CAIRO, 2 January (IPS) - Hundreds of Palestinians still remain stranded on the Egyptian side of the border following last summer’s closure of the Rafah crossing between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
Their uncertain circumstances have come to reflect the complex politics between Cairo, Tel Aviv, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Palestinian resistance faction Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“The crisis on the border is just a part of the ongoing power struggle between Fatah and Hamas,” Gamal Zahran, political science professor at Suez Canal University and independent MP, told IPS.
The Rafah crossing has traditionally served as the sole transit point along Egypt’s 14 km border with the Gaza Strip. In June, however, days before control of the strip was wrested from Fatah by Hamas, Cairo — citing security concerns — sealed the Rafah terminal.
The closure effectively eliminated the territory’s only sovereign border crossing. Virtually all other routes in or out of the Gaza Strip, by sea or land, are under the strict control of the Israeli authorities.
Recently dubbed a “hostile” region by Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip remains subject to a crippling, almost two-year-long embargo that has largely destroyed its economy. Backed by Israel and the US, both of which consider Hamas a “terrorist organization,” the siege has deprived the territory — home to more than 1.5 million people — of badly-needed moneys and vital supplies.
As a result of the sudden border closure in June, thousands of Palestinian travelers on their way to Gaza were stuck on the Egyptian side of the frontier. Prohibited by the Egyptian authorities from returning to Cairo, most were shuffled into the city of al-Arish, some 40 kilometers west of Rafah.
After several demonstrations in al-Arish by frustrated Palestinians, a new border agreement between Egypt, Israel and the PA was announced in July. The arrangement called for the repatriation of the Palestinians by way of the Egypt-Israel border crossing at al-Auja, roughly 50 kilometers south of Rafah.
In the first days of August, more than 6,000 of them returned home via the new route. Unlike Rafah, however, al-Auja is tightly controlled by the Israeli authorities.
Hamas blasted the scheme, which it saw as an attempt to eliminate the Gaza Strip’s last sovereign route to the outside world. Hamas also expressed fears that Palestinians crossing via al-Auja, particularly resistance activists, could be subject to arrest or assassination by Israel.
The mass repatriations quickly eased the humanitarian crisis on the border, with only about 250 Palestinians — most fearing arrest by Israeli authorities — choosing to stay behind. Since then, however, the number has swelled again to an estimated 750, many of them medical patients visiting Egypt for treatment.
“There are numerous medical patients among us suffering from serious conditions,” Youssef al-Firaa, former head of the ad-hoc Committee for Stranded Palestinians, told IPS. “Most of them have been here for at least four months and their money ran out long ago.”
Al-Firaa, a Gaza resident stuck at the border since Rafah’s initial closure, went on to say that more than 30 babies had been born on the frontier since June.
In hopes of isolating Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv and the PA want Egypt to maintain its closure of the Rafah crossing. Cairo, for its part, has largely complied with the request, despite calls by Hamas — and the stranded Palestinians themselves — to reopen the terminal.
“If Cairo wanted to, it could solve the problem tomorrow by simply reopening Rafah,” Saad al-Husseini, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement and head of the group’s foreign relations division, told IPS.
Zahran agreed, saying that Egypt was only maintaining the closure to appease Washington and Tel Aviv.
“There’s nothing in international law preventing Cairo from opening the Rafah crossing, but this would be seen as support for Hamas,” said Zahran. “And Israel and the US want to maintain the siege on the Gaza Strip.”
Despite Egypt’s apparent resolve to keep the border sealed, however, there have been some exceptions.
In late September, Cairo allowed 85 Hamas-affiliated Palestinians to return to the Gaza Strip via Rafah. According to official sources quoted in the state press, the move came “following negotiations between [Hamas leader in Gaza] Ismail Haniyeh and the Egyptian authorities.”
The move infuriated Tel Aviv, and the PA. Shortly afterwards, both Israeli security officials and PA spokesmen made unsubstantiated claims that some of those returning to Gaza had recently completed military training in Iran and Syria.
According to Hatem al-Buluk, a journalist and al-Arish resident, the claims were blatant fabrications.
“The 85 Hamas members had come to Cairo in order to negotiate with Fatah in an effort to stem ongoing inter-Palestinian violence,” al-Buluk told IPS.
Cairo again risked Israeli displeasure in early December, granting permission to more than 2,000 Gazans to enter Egypt via Rafah in order to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The move was praised by Haniyeh, who called it “a first step towards breaking the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.”
However, the pilgrims — having returned to Egypt via Jordan — did not immediately receive permission to return to Gaza by way of Rafah. According to local reports, roughly half of them have joined their compatriots in al-Arish where they are waiting for the crossing to open.
But other than these two notable exceptions, the border has remained tightly sealed. Stranded Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to live under tenuous circumstances.
“We’ve heard a hundred times that the border would be reopened only to be disappointed,” said al-Firaa. “Our nerves are shot.”
In another indication of the politicized nature of the problem, al-Firaa complained that the Palestinian embassy in Cairo was only providing substantial assistance to members of the Fatah movement.
“The rest of us have received little besides promises,” said al-Firaa, who has no political affiliation with either faction.
Despite repeated attempts by IPS, spokesmen for the Palestinian embassy in Cairo were unavailable for comment.
Notwithstanding their difficult situation, however, al-Firaa said that many of the marooned Palestinians were steadfast in their refusal to use any crossing other than Rafah.
“Many insist on using Rafah, the only crossing not under Israeli control,” he said. “Even if they were allowed to return home via an alternate route, many of them — fearing arrest at the hands of the Israelis — would refuse to go.”
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