Saturday, January 16, 2021

Egypt’s Rafah border crossing still remains an obstacle for Palestinians

By Jessica Purkiss - April 08, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation]
Tags: [Gaza] [Rafah border crossing] [freedom of movement] [wedding]

Photo by WorldBulletin.


With border crossings, countries and even continents to contend with, a traditional wedding for one young couple in love was impossible.

Manal Abu Shanar and Emad al-Malalha were due to marry in Egypt but the groom was denied entry to the country. Whilst his new wife Manal lives in the Egyptian city of Rafah, Emad is a Gazan citizen meaning they are separated by the notorious Rafah border crossing.

Rafah was once an undivided city. However after the Camp David agreement in 1979 as part of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, it was agreed that Rafah was to be split into two, and a barbed wire separation fence was put in place at the beginning of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak’s reign in 1982. It divided Rafah with one side in Egypt and the other in Gaza, Palestine.

Eventually after being Emad was refused entry, his determined wife to be Manal met her fiancé in one of the hidden underground tunnels that connects Egypt to Gaza. In her white dress she and her groom walked hand in hand around 1,600 feet together as family and friends greeted them on the other side cheering.

Since the split of Rafah, a complex network of hundreds of underground tunnels have been untilised to  smugglegoods and people from Gaza into Egypt and vice-versa. During Israel’s harsh blockades of Gaza these tunnels have at times formed the only way in and out of the coastal enclave, with exit holes popping up in relative’s living rooms across the Egyptian side of Rafah.

This love story of a tunnel wedding is also a story about rights or rather the lack of in Gaza, which with the combined complicity of Israel and Egypt has become an open air prison for its residents.

Restriction of movement and the subsequent rights violated means hundreds of other couples like Manal and Emad cannot even hold a traditional wedding ceremony.

In fact there are many stories from Gaza that all resound a similar story of entrapment. Rami Almeghari from Electronic Intifada wrote at the end of 2012 about his experience trying to enter Egypt with his wife’s advanced cancer MRI scans in order for the Cairo hospital to decide the best treatment for his wife. He was turned away from the border with officials saying his wife must also be in attendance, despite her condition and the four children she must care for at home.

Palestinian men from Gaza are allowed to cross into Egypt without so-called “coordination” only if they are over the age of 40.  Rami was 39. He was also a journalist with a press card stating his right to enter Egypt, and had received a previous permit to reside in the country.

From Mubarak to Morsi, new hope for the Rafah border crossing?

Under Hosni Mubarak the Rafah border issue was a bone of contention for many who saw the Egyptian President as collaborating with Israel, especially during Israel’s 2008- 2009 bombardment of Gaza.

Restriction of movement and the subsequent rights violated means hundreds of other couples like Manal and Emad cannot even hold a traditional wedding ceremony.

An agreement between Israel and Egypt regarding the border was reached in 2005 in accordance with the 1979 peace treaty, when Israel decided to dismantle its settlements and pull out of the Gaza strip. It specified that 750 Egyptian border guards would be deployed along the length of the border, and both countries pledged to work together to stem terrorism, arms smuggling, and other illegal cross-border activities.

With the revolution that saw Mubarak’s demise and replaced him with the Muslim Brotherhood government, of which Hamas is an offshoot of, headed by the new president Mohammed Morsi, Egyptian and Gazan citizens hoped for a more optimistic and supportive approach.

Israel’s November offensive on Gaza in 2012 gave Morsi his first test. His approach was largely diplomatic, with the recalling of Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv and the summoning of Israel’s ambassador to Cairo to hand him a letter of protest. The border crossing remained open.

For a large chunk of Egypt’s general public these actions  were seen as falling short. However Morsi’s approach played a vital role in negotiations that led to the end of the eight day bombardment of Gaza. Israel’s November offensive on Gaza was also his first test on the international stage, with Morsi’s reaction to the events scrutinized by the major powers. He played strategically, towing the line between Hamas, the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and US government in mind, which provides $1.3 billion military aid to Cairo annually.

At beginning of his leadership in May 2011 the new government announced the opening of Rafah Crossing on a regular basis for all the residents of Gaza carrying Palestinian passports and identity cards, easing a four year long blockade.

However there are stipulations: the passage of men aged 18-40 through Rafah is limited to bearers of entrance visas to third countries, people with foreign passports or residency, patients seeking medical care in Egypt or students registered for study abroad. The crossing is closed on Fridays.

Men in the 18-40 age group who do not belong to one of the above categories require special coordination with Egypt to travel through Rafah. Palestinian residents of Gaza who wish to travel through Rafah still need to carry Palestinian identity cards approved by Israel, and the ban on imports through Rafah remains intact.

However in August 2012, after a group of 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by gunmen in northern Sinai, Egypt temporarily shut down the Rafah crossing and demolished at least 35 tunnels.

"If Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing without Israel doing the same at its own crossings into Gaza, there'd be champagne corks popping in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They won't do that, because Egypt won't shoulder the burden of Gaza, which could end the possibility of a unified Palestinian state," said Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation to the Time magazine following the ceasefire.

The situation at the Rafah crossing is constantly changing. For instance between the year of the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and the Hamas takeover of the internal administration of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel closed Rafah Crossing 76% of the time.

Whilst in June 2007, in light of the civil infighting in Gaza the Rafah crossing was closed permanently, except for random and limited openings by Egypt, which met only one-tenth of the need of the residents of Gaza to exit and enter the Strip, according to Israeli freedom of movement rights group Gisha.

From June 2010 to January 2011, the monthly average number of people passing through Rafah in both directions reached 19,000, which is 47% of the number of people who travelled through Rafah in the first half of 2006, they said.

The denial of the right of movement to Gazan’s based upon their ethnic identity is a violation of international law. The changes to the border crossing according to the political situation is reflective of political agendas and works as a collective punishment against the citizens of Gaza, the tightest restrictions occurring predominantly at the times when the situation at the Rafah border crossing equals life or death.

Collective punishment on unarmed populations is a violation of international law,” said a spokesperson from Gisha.

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