After nearly one month of waiting at the Rafah crossing for Egyptian (Israeli) authorities to give permission to take the van full of medicine to Gaza, and after countless meetings and forms, today, Friday, at 12 noon, Khalil Al Niss arrived at the Rafah crossing to take the van away.
Over the course of the 27 day wait, the Egyptian authorities repeatedly refused suggestions regarding delivering the medical supplies, whether through the Rafah crossing, the Kerem Abu Salem crossing (Kerem Shalom), or via the Egyptian Red Crescent. That, along with the declaration by Israeli authorities, via the PA embassy representative, that there was ‘no way the van would ever cross through Kerem Abu Salem’ led Al Niss to decide, with no other option, to take the van from the crossing and begin the journey home.
Egyptian authorities presented many and varied the beauracratic excuses to justify their refusal to allow entrance to the medicine. The latest was that the medicine was not accounted for in an item by item list. As the medicine was donated by various supporters in the UK, Al Niss and Willis did not have one list with receipts to present to Egyptian authorities. Yet Egyptian authorities refused the suggestion to have a third party, like the Egyptian Red Crescent, unload and supervise the itemizing of the medical supplies.
Al Niss described his huge disappointment and frustration at not even being allowed to pass the medical supplies over to Red Crescent authorities to send to Gaza. On Thursday, he had met with the Rafah customs authorities, based in Al Arish, to discuss this possible hand-over of the medical cargo. He left the office with an document approved and signed by Ismail Abbas, the former General Manager of Customs in Rafah, now a Manager in the Arish branch, as well as by Khalil Attala Khalil, the Assistant to the Customs Minister. The document authorized the hand-over of the medical supplies, from Khalil al Niss to the Red Crescent, with a further stipulation that the RC would do their utmost to ensure the medicine was sent to Palestinian land, meaning Gaza.
Egytian customs authorities at the Rafah crossing itself vetoed the order flat-out, stating that Al Niss was not authorized to unload the van and give its contents to anyone else. Yet Abbas countered that “if anyone has a customs paper in his/her name, he/she has the right to give the cargo to whoever is specified on that paper. Then the contents belong to the recipient.” Abbas, extremely forthcoming and helpful, was no match for Egyptian bureaucracy, and Egypt’s determination to show deference to Israel rather than allow humanitarian aid in through any legal means.
Following Thurday’s promise and disappointment, Al Niss informed Gaza-based Dr. Khamis, the doctor the Scottish couple had coordinated with to deliver the medicine to, of the latest developments. Al Niss was again told that whenever the medicine got into Gaza, it would be very welcome, still urgently needed.
On Friday, the long, fruitless effort to bring aid to Palestinians in Gaza came to its end.
After over an hour’s wait at an increasingly-guarded border –with 6 army personnel trucks and a water cannon ready in the event Palestinians inside Gaza should protest their imprisonment– Egyptian authorities finally produced the paper releasing the van from its parked position at the border. The release paper stipulates Al Niss must drive the van back to the Nuweiba border crossing, with a police guard to ensure his departure, and that he cannot unload it at any point in Egypt.
Even without that stipulation, it would be impossible to open and unload the van, as it had been locked by Egyptian border officials upon arrival at Nuweiba nearly one month ago.
About 20 km away from Rafah the van stalled, technical problems. Three hours later, problems fixed, Al Niss continued the drive back to Al Arish.
But, during this delay, one branch of Egyptian intelligence, the Mokhabarat, called Al Niss to ask what his rush was. After 27 days at the closed Rafah crossing, and unccounted appeals to allow the medicine in, the intelligence agent related, on behalf of the authorities, that Al Niss had not exhausted all options, that the Kerem Abu Salem crossing would be opening in the future. Whereas Al Niss had been told by Egyptian officials he would not cross via Kerem Abu Salem, this latest suggestion lent little credibility.
Al Niss feels that this is a very poor attempt by the Egyptian authorities to insinuate that he and Willis aborted their humanitarian effort due to lack of interest. Nothing, he said, could be further from the truth.
The pair have realized that while the efforts they invested in gathering, driving, and trying to send across the closed border ugently-needed medical supplies did not succeed, the Egyptian authorities have made clear to the world their allegiance to political pressures, turning away from humanitarian need.