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Trapped in Gaza: Rafah Crossing Closed to Palestinians Soon After Egyptian Pledge to Reopen It

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In the Gaza Strip, the Hamas government has asked Egypt to drop restrictions on the Rafah border crossing, just days after the checkpoint opened last week. In a major policy shift, Egypt’s transition government had unsealed the Rafah border after years of closure under ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. But less than a week later, Egypt imposed a cap of 400 people per day, turning back busloads of people that had been cleared for passage. On Saturday, the border was sealed completely, causing angry Palestinians to storm the gates in protests. Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar were one of the few teams of foreign journalists to witness the scene at the Rafah border, and they file this report from the Gaza Strip. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In the Gaza Strip, the Hamas government has asked Egypt to drop restrictions on the Rafah border crossing, just days after the checkpoint opened last week. In a major policy shift, Egypt’s transition government had unsealed the Rafah border after years of closure under ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But less than a week later, Egypt imposed a cap of 400 people per day, turning back busloads of people who had been cleared for passage. On Saturday, the border was sealed completely, causing angry Palestinians to storm the gates in protest.

Well, Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar are in the Gaza Strip and were one of the few teams of foreign journalists to witness the scene at the Rafah border. They filed this report.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Outrage in Gaza. Palestinians trying to leave through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt find that they are still trapped inside the Strip. Last week, the Egyptian government announced it had permanently reopened the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only border not controlled by Israel. The announcement was welcomed by Gazans who have been living under a severe blockade imposed by Israel for the last five years. The Mubarak government cooperated with the siege by tightly restricting movement through Rafah. Three months after Mubarak’s ouster, the post-revolutionary government in Egypt said it had permanently reopened the crossing. But the reality on the ground tells a very different story.

BADREYA: [translated] The Egyptians told us the crossing is open and that they’re letting in elderly people and women. They haven’t let in anything. I’m going to have surgery that I myself am paying for. For three days I’ve been coming to this crossing for no reason.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For the past few days, hundreds of Palestinians have traveled from across Gaza to the Rafah border crossing hoping to enter Egypt, only to be turned away.

PALESTINIAN MAN ON BUS: [translated] As you can see, we come and we try. This one is closed, this one is open. The one gate we have is the Egyptian gate. We appeal to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces under the leadership of Field Marshal Tantawi to open the crossing and ease the Palestinian situation.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Would-be travelers had many reasons for wanting to leave Gaza: the sick seeking medical treatment, students studying overseas, family members trying to reunite with loved ones. To many of them, the border opening was an empty promise, and their anger is palpable.

ASMAA ABU MEZIED: Every day we came, and they just — they say the borders are closed. And we are asking why they are closed. You know, we heard on the news that the Egyptian borders are open. So where is the question? What’s the problem? I want someone to answer me. What’s the problem?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Gazans are left to wonder why the Egyptian government pledged to ease restrictions on travel and then not follow through.

MOHAMMED OMER: The Rafah crossing has been the only place for many Palestinians getting in and out of the Gaza Strip

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Mohammed Omer is an award-winning Palestinian journalist based in Rafah.

MOHAMMED OMER: I think Egypt is under international pressure from the United States and Israel to shut the border once again and to make restrictions on the Palestinians.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There are more than 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza, a 25-mile-long strip of land and one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Israel tightened its blockade on the territory in 2007 after Hamas was elected to power and subsequently seized control of the territory. Ghazi Hamad is the deputy minister of foreign affairs for Hamas.

GHAZI HAMAD: You know, the only passage for Gaza is Rafah crossings, and we still have restrictions and limits on these crossings. But the other borders in the east and west and the north, it is controlled by the Israeli occupation. So it’s not easy for the Palestinians to move freely, because there is some political interests, either from United States, from Israel, from other countries, trying to put more hard conditions in Gaza and to continue the policy of blockade and siege and collective sanction against people. So, they feel that they are still living in a big prison. And despite that there’s some movement in and out, but we feel that we have the taste of a prison still in Gaza.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Israeli-imposed blockade and tight restrictions on freedom of travel in and out of Gaza mean that many Palestinians have never left the territory.

MOHAMMED OMER: There is a psychological impact that you feel — everybody feels trapped, in a way, inside the Gaza prison, which is true. In a way, you have here — we are on the beach of Rafah. You have the Israeli navy. You can see it, the Israeli navy, warships over there. And in the north, you see that the Israeli border is sealed. There is no one who can get out. The east, there is Israeli border. And the south, there is the Egyptian border. So everybody feels trapped inside the Gaza Strip, particularly those young men between the age of 18 to 40 who are not allowed to get outside without security coordination. Egypt called it visa, but I don’t call it a visa. In fact, it’s called security coordination, and it takes a long time for you, as a young man, to get outside of the Gaza Strip.

NADER ELKHUZUNDAR: I tried many times to leave. Like, I got admission from different universities, like in Canada and the U.S. I just can’t leave, because I was denied entry, like on both sides, the Egyptian and the Israeli.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Nader Elkhuzundar is a 23-year-old university graduate. Like many Palestinian men his age, he has been unable to leave Gaza his entire life.

