In late April, Egypt’s acting foreign minister Nabil el-Arabi promised to ease the closure of his country’s sole border crossing with the Gaza Strip, reversing years of policy set by the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. But Palestinians in Gaza are still waiting for that promise to materialize.
The symbolism of the announcement was inescapable. Egypt’s collusion with Israel in the isolation of Gaza contributed to the misery of Palestinians and helped fuel resentment among the Egyptian public before the uprising that toppled Mubarak in February.
The opening of the Rafah crossing was to signal a new direction in Egyptian foreign policy, the beginning of a departure from decades of alignment with Israel and the United States.
Although widely reported as a sweeping pledge to “open the Rafah crossing,” el-Arabi’s pronouncement merely resulted in a set of administrative changes to the procedures at the crossing.
Specifically the changes allowed for visa-free travel for Palestinians with Israeli-approved ID cards, with the exception of men aged 18 to 40, according to Gisha, an Israeli organization advocating greater freedom of movement for Palestinians. Young Palestinian men, this rule presumes, are an inherent security threat. Goods remain prohibited from crossing, except for rare humanitarian shipments.
However, three months after el-Arabi’s pledge, frustration is simmering over ongoing confusion and backlog at the crossing.
“You are banned”
An amateur video produced by young Gaza journalists Mohammed al-Majdalawi and Jehan al-Farra gives viewers a taste of the mood among those waiting to cross the border.
“I appeal to all Egyptian officials not to prevent me from seeing my wife who’s giving birth,” says one man, gesturing with his passport.
On the verge of tears, he continues: “I seriously don’t know what to say. I have been waiting here since 15 June, and when I finally pass through the Palestinian gate and get the stamp, the Egyptians stop me.”
“They just end any talk or possibility with two words: ‘you’re banned.’”
On 9 August, a long list of Palestinian, Egyptian and international civil society organizations issued a petition demanding the “permanent and unconditional” opening of the crossing.
“This deadly siege should have ended when the revolutionary Egyptian movement ousted Hosni Mubarak and his murderous regime,” the petition says.
Israel exercised full control of the Rafah crossing from the 1967 occupation of Gaza until November 2005, when it handed partial control to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in the Agreement on Movement and Access.
Under this pact, the crossing was supervised by a team of European monitors and Israel retained the ability to monitor the crossing “remotely.”
The crossing operated according to the agreement until June 2006, when Israel restricted access to the crossing amid military action in Gaza and the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian resistance groups.
Israel suspended the agreement in June 2007, forcing the closure of the crossing, after Hamas took internal control of the Gaza Strip. Following the Hamas takeover, Egypt periodically opened the crossing for a few days at a time in order to allow Palestinian students, medical patients and other specific groups to travel.
Palestinians hoped that Nabil el-Arabi’s pledge in April meant the crossing would be permanently opened for orderly travel. The reality has been far more complicated.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that from 27 July to 2 August of this year, a daily average of 700 persons left Gaza for Egypt, with a total of 218 individuals denied entry to Egypt for “unspecified reasons” (“Protection of Civilians Weekly Report, 27 July-2 August 2011”)
The week before, a daily average of 620 persons left Gaza through the crossing, with 170 denied entry. In mid June, the daily average was just 488 with 100 denied.
The exit figures for late July and early August are in fact comparable to the figures gathered from the 2005-2006 period when the crossing was open. During that time, an average of 660 persons entered Egypt per day.
Still, Palestinians in Gaza remain frustrated, in part because of the bureaucratic obstacles to travel. Palestinians wishing to cross through Rafah must register in advance with the border and crossing authorities in Gaza, who give priority to specific categories of people, including medical patients, students, foreign passport holders and those with visas to other countries, virtually the same categories used by the Mubarak regime.
Because the current easing follows years of closure, the registration system has resulted in a huge backlog of 30,000 persons waiting to travel in the coming months, according to the UN. Gaza residents say the current waiting time is about three months. Another source of frustration is a reported blacklist of individuals banned from entering Egypt for security reasons.
Other exits still blocked
Furthermore, rights advocates point out that the political tug-of-war over the Rafah crossing can be something of a diversion from the larger question of Israel’s hermetic closure of Gaza.
According to Sari Bashi, the director of Tel Aviv-based advocacy group Gisha, “The dependence of Gaza residents on the Egyptian border for travel is a function of Israel disallowing travel via the airspace and the territorial waters.”
“Israel bombed the airport in Gaza and bombed the site where they were building a seaport,” Bashi noted, “so those restrictions have made Rafah crossing into the gateway to the world for folks living in Gaza, but it doesn’t absolve Israel of the responsibility to respect the rights of people in Gaza to freedom of movement.”
Meanwhile, some ambiguity surrounds the fate of the crossing agreement, as the Hamas administration is not a party to the treaty and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority has no presence at the crossing. A unity deal brokered by Cairo between Hamas and Fatah, hailed as another post-revolution Egyptian achievement, has yet to be implemented as talks to form a unity government have faltered.
EU monitors in limbo
As a result, the European Union Border Assistance Mission, which monitored the crossing under the 2005 agreement, remains in limbo, camped out in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, awaiting orders to return to duty. The EU has renewed EUBAM’s mandate annually since 2005, in hopes that they might play some role at Rafah.
Contacted for comment, a spokesman for the mission, Benoit Cusin, said, “The EU stands ready to reactivate the EUBAM Rafah Mission, once political and security conditions allow. Political consultations are ongoing with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel in this regard” Cusin declined to elaborate on the nature of these discussions.
Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman declared his opposition to the return of EUBAM in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in January. “We cannot allow a return to the ineffective EUBAM mission, which unilaterally vacated its positions at the Rafah crossing upon Hamas’s seizure of power in Gaza,” he wrote (“Europe’s Irresponsible Gaza Policy”).
And while the haggling continues at the diplomatic level, street level frustration over the crossing continues. In late July, the activist group Gaza Youth Break Out issued a statement arguing that conditions at the crossing are so abysmal it might as well be closed.
Citing the seemingly endless waits and bureaucratic hassle at the border, the group’s leader, Abu Yazan, asked, “Where are the Egyptian revolutionists? Why all this torture for the people of Gaza?”
The message concludes: “We would be better without the Rafah crossing; at least we wouldn’t think about it!”
Haidar Eid, a literature professor and political analyst from Gaza, said he endured a 14 hour wait at the crossing on a recent trip to South Africa. He laid the blame for the chaos at the crossing at the feet of the Egyptian government.
“Palestine has always been part of the consciousness of the Egyptian people. Palestine has been the catalyst of these revolutions, especially the Egyptian revolution,” he said.
“They were not happy with the way the Mubarak regime treated the Palestinians of Gaza, and that’s why the Palestinian flag was flying every time there was a demonstration in Tahrir Square.” He also blamed Gaza’s Hamas administration for not mounting popular pressure on Egypt, in the spirit of the Arab uprisings. “We need to learn from what is happening in the streets of Damascus, the streets of Cairo, the streets of Sana’a, of Bahrain,” he said.
Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He tweets at @jmalsin.