For 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza, the Rafah crossing has been the main gateway to the outside world. There are no other routes for entering or leaving our besieged territory — though there were until the late 1990s when Palestinians could travel here via Erez crossing, which separates Gaza and Israel.
Lately, the Egyptian government of President Mohammed Morsi has been following the trends set by the regime ousted following mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square two years ago. Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, carried out Israeli orders at Rafah, which meant the crossing was frequently closed.
This month Egyptian police — enraged by the kidnapping of seven colleagues — kept the crossing blocked, stranding hundreds of Palestinian travelers on both sides, for five days. The closure took a heavy toll on Palestinians travelers, especially those who are unwell. It has caused the death of Ghazza al-Khawaldi from Khan Younis who needed medical treatment abroad that she couldn’t get in Gaza.
Palestinians in Gaza have been questioning why the crossing was closed in response to the hostage situation. The kidnappers were proved to be part of Tawhid wa al-Jihad, a group which espouses a more radical form of Islamism than Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and which enjoys no support from the vast majority of people in Gaza.
But Gaza is routinely subjected to collective punishment. Last month, militants fired two rockets from Sinai into Israel. In August of last year, 16 Egyptian border guards were killed by militants. Whenever such violence occurs, the entire Gaza Strip pays the price.
More than two years after the uprising in Egypt, the Rafah crossing remains a prison gate. Cairo’s responses fall short of the demands articulated by protesters in Tahrir Square. Many of them carried Palestinian flags and denounced Egypt’s cooperation with Israel.
Last month a delegation of Palestinian youth living in Gaza, the West Bank, present-day Israel and the diaspora, participated in the World Social Forum in Tunisia. Sponsored by Quaker and health organizations, the six participants from Gaza, including myself, headed to the Rafah crossing believing that we had a special permission from security officers to pass easily and quickly.
We all planned to enjoy the little time we would have in Egypt before flying. I had arranged beforehand to meet some Egyptian friends and activists.
When we arrived at the Rafah crossing, we saw dozens of travelers from Gaza, who were filled with anxiety, wondering if they would be allowed to pass, or be sent back into Gaza. Their cigarette smoke filled up the closed waiting hall. While men were questioned by Egypt’s “national security” agency, our group — three women and three men — waited impatiently for our names to be called.
Meanwhile, we heard a woman in her forties weeping and sobbing hysterically as she was about to faint. The woman, her husband and a five-year-old child were standing near the desk where intelligence officers conducted checks with every man. Essentially, these are the same checks and procedures undertaken by Mubarak’s oppressive police apparatus.
The crying woman was suffering from cancer and had a permit to cross Egypt for treatment. Yet the police officer wanted to return her husband back to Gaza. She moved towards the officer to explain that she couldn’t cross without him. At once, the officer tore her papers and her permit — a document which is difficult to obtain.
At that moment, one couldn’t but ask if the same officer would ever dare to tear the papers of an American, European or Israeli — anyone other than a Palestinian. Yes, they eventually allowed them to pass, while returning most men back to Gaza. But only after subjecting the couple to humiliating and cruel treatment.
Our group was made to wait for five hours in Rafah. Eventually, the three men in our group were told on the Egyptian side of the crossing that they were not allowed go any further.
When we were informed of this decision, I requested an explanation.
I told a security officer that the three men were part of our group and that we, the same people, had been allowed to attend the World Social Forum in Brazil a few months earlier.
Though people in Gaza have heard about the measure of not allowing men under the age of 40 to travel, we have never been given an explanation for the policy.
Ironically, this is supposed to be one of the measures to “ease” the siege of Gaza taken after the 2011 uprising in Egypt. It is the same condition Israel imposes on Palestinians from the occupied West Bank, who wish to enter Jerusalem and pray in al-Aqsa mosque.
After asking me some questions about myself and my work, the officer replied with only one answer: “These are the orders; don’t argue.”
We, the three women in the group — feeling terribly bad — were taken to our hotel, though we had made a reservation for six people. The men, along with some other youth, were taken to what Palestinians call the “deportation room” in Cairo International Airport.
Even though it may appear to be a “privilege” to be a woman in this case, it was not. Putting us in a different “category” amounts to discrimination against us.
Indeed, we learned from our deported colleagues about how discrimination against Palestinians is becoming more serious. They told us how the Egyptian authorities now have a new category of people to deport: Palestinians residing in Syria. These are people who have fled the appalling violence in Syria, to whom the Syrian embassy in Cairo had initially promised assistance. But the men in our group were told that when the embassy’s staff learned that these refugees were Palestinian, the diplomats stated: “you are not our responsibility.”
The men in our group met a number of Palestinians who had been put in this category. Many of them had been staying in the same room for more than forty days. One of them had a sister in the deportation room for women. Another man had lost contact with his parents who were in a refugee camp in Turkey; he was trying to reach Sweden, where he had relatives.
We made enquires in Cairo about this group. The Egyptian authorities informed us that they had been transferred to al-Qanatir prison.
Freedom of movement denied
Almost two years ago, dozens of Arab and international organizations issued an urgent call for the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing. The call was supported by veteran anti-apartheid activists from South Africa such as Desmond Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils, as well as by Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur for the West Bank and Gaza, and by the writers Ahdaf Soueif and Tariq Ali.
Freedom of movement is a human right enshrined the Geneva conventions. The Egyptian government is violating that right.
As we struggle to uphold our fundamental rights, we can take heart from the words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “No detention room will remain. Nor will the chains strangle.”
Eli Yishai, who was Israel’s interior minister until recently, has vowed to “send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” The siege imposed on us is both physical and psychological. The work to end this siege needs to stepped up as a matter of urgency.
Ayah Bashir holds a master’s degree in global politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her first degree was in English language and literature. She is a member of the Gaza-based organizing committee for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and a supporter of the One Democratic State Group.