NADER ELKHUZUNDAR: They just deny entry, and they don’t give any clear reason. Like they’re just, “Sorry, but we can’t let you in. Go back to your home.” I’ve tried for the past six years. I’m still trying, like I’m waiting admission from a university in the U.K. And I hope that I will be granted entry, so I can at least, like for once maybe, see the other world, see the other side of the border, and see the outer world.

MOHAMMED OMER: In many ways, you see some of the youth really having hard times. And what is the option for them? They feel isolated. Some of them, they doubt if there is a world even outside the Rafah crossing. When you talk to them, they say, “Is there really world outside the Rafah crossing? Maybe it’s all fake, what we see on television.” But, you know, when you tell them that there is indeed world, and there are people who are supporting Palestine, and there are people who are supporting peace and justice in the region, they doubt it, because they don’t see it.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Egyptian government’s decision to reopen the border crossing on a permanent basis was hailed by many as the first concrete step in reversing years of Mubarak-era policies towards the Palestinians and Egypt’s complicity in the siege. Nagham Mohanna is a journalist and filmmaker.

NAGHAM MOHANNA: We were with the Egyptians in their revolution. Everybody — you can see that the TV channels only on Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya following what is happening in Egypt. For weeks we didn’t turn the channels. We were so happy when we heard that they succeeded in their revolution, because we said that we will have some effects on our society, on our place in Gaza.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Salama Baraka is the director of the borders and crossings police in Gaza. He said that just a few days after Egyptian authorities reopened the border, they began severely restricting travel for Palestinians.

SALAMA BARAKA: [translated] For instance, they said that the technical staff at the Egyptian crossing was not prepared to receive this number of travelers, who were no more than 400. This is obviously an unreasonable answer. Rafah is an international crossing point that has facilitated the movement of thousands of travelers for years without any problems.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Day after day, hundreds of Palestinians traveled to the border in the anticipation that they might be able to get out. But as the week progressed, the situation only got worse. Fewer Palestinians were being let through, the approval process was vague, and there was little communication. This culminated on Saturday when Egyptian authorities suddenly closed the border without warning. Ayoub Abu Shaar, the director of the Rafah crossing from the Palestinian side, made repeated phone calls to his Egyptian counterparts to find out what was happening, but he received no response.

AYOUB ABU SHAAR: [translated] We tried to reach the Egyptian side, but until now they have not responded to us at all. We haven’t been informed of any decision from the Egyptians about today or tomorrow, or about specific hours. Nothing. The closing is a complete surprise. The circumstances of the closing are a complete surprise. We weren’t expecting it at all. I don’t know why this step was taken by the Egyptian side, even more so because we were not informed of this decision.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: With the border closed and no word on why or when it would open, tensions quickly escalated. Dozens of men, women and children gathered at a large metal gate in the no man’s land between Egypt and Gaza. A dramatic scene unfolded as they banged on the gate, shouting to be let across. The crowd swelled, and people began to push heavily on the large metal doors until they finally broke open. Egyptian soldiers armed with assault rifles, electric batons and shields lined up to guard the border. A large wooden scaffolding had been constructed over the main gate. Egyptian authorities claimed they needed to renovate the crossing. Palestinian protesters shouted and chanted at the soldiers to let them through. Journalist Mohammed Omer describes the scene.

MOHAMMED OMER: He’s screaming that in this ambulance is his child who’s 12 years old. “Open the crossing. I can’t watch my son die in front of my eyes,” he just said. He is trying to convince the Egyptian officers, but unfortunately, the Egyptian officer seems to be having a high command officials who said that the crossing should be closed immediately.

We are in no man’s land, basically. This is the Egyptian gate. This is the Palestinian gate. Palestinians are traveling that side. They are not allowed to travel today. They say, “We prefer to die, not to be humiliated by our brothers and sisters in Egypt.” People are chanting. Everybody here wanted to leave to Egypt since Egypt announced the opening of the crossing. Going through those people, we find many of those people who are really desperate to leave for the first time, when they heard that Egypt has opened the border since the siege was established in 2006. Everybody is saying that, “Hey, there is an agreement on the ground. We have legitimacy from the youth of the Tahrir Square. We are all one hand. We coordinate with each other and break the siege on Gaza.” Unfortunately, the officers are telling them that we have instructions to keep this crossing closed for the time being.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The protesters were eventually escorted back by Palestinian security, and the border remained sealed. There was no word on when it would open again, and people were left not knowing when they could leave. The next day, hundreds of Palestinians again made their way to the Rafah crossing. The border gates were closed, but this time from the Palestinian side. Frustration and anger mounted.

ASMAA ABU MEZIED: I want someone to tell me why it is closed. Why the media — if the media is telling lies. Where’s the truth? I want to know, where is the truth? And if it is closed or open, I want to know. We are, as a citizen, Palestinian citizen, we need to speak with someone. But nobody is answering. Everyone is blaming the other side.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Egyptians had opened their side of the border, but Hamas announced it would keep the Palestinian side closed until the Egyptian government relaxed entry restrictions and allowed more Palestinians in per day. Torn between the two sides, the people of Gaza are left trapped, with no way out.

AHMED ABU ERGAILA: It’s our right to live in dignity. It’s not a problem of business or national interest or commerce. It’s an issue of dignity. And for that, we fight every day, against the Egyptians, against the siege, and against our people, here on the gate.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For Democracy Now!, I’m Sharif Abdel Kouddous with Nicole Salazar in the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

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