OPEN THE RAFA CROSSING – Palestinians’ patience is wearing thin, says IRIN


With Israel’s two-week military offensive in Gaza showing no signs of abating, patience is running thin among those waiting to get into the Strip from the Egyptian border town of Rafah, the Palestinians’ only access to the outside world that is not controlled by Israel, UN agency IRIN reported on Sunday.

Every day, local and foreign doctors, nurses, truck drivers and journalists, among others, wait on the Egyptian side of the border for the opportunity to enter Gaza during the daily three-hour ceasefire.

‘It’s become routine. You come and wait for something to happen,’ said an Egyptian journalist from a local government newspaper who preferred anonymity.

The Occupied Palestinian Territories-Egypt border runs right through Rafah town.

Near the border crossing on the Egyptian side, groups of people gather on the pavement next to the main road making small talk while they wait for the gate to open.

A run-down kiosk makes brisk business selling tea and biscuits to this daily gathering, after months of inactivity due to the previous full closure of the border.

The talk and tea drinking is eventually punctured by a massive explosion on the other side of the border.

When the dust has settled, those waiting begin asking the usual questions: ‘When will Israel stop firing? When will the gate be opened? Who will get in today and who will be denied access?’ Nobody has the answers.

On 9 January, the Egyptian authorities finally admitted a group of doctors from the Arab Medics Union to cross through to Gaza.

Forty-six had arrived at the border two days earlier hoping to cross over and offer their assistance in Gaza.

On 10 January, more medics were allowed in, including 11 Egyptians, three Jordanians and one Belgian, according to media reports.

More medical teams are planning missions to Rafah border in response to calls for support by Palestinian doctors inside Gaza.

However, their calls come amid a slowdown in humanitarian operations in Gaza after aid workers have been killed and a UN installation bombed by the Israeli army.

Only trucks carrying medical materials can qualify to pass through the Rafah border crossing, where Egyptian authorities are tasked with conducting thorough searches of all vehicles.

On the way back, trucks are sometimes used to evacuate Gaza’s wounded to hospitals in the Egyptian city of al-Arish.

Foodstuffs and other aid are not allowed through the Rafah crossing, so are usually sent through the Kerem Shalom crossing, some 4km away from Rafah, and which is under the control of Israel.

Tarek Mahalawy of the ministry of health in al-Arish said that Egypt is doing its best to facilitate humanitarian work across the borders.

‘The main problem is not with the Rafah border crossing, but with Mafraq al-Shouhada check point, about 15km away from Rafah in Gaza, where some of the wounded are allowed to be evacuated to Egypt, while others are denied access by Israel for political reasons,’ he stressed.

Many on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing are holding the Egyptian government responsible for delays and confusion over the border’s opening.

In front of the main gate, a feud erupted between Egyptian security personnel and Khalil Anis, the Palestinian head of London-based NGO Justice for Gaza, who protested against the complicated procedures of checking the contents of each truck and the subsequent delays at the border.

‘The stuff in the trucks has to get to the people of Gaza on time. It’s not ours, it’s theirs. It has been donated to them,’ Anis said furiously.

The Rafah border crossing was controlled by the Israeli Airports Authority until 2005, when Israel withdrew from its occupation of Gaza.

The crossing was then handed to the European Union Border Assistance Mission and was closed most of the time in 2006 for security reasons and completely closed in 2007, when Hamas took over the administration of Gaza.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip received on 10 January air-dropped leaflets warning them that the Israeli military was about to step up operations against militant targets there and that they should take necessary precautions.

However, it remained unclear what Palestinians could do, given that UN officials have said Gazans have no safe place to hide.

‘There is nowhere safe in Gaza,’ said Allegra Pacheco, deputy head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territories.

His views were echoed by Max Gaylord, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Jerusalem.

The leaflet told Gazans that they should follow the recent example of Rafah’s residents, who fled their homes in the south of the Gaza Strip after receiving similar announcements instructing them to do so just before the Israeli airforce began to pound the city along the Egyptian border.

Israeli officials said Palestinian militants were using tunnels to smuggle weapons under this border.

Witnesses said up to 50,000 people fled the town, and the UN reported that Israel’s ongoing Operation Cast Lead, which began on 27 December, has created the largest number of forcibly displaced Palestinians since the 1967 war.

While most Gazans are already refugees from previous wars, they cannot cross a border now, as the perimeter of the territory is sealed off from all sides.

They can only find a relatively safer place within the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.

The latest leaflet said the Israeli military ‘will continue to target tunnels, weapons storage facilities and terror operatives with growing intensity throughout the Gaza Strip.

‘For your safety and that of your families, stay away from these.’

Meanwhile, places where Palestinians have sought refuge, including UN facilities, have been attacked, and civilians have been killed while fleeing, according to testimonies gathered by Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups.

Medical staff on 11 January estimated that over 850 Palestinians had been killed in Israel’s two-week military offensive, including some 235 children, and more than 3,500 injured.