Thwarted hopes on Gaza’s border with Egypt

Palestinians attempt to get on a bus to cross into Egypt at Rafah, southern Gaza, on 4 December.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

It was extremely difficult for Maher Shawa to accept that the two-day window during which the Rafah crossing opened for humanitarian cases earlier this month had closed before he could get through.

The 67-year-old is in urgent need of heart surgery. He was due to receive treatment, he said, in a Jordanian hospital, where he’d had a first operation in 2004.

“I have my papers completed, and I should have been able to cross the border this time,” Shawa, who spent six years in Israeli prison, said. “I am dying here.”

Shawa is among the thousands of priority cases who have applied for permission to leave Gaza for medical treatment or study abroad, or because they hold foreign passports.

But Egypt has kept Rafah crossing — the sole point of exit and entry for the vast majority of the 1.8 million Palestinians in tiny Gaza — almost entirely closed since October 2014.

Majed Lola and his wife had stayed at the terminal for three consecutive nights in cold weather in order to cross.

The couple is seeking medical treatment for their 5-year-old granddaughter. Her mother has to stay to care for other siblings. Her father was killed in the Israeli assault of 2014.

“We have been waiting for months to hear that the [border would reopen] so Mona can improve her hearing,” Lola said. His granddaughter needs a cochlea implant.

Mona has nearly lost hope. “Doctors told me that I might be totally hearing-impaired if I do not get the operation in time,” the girl said.

Her grandparents, both in their 60s, were tired. The prolonged wait in poor conditions at the crossing had left them fatigued.

Constant closure

The interior ministry in Gaza says it has registered more than 25,000 cases of patients who urgently need to leave the Strip for medical treatment. Ministry spokesperson Eiad al-Bozum said only some 380 people with priority cases successfully crossed on 3 and 4 December.

“Patients are stuck. Opening the crossing for two days after a prolonged closure has done little to alleviate their suffering,” al-Bozum said.

Al-Bozum said the closures are the result of a “deadly political calculation” and that bottlenecks at the border were created on the other side.

“All we do on the Palestinian side of the border is send names to the Egyptians to decide who will be permitted across and who will not,” al-Bozum said. “The process is slow, selective and, more importantly, unsatisfactory.”

The official said tens of thousands are trapped in Gaza with little prospect of leaving.

According to the Palestinian Authority, the Rafah terminal was only open 19 days in the last 11 months for humanitarian cases. Including when the crossing was open to accommodate pilgrims for the annual hajj, the United Nations counts 30 days in which Egypt has allowed people through in 2015.

It is not just Palestinians who are stuck.

Ashtor Ibrahim came to Gaza with 11 family members from Egypt when his sister married a Palestinian from the Strip. They came with assurances. Egyptian border authorities had “promised that our names were on the departure list,” he said.

Something went wrong. The 27-year-old Egyptian and his relatives, all from Ismailia, just west of the Suez Canal, have now been stuck in Gaza since May, subsisting on charity from the new in-laws and others.

Thwarting plans

Ahmad Attallah’s hopes of obtaining a politics degree from a German university — to which he earned a scholarship — have so far been shattered at Rafah.

“The tough part is not gaining a scholarship to study abroad; it is to be lucky enough to cross Rafah,” Attallah, 19, said.

Attallah’s European Union visa has now expired. “I am not alone in this. Many of my friends have very similar stories,” he said. “They thwarted our plans and crippled our aspirations.”

Sumia al-Haw also recently obtained a scholarship. The 25-year-old is hoping to major in ophthalmology in Turkey.

“If I do not travel within two months I will certainly miss my scholarship,” she said. “I think I should prepare myself for disappointment.”

Alhaw and her peers, along with those seeking urgent treatment or family reunification, have appealed through all available channels. They’ve urged Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, to make the opening of the crossing a priority.

“The right of free movement must be restored to every Palestinian. We are under immense pressure in this regard,” al-Haw said. “We are fed up.”

Zeinab Qombz, 28, has been trying to travel for years. Her husband traveled to Saudi Arabia for work two years ago and they agreed she would follow after two months with their young children.

“Our family is separated, my sons miss their father,” Qombz said. “What harm are we if our small family reunites again?”

In the meantime, she and her two sons have had to stay in her father’s cramped house.

“I feel that we are a burden that my family can no longer afford,” Qombz said. “All we want is to be together, to live a normal life.”

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.