Gazans stranded in Egypt as Rafah rumors swirl

A Palestinian woman waits to cross over into Egypt at Rafah crossing on Gaza’s southern boundary on 16 August.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Rumors reported over the past two weeks suggest that the Gaza-Egypt border, closed with only rare exception for the past four years, may be opened for the regular passage of people and goods in September.

But for the unknown number of Palestinians from Gaza currently stranded in Egypt, separated from their families, seeing is believing.

The steel gates at Rafah crossing – the sole point of exit and entry for the vast majority of Gaza’s two million residents – have not budged for more than 100 days, except to allow for some 2,500 Palestinians to leave Gaza to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia earlier this month.

For Gaza residents in Egypt awaiting Cairo’s decision to open Rafah, their difficulties grow each day that the border gates remain closed.

Nahil al-Masri, a 60-year-old from Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, has gone through a great ordeal to visit her son in the United States.


She left Gaza via Rafah at the beginning of February, and stayed in Egypt for more than a month while she waited for a visa. Once al-Masri’s documents were in order, she traveled to the US for a three-month visit. But when she returned in early June, she was not able to get back into Gaza.

Al-Masri spent the fasting month of Ramadan, a time traditionally spent with family, and then the Eid al-Fitr holiday, far from home in Egypt.

She says being in limbo has left her “emotionally tired.”

“I’ve spent most of my money, not to mention my ongoing need for treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure and leg pain that I suffer from,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

Numerous Palestinians have gone through the same ordeal as al-Masri ever since an Israeli-Egyptian siege was imposed on Gaza following the elected Hamas government’s takeover of the territory in 2007.

The passage of people in both directions at Rafah bounced back to pre-siege levels in 2012 after the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi.

But that soon changed with the ouster of Morsi in a military coup; tightened restrictions were resumed in June 2013.

Since then, closure of Rafah has been the norm, with the crossing partially opened for only 44 days last year.

Palestinian sources in Gaza have reported that Egypt intends to reopen the crossing following renovations to the terminal underway since March.

Previous reasons given by Egypt for the ongoing closure of Rafah have been security tensions and military confrontations between its army and militants in the northern Sinai peninsula along the boundary with Gaza.

Following the 2013 military coup, Egyptian authorities demolished the homes of thousands of Egyptians along the boundary, further isolating Gaza.

The bitter impasse between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank has also played a role, with senior Fatah officials lobbying Egypt not to reopen the crossing unless it is operated by PA personnel, rather than Hamas officers.

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, stated last week that the crossing will likely be opened after the Eid al-Adha holiday which falls at the beginning of September.


But Egypt has made no official declaration to that effect.

And Iman al-Zaharna has waited long enough.

The 53-year-old from Gaza City now regrets having traveled from Gaza to see her son in the United Arab Emirates in February.

When return to Gaza via Rafah proved impossible, she considered making her way back home through Jordan, and from there the West Bank and on to the Erez checkpoint controlled by Israel on Gaza’s northern boundary.

“It proved too difficult despite having most of the official paperwork,” al-Zaharna said.

“My daughter has cancer, and my husband suffers from several illnesses, and I expected to go back to Gaza directly after my return from the Emirates,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

“I would not be away from my family for such a long time, but for the ongoing closure,” al-Zaharna added.

The financial and psychological stress resulting from the situation has “caused me to lose some 30 kilograms,” she said.

Several stranded Palestinians told The Electronic Intifada that they haven’t received any aid from any Palestinian governmental body or charity, and they have to cover all expenses themselves or with the help of family members in Gaza or abroad.

Many live in shared accommodation in densely populated Cairo neighborhoods such as Imbaba and Shubra, but the rent still sets them back hundreds of dollars.

The Palestinian embassy in Cairo has denied that hundreds of Palestinians are stranded in Egypt.

Wael Abu Amer, a spokesperson at the Palestinian side of Rafah, said that the crossing has been open for passage in both directions only 10 days so far this year, in addition to three days for the return of Palestinians stranded in Egypt.

“Communication with the Egyptian authorities is ongoing, as are their excuses for its closure, such as the maintenance of the crossing and the establishment of a new terminal, not to mention security tensions in the Sinai peninsula,” he added.