RAFAH â€” Although Egypt lies a mere 800 metres away, Naim Mohammed may wait hours or even days to get there. For Palestinians in this impoverished border town, very little has changed since Israel’s historic evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza.
Throughout August, around a thousand Palestinians arrive daily at the Rafah Crossing between southern Gaza and Egypt. At best, maybe 600 will have crossed by the end of the day after an exhausting wait and countless security checks.
“I live in Jabaliya which is only 45 kilometres away, but it has taken me 24 hours since leaving my home,” complains Mohammed, hoping not to miss his plane to Saudi Arabia which leaves in two days’ time. “The European officials who congratulate Israel for its withdrawal from Gaza should come here and see that there is no reason to celebrate.” A long line of taxis, most of them piled high with suitcases and full of passengers, waits patiently in the fierce summer heat to get the go-ahead from the Israeli control tower to move forward, one by one, to the crossing itself.
“As a Palestinian citizen, I would like to feel like I’m under the authority of my own state, and not the Israelis. I think it is our right,” says Hassan Helmi, 57, travelling with his wife to Egypt to visit their family.
Standing next to him is 70-year-old Ahmad Al Masri who still remembers when it was possible to take a day trip to Egypt and be back in Gaza by nightfall. “Since 2000 when the Intifada broke out, we have been at the mercy of the Israelis. They decide whether or not to open the crossing, and whether I can cross or my neighbour has to stay here,” he explains.
Further along the line, Tareq and Aiman are also waiting to cross. They have spent the summer at home in Gaza City and are due to return to Ukraine where they have been studying for the last year. But, given that both of them are males between the ages of 16 and 35, an age bracket considered by Israel as “high risk,” the security checks are much more stringent. “Let’s hope the next time we come on holiday everything will be different, but I don’t think so. We are an occupied people and this is our life,” sighs Tareq.
Most of those waiting in line are on their way to other Arab countries. But some only want to visit their family in neighbouring Jordan which, ironically, they can only reach by passing through Egypt, meaning a journey of hours is stretched into a trip of several days. Ziyad Habib has worked for the last 25 years as a taxi driver at the Rafah border crossing and believes he has seen it all.
His job is to ferry passengers and their suitcases the final 500 metres to where the Israeli soldiers are on guard.
“Any excuse at all and they just shut the gate and leave us without work. They don’t trust us or the Egyptians,” he shrugs.
Before catching the taxis which will transport them to the other side, Palestinian travellers have to wait in two lines, one for men, the other for women, where they hand over their travel documents and wait for approval.
“If it was up to us, people would cross over in minutes, but the sad reality is that at the moment, the Palestinian police control hardly anything that happens in Rafah,” admits Khaled Abu Yasser, a police official in charge of passenger control.
For Yasser and his co-workers, the Israelis stationed in Rafah have given absolutely no indication that they are planning to leave any time soon.
“Let’s hope they leave Rafah one day, but I doubt it. For them, we are just terrorists. They took all the settlers out of Gaza but they will stay here to control us,” sighs Sami Darlish, who has been a policeman for 28 years. Although he has worked at the crossing for six years, he has never been across the border into Egypt. “Every day I see people travelling but Israel still hasn’t given me the necessary permit to be able to visit Egypt,” he shrugs. “So what reason do I have to celebrate the end of the occupation in Gaza?”