Nine Days at the Closed Gates of Rafah

First Published: July 29, 2008   By Eva Bartlett

On Sunday, July 20, the Scotland-to-Gaza van filled with medicines and medical supplies destined for Gaza came to a standstill at Egypt’s closed gates.The Rafah crossing, the only Egyptian-Gazan crossing and the only crossing ostensibly not controlled by Israel, has been continuously closed since June 2007, with brief openings for a minimal number of extreme cases, usually medically-related.Since the June 19th Gaza-Israel truce began, goods entering Gaza through crossings with Israel have decreased, and the Rafah crossing has yet to open regularly.

Khalil Al Niss and Linda Willis, who departed Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 10 with 1.5 tons of vital medicines and medical equipment, have waited since arriving to gain permission to carry the goods into Gaza to waiting doctors inside.Monday marks the 9th day waiting at the gates, where approximately 100 metres beyond the closed gates to the Gazan side lie seemingly within reach.

With the truce having held for over 40 days, the seeming calm for Gazans and from Gaza, and the humanitarian nature of the goods Al Niss and Willis have transported, they expected that after filling out the forms they would be granted passage.To their surprise, the situation is more complex.

“We were told that we need to get permission from the Israeli authorities, even though the border is between Egypt and Gaza” Willis stated.

While initially hopeful that upon arrival at the Rafah crossing, they would be granted permission to deliver the medical supplies, Al Niss and Willis have since followed procedures, filling in the many forms given to them day after day, and talking to numerous officials from the Egyptian border, Egyptian intelligence, and the Palestinian Authority, thus far to no avail.

The two recently submitted to Egyptian Chief of Intelligence, Omar Suleiman, a letter with the signatures of 6 Scottish MPs supporting the endeavor.Although the letter was requested by the Egyptian authorities handling the case, Willis says there has yet been no reply to the letter.“Nothing has happened.We’re still waiting for permission.”

Nor has there been any reply to the fax they sent four days ago to President Mubarek’s office, explaining the humanitarian and charitable nature of their request for passage, and highlighting the support from Scottish parliament.“We haven’t heard anything at all,” she said.

“It seems to be that they ask us for different items, and we get them for them are we’re no further forward,” said Willis of their experience in dealing with Egyptian authorities at the border.

Al Niss related that the Palestinian Authority consents to their crossing via Rafah.The hold-up lies elsewhere.“We’re still waiting from the permission from Israel and from Egypt,” Al Niss says PA officials told him.“The first day we arrived,” Al Niss continued, “we were told ‘these things will never go through without Israeli permission.’”This raises the question: who really controls Gaza’s Rafah crossing?Israel says it fully disengaged from Gaza in 2005, yet according to PA and Egyptian authorities, Israel still has the final say over who and what goes in and out of Gaza.

Although nearly 3 weeks have passed since Scotland, support has grown, with emails and text messages from all over the UK. The support even extends as far as Brazil, where political cartoonist Carlos Latuff recently depicted the stalemate at the border. In the cartoon, Egypt and Israel’s leaders shake hands to seal the deal of sealing the border, a hospital patient languishing on the Gaza side and the stalled van filled with medicines on the Egyptian side.

The wait at the border has enhanced Willis and Al Niss’ conviction that the closure of Gaza’s borders is a political game, with no regard for the civilians who suffer as a result of the absence of vital basics. During their days waiting, the two have observed Palestinians from nearby Al Arish and from as far as Australia, Bahrain, and Germany, all determined to visit family in Gaza, all turned back at the crossing. “They’ve got limited time, they go every day to the crossing and they get turned back. It’s just a terrible humanitarian situation. Terrible, for all people.”

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