Egypt's Gaza gateway: crossroad of frustration

The border crossing is one of five ways in and out of Gaza. But it has been open just 64 days in the past nine months.

It's 2 a.m. in Cairo, and Abu Khalid is wedged into the back row of a minibus packed with 14 other people and their luggage.

Yet he couldn't be happier.

He's finally going to attend his brother's wedding Thursday night in Gaza, the Palestinian territory bordering Egypt.

Every night for almost a week, Abu Khalid, a cameraman from Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp, who asked that his real name not be used, has waited until midnight to find out if the Rafah border crossing would be open the next morning.

Finally, late Wednesday, a call came from friends on the Gaza side. He hopped into the minibus in the dead of night for the five-hour drive to the border.

The Rafah border crossing is one of five ways in and out of Gaza – and a portrait of frustration for many Palestinians trying to get home. It's the only crossing not guarded by Israeli forces. But it has been open just 64 days in the past nine months. Palestinian and Israeli leaders recently began biweekly talks on lower-level issues, including Palestinian arms smuggling into Gaza from Rafah, a town that straddles the border. The US hopes these will lead to discussion of substantive issues like the formation of a Palestinian state.

For Egypt, policing the Rafah crossing is a delicate issue. There is "genuine concern" that Palestinian violence in Gaza could spill over into the Sinai, says Walid Kazziha, chair of the political science department at the American University in Cairo. "It is in Egypt's national interest that they have to look after" the smuggling issue. But he also notes that the Egyptian government faces domestic pressure to support Palestinians. "One thing that embarrasses the Egyptians is the Israelis asking Egypt to take [what would amount to] violence against the Palestinians," he says. "So it's a very tight rope."

The smuggling dispute taxes most those who are trying to cross the border legitimately, like Abu Khalid.

After five hours with his knees pressed against the seat in front of him and unable to get a wink of sleep, he climbs out of the bus at the Rafah crossing. A crowd of men surrounds the vehicle, aggressively offering to help the passengers carry their luggage – for a price. The bus disgorges some two-dozen suitcases, bags stuffed with goods to sell at a profit in Gaza, a pair of crutches and even a hijab-wearing Fullah doll – the Islamic answer to Barbie.

There are already hundreds of people amassed at the giant main gates of the border crossing. It is the first day in a week that the border crossing has been open, and the Palestinians here know this may be their only chance for another week or longer to get home.

Women with stuffed bags are squashed against men fighting each other to rent carts at $35 a piece. Egyptian riot police beat back the crowd at the crossing's gate with long sticks, an uncomfortable image for the country that sees itself as the champion of pan-Arab causes.

Some young men have scaled the 20-foot-high gates. One tries to hoist a giant red suitcase over the gate, handed up from the crush of people below. When the gates part briefly to allow in security forces or ambulances carrying the sick, the crowd tries to shove its way through.

Abu Khalid gathers his bags from the bus and wades into the throng. His earlier excitement to be heading home dissipates as he eyes the huge crowd in front of him. His earlier annoyance at the minibus driver who delayed their departure from Cairo for two hours to pick up late passengers now proves well founded. It's clear those two hours cost him a choice place in line.

He stares beyond the gates. Several hundred more people inside the border crossing complex are waiting to enter a building where they are processed by Egyptian officials. Even if they make it to that point, they can still be turned back if they haven't arrived at the Palestinian side by the time the border closes. When will it close? That varies, say Egyptian officials here and people waiting at the border.

Fatahys Yousef al Roozah stands at the edge of crowd outside the gate. She's going home to Gaza for the first time in a year, to visit her sick sister. She says she spent most of the past six days under a tree near the border area, waiting for an opening. Most people wait in hotels or rent small houses in al Arish, a town an hour away, sometimes borrowing money from other travelers to pay for their extended stay.

Patience does not pay

An elderly, squat woman with thick round glasses, Ms. Roozah can't carry her bags through the gate. She scraped together $35 for a wheeled cart to transport them. As she speaks, two men get into a fistfight behind her over one of the carts, shouting and leaping over piles of bags to wrest the cart from the other.

Abu Khalid, meanwhile, waits in the middle of the scrum near the gate. Not the type to shove his way to the front, he is still waiting outside the gates when late afternoon arrives and the border closes. He doesn't make it across until the next day. He misses the celebration of his brother's marriage, and two of his bags are swallowed up in the chaos of the border.

Why the Rafah crossing is hard to police

Opening the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza is a central issue in new talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Israel doesn't have soldiers at the crossing, but it watches the border with dozens of closed-circuit cameras. European Union and Palestinian security forces are on the Gaza side, Egyptian police on their side. And, under the 2005 withdrawal agreement, Israel decides – for security reasons – when the border is to be open or closed.

The Rafah crossing was open regularly shortly after Israeli forces handed over control of Gaza to Palestinians in 2005. But since fighting broke out between Israeli forces and Palestinians in Gaza in June 2006, the border has opened just 64 days, according to an April fact sheet from the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Rafah. Some 400,000 people have crossed there since November 2005. When it was fully open, an average of 1,300 people a day transited the border.

The Rafah crossing is one of the few gateways Gazans have to conduct trade and reach the outside world. But smuggling through underground tunnels by mafialike families in Gaza has existed for years despite the efforts of various security forces at the border.

To show the international community it is taking steps to stop the trafficking, Egypt has made hay recently of the discovery of some smuggling tunnels and the capture of one smuggler.

"From the Egyptian point of view, they are doing the Israelis a service. They are helping [Palestinians] exit Gaza," says Walid Kazziha, chair of the political science department at the American University in Cairo.

Egyptian officials argue the Camp David accords that produced a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel don't allow Egypt to put enough soldiers and equipment on the border with Gaza to effectively police it. "Whenever the Egyptians are accused [of lax policing], they get quite edgy about it," Mr. Kazziha says, because they are being asked to do a job without enough resources to do it.

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