Rafah: A border town caught between Egypt and Hamas

The Rafah crossing is seen by Israel as a weapons supply line for Hamas and a humanitarian lifeline by Gazans.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    The wait: Palestinian doctors waited for victims of the Gaza conflict at the Rafah crossing at the Egyptian-Gaza border.
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This border town that sits between a war zone and the country trying to end the war has increasingly become the crux of a cease-fire deal between Hamas and Israel.

Egyptian mediators on Thursday continued to hold talks with representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas to stop the conflict in the Gaza Strip as it entered its 13th day.

Israel launched air raids Wednesday on the Palestinian side of Rafah, targeting at least 25 houses alleged to contain some of the 1,500 tunnels under the border that serve as the supply lifeline for Hamas. On Thursday, Gazans reported heavy bombardment in the Israeli offensive that has killed some 700 Palestinians, and the United Nations said it was halting aid deliveries after a UN truck driver was killed by Israeli tank fire.

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Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Thursday that Egypt will ask Israel and Hamas for a temporary truce "that would lead to a consolidated permanent cease-fire." Then, he said, negotiations would take place with the European Union and the PA, which lost control of Gaza, on how to open Rafah.

Israel maintains that it will only accept a cease-fire if the deal provides for a mechanism to halt arms smuggling across the border. The issue for Egypt is how to allow humanitarian supplies and doctors across while not allowing Hamas militants in and out of Gaza.

So far Egypt has kept the crossing largely shuttered, which has drawn vehement criticism in worldwide protests for not allowing in more relief supplies and doctors. Demonstrators across the Middle East have accused it of helping the Israelis crush Hamas by rendering aid passage through the borders difficult.

On Wednesday, doctors from different organizations clustered on the Egyptian side of the border in hopes of crossing over to Gaza. None received permission to enter. "We have been trying to get permissions to cross the border," says Ahmad Elwi, a surgeon and member of the Cairo-based Arab Medics Syndicate. "We came upon a call from Palestinian hospitals who asked for medics' help since they haven't been able to cope with the increasing number of the wounded."

In front of the border, trucks filled with medical supplies were lined up at the main gate. They waited for hours for Israel to stop its raid Wednesday during a temporary cease-fire to allow in humanitarian aid. When the gate opened, Egyptian police started searching each truck for about 10 minutes, making sure that only medical supplies were loaded, while getting rid of foodstuffs.

According to Khaled Atteya, the general coordinator of the Rafah crossing, foodstuffs can only be passed through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which is some 2-1/2 miles away.

"Today alone there was some 350 tons of foodstuffs crossed over the borders. This perfectly explains how the borders are open and ready to pass on aid," says Mr. Atteya.

In the meantime, the borders are closed for individuals and medics. "The situation does not allow us to send doctors now, since we can't guarantee their safety," says Atteya. The medics from the Arab Doctors Syndicate said they were aware of the security threats. "We presented a statement to the Egyptian government saying that we want to cross to Gaza on our own responsibility," says Mr. Elwi, one of 46 waiting medics.

The Arab Medics Union is headed by Abdul Moneim Abul Futtouh, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member, Egypt's main opposition group. While the Brotherhood has been critical of the Egyptian government's policy toward Hamas, it's unknown whether the doctors' requests are being denied because of their affiliation with the Brotherhood.

Many doctors from international organizations have been waiting in Rafah for permission to cross into Gaza. None of them have been allowed except for two Norwegian medics. Negotiations with the Norwegian Embassy are ongoing to send a third medic on Thursday.

Caoimhe Butterly, an Irish activist who worked on sending aid boats from Cyprus to Gaza, has been working in Egypt to get permissions for medics.

"It is important to pressure for doctors to cross the borders to Gaza. It's a purely humanitarian issue," she says. On Tuesday, only one Norwegian doctor was allowed in Gaza by the Egyptian authorities. According to Ms. Butterly, Norway and Egypt have an agreement that allows for the passage of Norwegian doctors.

"Egypt has been saying it is reluctant to open the border area of fear of Palestinians infiltrating in Sinai. Sinai has been open before Palestinians for tens of years and they never thought of getting in," says Abdul Qadir Yassin, a Palestinian historian. "The tunnels are a normal response to the [border] closure," he adds. "If the borders were consistently open, there would be no tunnels. We are not rats."

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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