Serene Assir: Bordering on Desperation

By Serene Assir

As the border crisis triggered by Israel’s closure of the Rafah terminal entered its fifth week, clashes broke out at Arish Airport in North Sinai, where 108 Palestinians are stranded. The incident, which reportedly involved trapped Palestinians rioting on Tuesday, prompted the deployment of scores of Central Security Forces personnel armed with batons. At least two Palestinians were injured in the clashes. The airport has been off-limits to journalists ever since the Palestinians began to seek refuge there, though according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, those stranded are being provided with food and other essential items.

The clashes came as frustration among the estimated 5,000 Palestinians trapped outside Gaza since 9 June reached new heights. "Now more than ever it feels like there is no solution to our problem, and that no power is willing to even look for one," Ahmed Al-Ghalban, a Gaza resident stranded in Rafah, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "At first we had some hope the Egyptian government would unilaterally open the crossing. Then we thought perhaps [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen would at least open the subject in his meeting with [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert. Once again, though, we have been abandoned."

The humanitarian crisis, which Central Security Forces appear keen to ensure remains hidden from the public eye, is worsening. "We know Arish General Hospital is providing free treatment. But we cannot get there when we need to. And if we leave here we wonder whether we’ll be allowed back," said Al-Ghalban.

"We don’t want help. We want to go home, via the Egyptian-Palestinian crossing at Rafah," Al-Ghalban added, underlining the fact that few of the displaced would accept the Israeli-Fatah proposal to open the crossing at Kerem Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom in Hebrew). They fear that once the Israeli-Egyptian crossing at Kerem Abu Salem comes into use Rafah will be abandoned and all entry into Gaza will be under direct Israeli scrutiny. "Should that happen the Israelis will use the border to arrest people arbitrarily. We cannot accept that as a solution," says Al-Ghalban, echoing Hamas’s position on the matter.

The ongoing crisis has far-reaching political implications. Unlike the West Bank, restive Gaza — which shares a 15km long border with Egypt — has shown itself to be exceptionally hard to contain. While the Gaza Strip remains under siege for the fifth week running, Egypt’s position on how to deal with the border crisis continues to be reactive.

Of most concern to Egyptian officials is whether or not a new influx of Palestinians will enter Egypt. Though the authorities have designated an area of land in Arish for use as a temporary camp should this occur, it remains unclear what will happen.

"The authorities have sought assistance from all the relevant agencies," an informed humanitarian source told the Weekly on condition of anonymity. "Because they don’t actually know whether there will be a thousands-strong influx that will necessitate a camp they are unwilling to meet any of the expenses themselves. But seen from a humanitarian perspective we cannot be expected to fund a camp if there is no immediate need."

There are two scenarios, though, that could plausibly give rise to such a need. The first would involve Israeli raids on parts of Gaza, expected by Gaza observers and residents for several weeks now. The second, as this week’s meeting between Olmert and Abu Mazen suggests, would be a slower but no less effective way to create refugees — a steady deterioration in economic and security conditions in Gaza.

Complicating Cairo’s position is its apparent bias towards Fatah. Palestinians stranded in North Sinai expressed their disapproval of Egypt’s decision to host up to 500 Fatah security personnel at a Central Security Forces camp in Rafah while at the civilian displaced receive virtually no assistance.

Meanwhile, attempts at meeting US congressional demands to improve security along the Egypt-Gaza border included the deployment last week of an additional 150 Egyptian border police to the current 750. It is unlikely that border security can be stepped up further without changes to the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. And temporary or not, should a camp be created in North Sinai, the Egyptian government will have an impoverished, angry populace with which to deal.

As the political crisis escalates, Egypt must be aware that no amount of aid will placate the displaced. "I don’t want aid, I want to go home," says Gaza resident Abu Hassan, who has been sleeping in a tiny room along with five other Palestinians. At the home of Sheikh Abdel-Sattar Al-Ghalban, a Palestinian Rafah resident, at least 50 people have taken refuge in severely overcrowded conditions. "It is terrible that the burden of taking care of us should fall on another Palestinian. No one else cares it seems. Why, animals should not live in such conditions. There is barely any ventilation. Look at the size of that window. This is a concrete cell. Yet a prisoner knows when his term is due to end — we don’t!"

(Al Ahram Weekly – weekly.ahram.org.eg – July18-25, 2007)

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