By Trisha Roy
Wednesday saw thousands of Palestinians, some sitting since dawn, in the hope that Egypt will now allow them in, gathered at a stadium before being sorted on to buses. They raised their identification papers as their names were called out from a list. As a relief to many, Egypt opened the border it shares with Gaza on Wednesday, providing a rare passage for thousands of refugees stuck in the coastal enclave, who had lived under a blockade for more than a decade.
The Rafah crossing point will be open for four days on a humanitarian basis. Egypt has kept it largely sealed since 2013, citing security reasons. Egyptian authorities have accused Hamas of aiding groups involved in the Sinai insurgency. Last year, Egypt only allowed passage on 36 days, according to the United Nations. Under Palestinian authority control since November, according to a reconciliation agreement signed with Hamas, Rafah is the main gateway for Gaza’s two million residents, who face a growing humanitarian crisis. Electricity shortages have led to hospital blackouts and an Israeli blockade, imposed in 2007 after Hamas seized control, has tightly controlled the movement of people and goods out of other crossings.
Previous openings of the border
Similar temporary openings of the border between Egypt and Gaza were carried out in 2011 and 2014. In 2011, the opening of the Rafah crossing was agreed to by Egypt as a part of the reconciliation deal it had brokered between rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. Access into and out of Gaza has been highly restricted since Hamas took control of the territory in June 2007. Exit to Egypt has been sporadic and largely limited to students and people needing medical treatment.
Many Gazans have family and business connections in Egypt, and a rush of people attempting to cross the border is expected. During Israel’s stringent blockade of Gaza following Hamas’s election victory in 2006, a black economy flourished, based on the smuggling of goods through tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Since Israel eased the economic siege almost a year ago, under pressure from the international community, the tunnel-based economy has largely collapsed. However, the tunnels are still used to smuggle construction materials which are banned by Israel, along with weapons. The opening of the border was intended “to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.”
In 2014, Egypt opened its border crossing with Gaza to grant the most critical casualties of Israeli airstrikes access to Egyptian medical care, following accusations that it had abandoned its usual role of mediating between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.
The plight of the Palestinians
Israel also maintains tight restrictions on its border with the Gaza Strip, meaning the two million Palestinians who live there are rarely able to leave the densely-populated enclave in which the Hamas Islamist movement is the dominant armed force. It was only the second time in more than a decade that the border was opened while unarmed security officers of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), rather than Hamas, guarded the Palestinian side.
In a wheelchair and helped by his wife and daughter, 74-year-old Awni An-Najar said at the Rafah crossing that he sought to enter Egypt for the treatment of his broken hip. “Patients must be allowed to travel freely. I want to be able to walk again,” he said.
Since the crossing was closed, hundreds of Palestinian passengers wishing to enter the Gaza Strip have been stranded on the Egyptian side of the border crossing. The group, called The Follow Up Committee for the National and Islamic Forces (in the Gaza Strip), which represents various Palestinian factions, also complained that Palestinian passengers were being mistreated and humiliated at checkpoints set up by the Egyptian army in Sinai.
Featured Image Source: Photo on Visualhunt
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