The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Catastrophe at Rafah Crossing: More Than 35 Dead—and Counting

Catastrophe at Rafah Crossing: More Than 35 Dead—and CountingPalestinians wait to cross the Rafah border for medical treatment (Photo M. Omer)

Mohammed Omer, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2007

PERCHED ATOP A suitcase and trunk, her leg knocking listlessly with staccato thuds on vinyl, newly engaged 23-year-old Islam Al Assar waits on the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt.

And waits. And waits.

“I’m waiting for my happiness,” she states forlornly. “I’m waiting to start my life. I have to be immensely patient. We hear news that the border will open, but it never does.”

At the border, now closed for more than two months, her luggage carries her dreams: a wedding dress, trousseau, gifts and necessities for her future life. On the other side awaits her fiancé and a new life in United Arab Emirates. The wedding, set for late June, has been put on hold.

“I’m not the only one waiting,” she sighs. “Five of our neighbors are here, too, awaiting passage for operations for cancer, kidney diseases and other chronic illnesses.”

Since the elected Hamas government managed to prevent Israeli- and U.S.-backed Fatah militia from taking over Gaza in June, 1.5 million Palestinians have been living under siege, shut off from the outside world. European Union observers have abandoned the Rafah crossing to the Palestinian executive force, which works under complete Israeli control via remote control and video cameras, and the Egyptian military. Together they enforce the Israeli-ordered closure of the border, which comprises seven distinct gates.

Government officials estimate that more than 12,000 Palestinians are stranded on the Egyptian side of the border, with another several thousand trapped in Gaza trying to leave. While those caught on the Gaza side of the border share a slight advantage, since they are able to find comfort with friends and family, their numbers include people with life-threatening diseases who are prevented from leaving for scheduled medical procedures in Egypt and Jordan.

Stateless Infants

Conditions on both sides of the border remain precarious. Families struggle to survive day-to-day under the blistering Sinai desert sun, with little shade and no water, toilets, food or sleeping quarters. Their situation is best symbolized, perhaps, by the 16 babies who have been born while their mothers wait at the border. Without medical care, many born prematurely may not survive. To this life-threatening situation Israeli bureaucracy adds yet another twist. Since the newborns were not born within Gaza or in hospitals, none has the birth certificates and legal documents required for re-entry.

“The majority of these parents were compelled to come to Gaza prior to the births so their children could be registered and maintain their national identity,” explains Al Mezan of the Human Rights Center. The continued closure of the Rafah border crossing, he asserts, is an example of “collective punishment by Israel used as a political tool in a flagrant disregard of Palestinians’ human rights.”

A Mother’s Death

By mid-August, more than 35 people had died waiting to enter Gaza. One might assume that those who died were either very young or very old, but that is not always the case. After waiting 38 days in the blistering sun, Sana Shanan of the Jabalya Refugee Camp, a 27-year-old mother of three children, 7 years, 4 years and 6 months old, passed away on the Egyptian side of the crossing. The young wife and mother was returning from a successful operation in Egypt to treat her hepatcirrhosis. The last wish she uttered on the phone to her husband as life drained from her limbs encapsulates the anguish felt by all: “Please destroy the wall,” she whispered, her husband said, “and let me get through and see my children before I die!”

Her grief-stricken 35-year-old husband vents his helpless frustration. “I can’t stand it,” he cries. ”Nobody cares about Palestinian suffering! Nobody can live for 38 days under the burning sun!”

The suffering endured by the thousands of people stranded in Egypt is further compounded by lack of finances. Each family receives just $100 for food, shelter, water and necessities—an amount which lasts only a few days. As Israel enforces the closure for weeks, then months on end, Palestinians stranded at the border sell their clothing, watches and personal belongings to anyone who will buy them in order to purchase food and water. While some find shelter and facilities in homes and businesses near the border, most Palestinians end up sleeping on the street, in gardens or anywhere shelter can be found.

According to Haaretz, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked Israel to keep the Rafah border closed. Abbas’ media advisor Nabil Abu Rudieneh issued a denial, saying, “Such reports are untrue rumors.”

The Airport Terminal

Along with some 90 other people, Mohammed Ali, a 27-year-old free-lance journalist returning from France, entered his fourth week of diplomatic quarantine inside Egypt’s Al Arish Airport near the Gaza border. Others—most under 35—are stranded at Cairo’s International Airport. Among those waiting in limbo at the Al Arish terminal were two women with their children. Like Tom Hanks in Stephen Spielberg’s 2004 film “The Terminal,” none of them can leave the airport. Neither citizens of Egypt nor holders of entry visas, they are trapped in a maze of bureaucracy—while their homeland’s occupier uses the well-worn excuse of “security” to deny them passage. For Ali the situation was especially difficult: his wife waited at home, in her ninth month of pregnancy.

While most trapped in this diplomatic no-man’s-land—whether at the border or at airports—refrain from blaming Egypt for their plight, all agree that Egypt remains key to its solution. To call attention to the escalating crisis, several nonviolent protests have been held. Ali and others stuck in the Al-Arish terminal embarked on a three-stage hunger strike, surviving on minimal nourishment (salt and water) and vowing to up the ante if necessary.

”If the border doesn’t open soon,” Ali confirmed, “we won’t hesitate to go on a full hunger strike! Even the sick among us will join.”

Human Rights Violations

By preventing the passage of people, essential medicine, food and products, the closure exacerbates the crisis on both sides of the border. In a phone interview, Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, commented on the closure of Rafah crossing. “Denying Gaza residents the ability to live in dignity,” she continued, “denying their ability to lead normal lives, to work and support themselves and their families violates Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law, human rights law and its own national law.

“Normal life is not just food and water,” the Israeli human rights work er asserted. “It’s also a dignified human existence and the possibility to continue to earn livelihood. Seeking to weaken Hamas by punishing 1.5 million women, men and children is illegal and counterproductive. It is the ordinary people who are suffering…Gaza residents have the right to go home…[and] Israel has a responsibility to reopen the Rafah border,” Bashi concluded.

Israeli typically requires that all Palestinians enter and leave the occupied territories—their homeland—through the same border crossings. Lately, however, it has allowed several hundred Palestinians who left via Rafah to return through the Eretz crossing through Israel. Many have rejected this option, however, fearing arrest or pressure to collaborate with the occupying power. Indeed, many young men returning via Eretz have been subjected to such treatment.

With the departure of the European Union observers, the odds of Rafah border crossing opening in the foreseeable future are close to nil. Meanwhile—and needlessly—thousands of men, women and children die, starve and, above all, wait.

Mohammed Omer spoke at length on this issue during a July 18, 2007 interview on Don Bustany’s “Middle East Focus” program on KPFK radio in Los Angeles. The 20-minute interview can be heard at <>.

Mohammed Omer, winner of New America Media’s Best Youth Voice award, reports from the Gaza Strip, where he maintains the Web site <>.