Gaza Palestinians still stranded abroad by Egypt’s restrictions

Men and boys sleep on suitcases

Palestinians wait at the Gaza side of the crossing with Egypt on Wednesday.

Eyad Al Baba APA images

“We spent about four days in a three-meter-wide and ten-meter-long corridor in Cairo international airport. On Monday, when I left back to Tunisia, there were dozens of stranded people like myself, including two families with children, wanting to cross on their way back to Gaza,” Salama Marouf told The Electronic Intifada by phone.

Marouf is now back to Tunisia, after being deported by Egypt and where he had already spent one week attending a media conference.

He is one of the thousands of people affected by Egypt’s ban on Palestinians entering the country in order to return to Gaza, the only route home for the vast majority of the strip’s residents.

The Rafah crossing on the border between Egypt and Gaza, about a six-hour drive from Cairo’s airport, is the main outlet to the outside world for Gaza’s nearly 1.7 million residents, due to Israel’s ongoing land, sea and air blockade of the territory.

Egypt closed the Rafah crossing after the army’s 3 July ouster of elected president Muhammad Morsi, stranding thousands of Palestinians abroad.

Palestinians deported on arrival at Cairo airport

“For me personally, I had the chance to get a visa back to Tunisia with the help of the organizers of the conference,” Marouf said. “Many other travelers with whom I was stranded had difficulties getting back to the countries they had arrived from. We recently learned that the Egyptian authorities’ decision is still valid and there is no way for hundreds of Palestinians to go back to Gaza.”

After closing Rafah, Egypt began to deport Gaza residents as they arrived at Cairo airport, and instructed international airlines to deny boarding to Palestinian Authority passport holders on flights bound for Cairo.

Yousef Aljamal, a contributor to The Electronic Intifada, was among those deported after he flew in to Cairo from Malaysia last week on his way home to Gaza. Aljamal reported seeing dozens of other Palestinians deported to Algeria, Jordan, Pakistan, Canada and Malaysia.

Egypt has also deported hundreds of Syrians arriving in the country, some fleeing the civil war, imposing a new rule that they now obtain visas in advance.

“This is totally unfair, as Egyptian authorities seem to be blaming all Palestinians for some actions here and there across Egypt,” Marouf said. “It’s totally unfair that families and children are turned back this way under the pretext of security instability in Egypt.”

The enforced separation of families and the deportations are particularly cruel during the month of Ramadan which began this week, Marouf added.

Anti-Palestinian rumors

There have been several attacks on Egyptian army posts by militants in the Sinai peninsula since the army takeover, and Egyptian military officials have repeatedly blamed Palestinians and Hamas, which runs the government in Gaza, of involvement. There as been no credible evidence offered to support these allegations.

Lina Atallah and Mohamad Salama Adam, of the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, reported on 9 July that military claims of instability in Sinai, used to justify the closure of Rafah, are exaggerated (“Less than a warzone”).

One Egyptian judge, who welcomed the army takeover, even blamed Hamas for the fuel shortage that had hit Egypt in the days before Morsi’s ouster. The judge claimed, in The New York Times on 10 July, that the Morsi government had withheld fuel supplies from Egyptians in order to ship them to Gaza. This claim, also totally unsubstantiated, echoes pervasive anti-Palestinian messaging and rumor-mongering in Egyptian media.

Little relief

The Rafah crossing terminal was reopened for several hours on Wednesday and Thursday, following six continuous days of closure. But according to Palestinian officials, the problem of several hundred stranded travelers from Gaza, including pilgrims who have been in Saudi Arabia, has not yet been resolved.

Despite the growing number of stranded people on both sides of the Gaza-Egypt border, only medical patients, holders of foreign passports and Egyptians were allowed to enter Egypt from Gaza.

“I have been here visiting my sister and sick grandfather for almost one month,” Thaer Almadhoun, a Palestinian Canadian citizen, told The Electronic Intifada as he waited on the Gaza side of Rafah crossing. “I was planning to go back to Canada by July 23rd, but as the situation is unstable in Egypt and the crossing was closed, I decided to go back today,” Almadhoun explained.

He was worried that his general contracting business in Canada could suffer if he were delayed.

“Living conditions here are very bad with the lack of basic commodities and goods including gasoline, electricity and even change for their main currency, the [Israeli] shekel,” Almadhoun said. “I hope I’m able to cross through Rafah and then to fly to Canada.”

Almadhoun was one of almost 400 travelers who were allowed to cross on Wednesday.

Difficult situation

On the other side of the border, Egyptian authorities allowed more than 1,200 stranded Palestinian patients, students and people who had been visiting family in Egypt, to return to Gaza on Wednesday.

Khitam Abdulrahman, a woman in her fifties, crossed the terminal on her way back to Gaza after she was forced to stay in the Egyptian town of Sheikh Zuwayid a few kilometers from the closed Rafah terminal.

“Thank God I was welcomed by a good and kind family in Sheikh Zuwayid,” Abdulrahman said as she arrived back in Gaza after almost a week stranded on the other side. “I couldn’t get back to Cairo after the terminal was closed last Thursday.”

Abdulrahman said that before that she had been in Cairo for three weeks for treatment of a knee injury.

She added that she was fortunate to find a place to stay near the Gaza border, “but all those forced to stay near the border have not been feeling well as we are wondering what we have to do with what’s going on in Egypt. They should have allowed us to go back to our families in Gaza instead of closing the Rafah terminal.”

Other Gaza residents, like Hazim al-Bashiti, slept at the Egyptian side of the crossing itself.

“I have been stuck at the crossing for the past six days. The situation has been very difficult. Men, women and children have been eager to come back to Gaza to observe the holy month of Ramadan among family members,” said al-Bashiti, 30, who had also been in Gaza for medical treatment.

Frequent closures

For more than a year now, the Rafah crossing terminal has been frequently closed by Egypt, and Palestinians have faced long delays and arbitrary rejections.

According to Palestinian officials, Egyptian authorities turn back two to three busloads of travelers almost daily — either for “security” reasons or when border officials say their working day has ended.

“Most of the people who travel do so out of necessity, like patients or students. Every day, we wonder why they return fifty to one hundred travelers,” Khaled al-Shaer, director of the Gaza side of the Rafah terminal, told The Electronic Intifada just prior to the current prolonged closure.

“We are in constant contact with the Egyptian officials at the crossing. Sometimes, some of those officials show sympathy towards the travelers,” al-Shaer said.

“But we look forward to a real change of the system at the Rafah crossing, in a way that would allow smoother movement of our Palestinian travelers. Travel restrictions are still there. For example, some days 500 travelers can cross, other days 700 and sometimes 1,000,” al-Shaer added.

Rafah was closed today, Friday, Ma’an News Agency reported, as it usually is on the weekly day of rest, although Palestinian officials had hoped it would stay open to allow those still stranded to continue to come home.

The terminal is due to reopen Saturday for patients and foreign passport-holders.

For Palestinians still abroad, among them Salama Marouf, who was deported back to Tunisia, the uncertainty and waiting continues as Egypt’s political turmoil drags on.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.