Jamila Hammouda, a mother of five small children, hopes that she will be reunited with her family in Cairo, Egypt. Because of closure and travel restrictions, her last visit was 15 years ago.
Hammouda, her husband and their children were waiting on the Gaza side of the Rafah terminal crossing with Egypt, where Palestinians in Gaza have queued up after Egyptian authorities reopened the crossing “indefinitely.” Egypt’s move follows Israel’s deadly raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla which aimed to bring world attention to and break Israel’s 36-month siege on the Gaza Strip.
Hammouda’s family was joined by throngs of other travelers from Gaza who gathered at the border gates. Standing at the crossing, they wait for their names to be called by one of the Hamas authorities, with the hope that they will finally be able to ride the bus to the Egyptian side of the terminal.
“For the first time ever, I am hopeful that I will finally see my dear family in Egypt. For the past couple of years, I have been following the required procedures for travel outside of Gaza but all my attempts have failed; each time I was told that I don’t have the required travel permit,” Hammouda said, tears trickling down her face.
Surrounded by her family and their luggage in a small rest area at the border, Hammouda expressed mixed feelings. “Who said I am traveling? I may or may not travel; I have heard that a large number of travelers have been turned back by the Egyptian authorities. For almost 15 years now I have not had the freedom to visit my family. In the past, we heard about travelers allowed passage on a humanitarian basis. Am I not a humanitarian case?”
Hammouda’s case is similar to that of thousands of other Palestinians from Gaza over the past three years. Like Israel, Egypt sealed off the border crossing with Gaza three years ago, preventing free movement of the territory’s 1.5 million residents, for whom the terminal has become the only outlet to the outside world.
Also at the rest stop in Rafah City, Hassan Bayouk was pacing anxiously, waiting for his name to be announced by the border authorities. A 45-year-old with a kidney condition, he has been seeking permission to travel to Egypt for medical treatment.
“I have some kidney problems, but I am aware of the fact that given the [previous] crossings closure I wouldn’t have been able to go to Cairo for treatment on my own. This time, now that the crossing has been reopened, I do hope I can find my way out of besieged Gaza,” Bayouk said.
Ehab, a young man in his 20s, carried a small handbag, waiting to cross the border for some on-the-job training outside of Gaza. He declined to give his full name, fearful that it would jeopardize his chances of traveling.
“Sorry, I cannot give my name but I can say that I am really hopeful to leave Gaza, at least I am relieved to leave the difficult circumstances here, with Israel imposing a total closure for more than three years,” he said tersely.
Subjected to a life of few guarantees, those waiting for travel are experiencing a mix of hopefulness and trepidation. Their ability to travel is dependent on the whim of the Egyptian authorities as Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip, like their brethren in the West Bank, don’t enjoy sovereignty or freedom of movement outside the tiny territory.
According to the Hamas authorities on the Gaza side of the border, only 500 to 600 travelers are being allowed through the border crossing on daily basis. They also state that the same arrangements that existed before Egypt reopened the border last week are still valid, with only students, medical patients and those with residency permits in neighboring Arab countries allowed to cross the terminal.
Ghazi Hammad, the top authority on the Palestinian side of the crossing, told The Electronic Intifada at his office at the Rafah border terminal: “We have no more details, nor explanations about this opening, maybe it will remain open or will be closed suddenly. We do hope that the crossing remains open forever and we have been in contact with the Egyptian authorities. Unfortunately, Gazans with Palestinian passports cannot go through the crossing and this is of concern to us and we do hope that finally all Gazans can move freely the way [they did] before the blockade was enforced.”
Hammad added: “If the crossing is to be opened daily, then first of all, we hope that all people can move freely without obstacles. Second, we wish that the coordination between us and the Egyptians becomes smoother. We have previously suffered some restrictions by the Egyptian authorities as these authorities have sometimes prevented some people like members of political parties or even some patients from traveling.”
Asked whether the Egyptian move aims to pressure the Hamas-led government in Gaza to shut down hundreds of underground tunnels on the Gaza side of the border, Hammad said that the tunnels are a last resort.
“If the Rafah crossing is opened for commerce and travelers, then we don’t need the tunnels because the tunnels are disastrous. We proclaim loudly that we want to work above ground and not underground.”
Since 2007, Egypt has opened the border crossing occasionally for short periods of time. In January 2008, when Hamas forces destroyed Rafah’s border wall, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza flooded into nearby Egypt to stock up on essential supplies, including cooking gas and fuel, which Israel’s blockade has made scarce.
While the Egyptian Foreign Ministry says it will open the crossing indefinitely, Egypt has colluded with Israel in the siege of the Gaza Strip. The closure was imposed after the democratically-elected Hamas party’s takeover of the territory amidst factional fighting with the rival Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Abbas’s term ended in January 2009 and he has remained in power under controversial emergency powers and has repeatedly blocked attempts to finalize a national unity agreement with Hamas, under American and Israeli pressure and with Egyptian support.
Egypt has previously insisted that in order to fully open the Rafah crossing, Hamas needs to meet the conditions of a 2005 American-sponsored agreement, in which the Palestinian Authority would return to power in Gaza. From 2005 to 2007, Palestinian presidential guards and a group of European observers monitored movement at the Rafah terminal. Now Britain and France are calling for the return of those observers, but that would be difficult to achieve without a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah have demanded a return to the status quo ante under any unification agreement. For its part, Hamas has called for joint border control with Fatah as part of a comprehensive national unity arrangement.
“We want a compromise between us and our brothers in Fatah in order to share administration of the Rafah crossing terminal. First of all, we have to end the [political] division, restore national unity and achieve conciliation, then the world will respect us. We have to work hard in order to restore conciliation,” Hammad explained.
After three years of siege, a great deal is at stake with the opening of the Rafah crossing for the average Palestinian from Gaza. While diplomatic efforts to end or at least ease the siege continue behind closed doors, travelers like Jamila Hammouda wait with uncertainty in the hot dusty air of Rafah’s terminal. “I cannot say conclusively that I am traveling; I have to wait until I am already on the Egyptian side of the border [to know],” she said.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.