian] Rafah Hamas members were guiding traffic in the streets” in order to restore some order.
According to Singer four days before Israel’s latest military attacks the governor of Northern Sinai met with local leaders, heads of schools, youth organizations and hospitals to prepare for mobilization. At a monthly meeting on January 20th the governor furthermore coordinated efforts for emigration of Palestinian refugees to the region.
Near the hospital in Rafah the Egyptian army set up a camp of tents soon after the Israeli military onslaught began. I received reports that other such camps existed within closed off Egyptian military compounds. Egyptian authorities have given no official explanation as to why the tents are there.
Khalil Alniss, head of Justice for Gaza, an NGO that coordinates humanitarian assistance into Gaza, is based in the area. Alniss believes the tents may be used to house fleeing Palestinian refugees.
In the Egyptian town of Rafah Om Muhammed said, “if they open the border they are welcome, if they need to come then let them come.”
– Philip Rizk is an Egyptian-German who lived in Gaza from August 2005 till August 2007. Philip is pursuing graduate studies in Cairo and runs a blog: tabulagaza.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.