“My father, may he rest in peace, was an Egyptian, my daughters are Egyptians, my grandchildren are Egyptians, my brothers are Egyptians, I am an Egyptian,” an exasperated Salah Zorob told The Electronic Intifada.
“Please look at these papers — here is a court ruling and Egyptian interior ministry documents, proving my Egyptian nationality. Why have they turned me away seven times in three months now?”
Zorob related his story as he rode the bus from Rafah crossing back toward his home in Gaza after his latest failed attempt to enter Egypt. Zorob, 70, was denied access on Sunday.
Zorob has been based in Gaza for the past 16 years and since then has had difficulty staying in touch with his family in nearby Egypt.
During each of his attempts to enter Egypt in recent months, he was turned away by Egyptian officials, but, according to Zorob, given no clear-cut reason.
“Each time they used to tell me, it’s a matter of state security and you are not allowed to cross,” Zorob said. “Why? What have I done so that they treat me this way? Have I committed a serious crime? I have children, I have a wife, I have relatives and I have some real estate in Egypt. This is complete injustice, this is complete injustice.”
As Zorob told his story, his mobile phone rang, and he answered saying briefly to the person on the other end of the line, “Yes, brother, I was turned away.”
Gaza’s only outlet
Rafah crossing in southern Gaza Strip is the only travel outlet for Gaza’s 1.6 million residents. Prior to the tightened Israeli closure of Gaza in June 2007, Egyptian authorities used to allow Gaza residents to cross in and out of Gaza with relative ease.
Until it was overthrown in January, the government of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak closed the crossing except to limited categories of people. These included — provided they had proper paperwork — patients needing medical care, travelers with residency permits in nearby Arab countries, holders of visas for foreign countries and students with permission to study abroad. However, even for those who fall into these categories, permission has been difficult to obtain.
On Sunday, Saleh Zorob wasn’t the only person to return from Rafah disappointed. Muhammad al-Najjar, 46, a UN employee from central Gaza, also tried unsuccessfully to enter Egypt.
“I need a surgery on my eyes in Jordan. I have the visa to Jordan and the medical papers needed, but it is the second time in two weeks that the Egyptian officials have turned me back,” al-Najjar told The Electronic Intifada as he stood in the border terminal on the Gaza side of Rafah crossing.
“As I attempted to cross into Egypt on way to the Jordanian capital, the Egyptian agents told me outright, it is a state security matter and once the state security personnel are back to work, your problem can be solved,” al-Najjar said.
Ziyad Abu al-Najja, 45, is another Palestinian traveler who has attempted to cross at the Rafah terminal twice in the past three months, and had a similar account.
“My 16-year-old daughter and I attempted to cross but in vain. I just need to get the treatment needed for my daughter for a skin condition. Though I have got all the papers needed, they prevented me from crossing for no clear reasons. No one tells you anything,” Abu al-Najja told The Electronic Intifada as he left the Rafah terminal disappointed.
In the central Gaza Strip town of Maghazi, Mahmoud Jouda, a 46-year-old father of two daughters and husband of a Moroccan wife, was back at work as a frozen meat seller after he failed to get out of Gaza to see his wife and children in Morocco.
“The last time I saw my family was back in 2007, shortly prior to the closure of the Rafah crossing, Jouda told The Electronic Intifada as he worked in his shop alongside his son Fakhri, 19. “For the past three months I have attempted to cross into Egypt, in transit to Morocco, yet I have been unable to do so. Whenever I tried to cross, I used to hold all the travel documents needed, such as the visa and the passport, but officials at the crossing have not allowed me to cross, without giving me a clear-cut reason.”
“Every time I asked the officials about the reason, they would tell me, it’s a matter of state security, please go back to Gaza,” added Jouda, who explained that he has brothers and sisters in Egypt and that he had traveled there frequently over the past two decades with no problems.
Last week, Palestinian officials at the Rafah crossing terminal in southern Gaza suspended work unilaterally for one day in protest of the Egyptian-imposed travel restrictions.
Officials told The Electronic Intifada that dozens of travelers have been turned away by Egyptian officials on a daily basis for the last three months.
“The restrictions have increasingly become a matter of concern and embarrassment to us as the Egyptian brothers have previously promised to ease travel restrictions, but we have not seen these promises put into action,” Salama Baraka, an official of the ruling Hamas party in charge of the crossing, told The Electronic Intifada.
“We just hope that they will take the proper decision and reopen the Rafah terminal once and for all without restrictions or conditions,” Salama added.
Some Arab and Palestinian media sources reported this week that on Saturday Egyptian authorities will implement new travel measures for Gaza residents who wish to enter Egypt. This would involve allowing more categories of Gaza travelers through Rafah.
“God willing, what we have heard will prove true and that I will be able to see my family soon,” Mahmoud Jouda hoped, after finishing up a phone call with his wife in Morocco. She too has been following news of the crossing from afar, anxious to see her Palestinian husband.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.