Challenging the siege from Rafah to Cyprus

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, July 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

On Sunday, hundreds of Hamas supporters, many stranded Gaza patients, students and travelers, took part in a rally at the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing terminal in southern Gaza, against the continued closure of the terminal for the past 14 months and calling on Egypt to reopen it. Organized by the ruling Hamas party, the attendees blamed the Egyptian leadership for the terminal closure, saying that this crossing, Gaza’s sole outlet to the outside world, should be opened under joint Palestinian-Egyptian control.

Among the participants were two Palestinian mothers, Seham Mesleh and Um Hassan, who were stranded on the Egyptian side of the border before the Rafah border wall was downed in January 2008. “I have been taking my children amidst the dust and heat of the sun near the border with Egypt for the past seven months, hoping I could make my way back to Egypt. I am living in misery; haram (a sin), that my four children are suffering that way. During this time they got ill, with me alone taking care of them,” said Um Hassan angrily.

Seham Mesleh, had a similar reaction, explaining as tears welled in her eyes that “I am a Palestinian woman and my husband is also Palestinian. He has worked for the past year in the United Arab Emirates, but when he came back to Egypt he stayed away from his children during the summer holiday. It’s haram that we live away from each other for more than seven months now.”

Surrounded by a crowd of women and children, she added that “I appeal to [Egyptian] President Husni Mubarak, to his wife Mrs. Susan Mubarak and to Palestinian [Authority] President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to end our suffering and allow these stranded people out as well as lift the siege on Gaza. It’s haram, wallah (I swear), it’s haram that my children are kept away from their father.”

Ahmad Bahar, deputy-speaker of the Hamas-dominated parliament in Gaza, held a press conference near the Egyptian gate of the Rafah terminal, where he stated that “Mr. President, the people of Gaza are starving as Gaza’s patients die one after another slowly. We appeal to the Arab states league to take its real role, we appeal to the Arab parliaments, we appeal to Human Rights groups, we appeal to the Organization of Islamic Conference, we appeal to Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, to relieve the people of Gaza.”

According to Rami Abdo, spokesman of the local popular committee to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, there have been 3,000 stranded patients, including 400 with urgent medical needs since Egyptian authorities closed the crossing on 14 June 2007. Mr. Abdo added that roughly 700 university students from Gaza have been cut off from traveling overseas to attend classes due to the Israeli blockade and the closure of the Rafah terminal, as well as few hundred Palestinian-Egyptians, who have been stuck in Gaza since January.

Egypt insists that the Rafah crossing terminal should be reopened in accordance with the 2005 operation agreement with Israel and the Palestinian Authority brokered by the US and monitored by the European Union. Under the agreement, security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas would monitor the crossing and coordinate with Egypt, Israel and European observers.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean Sea forty international aid workers, human rights activists, intellectuals and journalists are attempting to sail from Cyprus to Gaza, in solidarity with the 1.5 million residents of the besieged coastal enclave. Called the Free Gaza Movement, the organizers are determined to break the siege of Gaza despite the Israeli warning to prevent their entry and it is expected to arrive in the next two days.

Since the Hamas party took power in June 2007 following factional fighting with Abbas’s Fatah Party, Israel has enforced a crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip, preventing free movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal territory. According to international aid and human rights groups, humanitarian conditions in Gaza have suffered a precipitous decline due to the siege.

Doctor Mona El-Farra who is a member of the steering committee for the International Campaign to End the Siege explained that the international action “It is a message for the whole world about what is happening in Palestine under the occupation and under the siege in Gaza and we will work hard with our companions and friends to spread a message that Palestine is not only the problem of the siege, it’s the problem of occupation. This is the time for the international moral conscious to be awakened and spread a message for peace and justice in Palestine.”

Rami Almeghari is contributor to The Electronic Intifada, and Free Speech Radio News. Rami is also a former senior English translator at and editor-in-chief of the international press center of the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Service. He can be contacted at rami_almeghari A T hotmail D O T com.

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