24 - 30 August 2006 Issue No. 809
Palestinians flood to Rafah crossing in a bid to escape the hell that is life in the Gaza Strip, writes Erica Silverman
Scores of buses overflowing with passengers, so tightly packed that bodies are pressed against glass windows, approached the gates of Rafah Terminal along the Gaza-Egypt border Saturday in a desperate bid to exit the Gaza Strip. Luggage and people piled high on top and on trailers dragging behind, some precariously balancing themselves even on metal hitches in between.
Mohamed, 17, clung to the side of one bus by his arms, trying to make his way into Egypt for medical care. One mother grasped the side of a trailer with one arm and her crying little girl with the other as suitcases were rapidly hurled on top of them.
Buses pushed on -- some carrying as many as 200 people, tires flattened from the weight -- towards lines of preventative security forces trying to control the chaos. Over 7,000 passengers swarmed the terminal frantically trying to escape, but only 2,396 passengers departed and 341 returned, according to EU monitors stationed there. Students, medical patients, and foreign visa holders were permitted to leave. An estimated 30,000 are still waiting to depart, and as of Tuesday the border remained sealed.
"They deal with us like animals," cried 37- year-old Riad Syiam, an electrical engineer trying to reach Abu Dhabi with his wife and three children. Like hundreds of families they came to Gaza to visit relatives and were trapped inside when Israel sealed the border after an Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas 25 June. Rafah (Gaza's only passenger crossing) has been closed by Israel for seven weeks, ostensibly to prevent the soldier from being smuggled outside the Strip as well as to cut off large amounts of cash Hamas leaders have been bringing across the border.
Palestinian officials and EU monitors are working to convince Israel to resume normal operation of the terminal, although according to Salim Abu Saifa, Palestinian Authority (PA) director of border security in Gaza and a chief negotiator with the Israeli side, there is no agreement in sight. Abu Saifa predicts erratic openings until the release of the Israeli soldier.
Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin told ministers at the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting Sunday that the Philadelphi Route along the Egyptian border is porous, allowing several tonnes of explosives and weapons to enter Gaza. "Recently, $1.5 million has been smuggled in through Rafah by the Hamas Agriculture Ministry," said Diskin. The intelligence chief charges that Egyptian supervision of the crossing is ineffective, calling for a review of the agreements signed with Egypt last year.
The Palestinian side securely operated the terminal for eight months, says Abu Saifa, asserting, "the crossing is used [by Israel] for collective punishment and other political gains." President Mahmoud Abbas's office controls the crossings, not the Hamas-led government, in a vain effort to keep them open. On 10 and 11 August, Rafah opened one-way, allowing 4,200 passengers to leave Gaza, according to the EU observer mission.
Meanwhile Karni -- Gaza's only commercial crossing -- has been sealed shut for four days, as of Monday, creating a shortage of basic commodities and food supplies across Gaza.
Fear and hostility amongst Gazans is brimming over into violent protests throughout Gaza City, as most Palestinians have not received a paycheque in nearly six months. PA employees stormed into banks Saturday morning demanding salaries and on Sunday angry mobs attacked the Legislative Council building. These outbursts come amid a recent string of auto thefts uncommon in the religiously conservative Strip. Palestinians are surviving under the intense pressure of a nearly nine-week-long Israeli incursion into Gaza to purportedly halt the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel and to recover the captured Israeli soldier.