By Lo Yuk Fai
Below is my personal observation and experience as a foreigner who have tried entering the Gaza Strip through the official Rafah crossing, but had to go through one of the tunnels in the end.
With an election coming and Mubarak on trial, the curtain is seemingly being drawn for the Tahrir Revolution, and the Egyptians are cautiously looking forward to a new page in their history. At the same time, some Egyptians have hoped that there would be a change of wind for the people in Gaza as well. The Egyptian government announced in May that the Rafah crossing would be “permanently opened”, and some people thought that, the siege had finally come to an end. Unfortunately, little seems to have changed in reality.
In fact, the Rafah crossing has been opened irregularly since 2006. By some accounts, there were about 30,000 to more than 150,000 people crossed the border in both directions at Rafah each year, under the pretense that these are “special cases”.
Since the “opening” of Rafah, it’s been reported that the Egyptian government has set a daily quota of about 500 for people leaving Gaza. Multiply 500 by 300 (the crossing is closed on Fridays and holidays), one gets 150,000 which seems to be an improvement, but there’s a currently a backlog of some 21,000 applications and the number is mounting.
Besides, the situation at the Palestinian side is chaotic, confusing and corruption is common. Also, individuals, even patients seeking medical help, are sometimes disallowed to cross for “security reasons”.
Moreover, it is not only the restriction of movement that is devastating Gaza, but the restriction on the movement of goods is another major problem. Currently, most of the (limited amount of) goods coming to and from Gaza go through the Israeli controlled crossings, and besides a handful of humanitarian convoys from foreign countries, the Rafah crossing remains largely closed for goods.
As a result of the restriction on trade, and the destruction of many production facilities during the war in 2008/2009, unemployment is a very serious problem in Gaza. According to the UN, the rate is close to 50%. People are forced to rely on foreign aids even when they’re willing and able to take a job.
Needless to say, it’s also difficult for foreigners to enter Gaza through Rafah, especially for individuals without governments’ blessings. And the situation on the Egyptian side is probably no less confusing than the Palestinian side.
I had been in contact with the Egyptian Consulate-General in Hong Kong since May regarding entering Gaza at Rafah, and was informed numerous times that a valid visa was all I would need, despite my repeated requests to have them clarify with the Egyptian authorities in Cairo.
However, when my partner-in-travel (an American university lecturer who resides in Spain) and I first arrived in Rafah one afternoon in July and presented our passports (She also had a letter of invitation from a university in Gaza.) to the border guards. They flat out rejected our request to pass without any explanation. After showing them the e-mail correspondence with the Consulate-General, they relented a little bit and took our passports to a building inside the compound.
The end result was the same – No entry.
We were told to apply through our own embassies in Cairo for “special permissions” to use the crossing. So we rushed back to Cairo in the next morning, hoping to get back to Rafah in time before it would be closed for two consecutive days (Friday and National Holiday). We got both good news and bad news. The good news was that the US embassy issued my partner a letter (for USD50) for using the crossing, and the bad news was that the Chinese embassy refused my request for help. Still, I decided to go back with her to try my luck again. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the crossing in time and were forced to stay in Arish for 2 days.
In Sunday morning, we set off for Rafah. There were lots of Gazans trying to return home, and the situation was kind of chaotic. We also met a delegation from the Council for European Palestinian Relations (CEPR), and a humanitarian convoy from Scotland. The CEPR delegation with MPs from various European countries passed through before noon, but the Scotland convoy, more of a grassroot campaign, was denied entrance last time I read about it, even with all the paperwork properly done.
At about 11AM, most of the Gazans have passed the crossing and the guards started dealing with us. Sadly, we were refused entry again. Not only was I denied entry, but also was my partner. They now said her name was not “in the computer”. She later learnt from a fellow American, who was also refused entry, and that one has to ask one’s embassy to co-ordinate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and General Intelligence to get one’s name on the list.
Foreigners like us being denied entry is “understandable”, but we also met Palestinians with foreign citizenship and passports, who would like to visit their relatives, were also denied entry and had to make use of the dangerous tunnels to enter Gaza.
After getting back to Cairo (my partner had a tight schedule so she left), I spent the following weeks contacting the Egyptian Consulate-General in Hong Kong, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the embassy, all to no avail.
Such is the “permanent opening” of the Rafah crossing. As one may see, the siege might have cracked a little bit, but is far from being over.
So, after the third attempt to cross also resulted in failure, I went into Gaza through one of the tunnels.
I guess the whole experience could be quite frustrating, especially if one is used to the Western systems. But I would like to ask prospective individual foreigners to be patient when trying to enter Gaza, and understand that, sometimes the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities are not unwilling to help, but that they do have their difficulties as well.
After all, the Gazans themselves, who’re enduring the siege day after day, haven’t given up yet.
(I would like to take the opportunity to say thanks to the many good Gazans who’ve made my stay possible, and joyful despite the difficult conditions. Also to the two Ahmeds in Arish who’ve helped my partner and I in our attempts to cross at Rafah.)
– Lo Yuk Fai is a Christian from Hong Kong who’s concerned about the injustice in the Holy Land and the misrepresentation of the situation in the Western media, hoping to do his little part. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: ByFai.com.