Heading to Gaza: Crossing Rafah

By Johnny Barber

The Rafah Crossing from Egypt to Gaza was opened on May 26th for 2 days after being closed for the past 75 days. The opening allowed Palestinian residents of Gaza who were stranded in Egypt or third countries to return home to Gaza. The crossing remained closed for those trying to leave Gaza. The waiting list for people trying to leave has reached 15,000 people. The waiting list includes thousands of medical patients, students, and people traveling to their work or their families abroad. Many of these people have been trapped in Gaza since the Israeli attack last July.

The last time the crossing was opened was in March when just 2,443 people in total were permitted to travel in both directions. While Morsi was in power in Egypt, nearly 41,000 people were traveling through the crossing each month.

My friend Hanaa* had spent 2 years in the U.S. earning a masters degree.

When she left Gaza in the fall of 2013 it took her 6 months to get authorization from Hamas to leave, and an additional month to get a U.S. visa. She came within days of losing a full scholarship. Many other students remained trapped in Gaza and their scholarships were rescinded.

In the first year of her studies, Hanaa’s father died. He needed routine heart surgery but he was not permitted to leave Gaza. He died on the operating table at Shifa Hospital. He was 50 years old. Hanaa could not return to Gaza to be with her family because there was no guarantee that she could enter Gaza, and if she could, there was an even greater risk she wouldn’t be allowed to leave Gaza to return to her studies.

Last July Israel attacked Gaza for 51 days. Hanaa was on the phone with her mom as her family fled her home in the middle of the night. She could hear the bombs and mortars rain down on her neighborhood. Terrorized, her family ran for their lives through the darkened streets. The phone connection was lost. The family survived and days later returned home even as most of the neighborhood was demolished.

Hanaa completed her studies this spring, and planned her return home. I would accompany her. When we left the states, we had no idea if the border would open. Like everyone, we needed to wait, but we needed to be nearby in order to move quickly if the border opened. Egypt has a policy of not allowing Palestinians from Gaza to enter the country unless their purpose is to travel directly to Gaza. Since the border was closed, we were afraid Hanaa would be denied entry at Cairo airport. The Egyptian policy changes like the tide, we heard of people getting trapped in the airport for months, others were deported to Turkey or back to their point of origin. We couldn’t afford to be turned back. We went to Jordan. Jordan also has strict rules about allowing entry to Palestinians from Gaza. The border agent told Hanaa she would not have been allowed into the country if she didn’t have a multiple entry visa from the U.S. in her passport. He assumed she would return to the U.S.

We waited for 3 weeks in Irbid, Jordan. We traveled to the north in order to interview Syrian refugees while we waited for news of the border crossing. On a daily basis, we heard many rumors that ranged from, “The border will open in 2 days,” to “The border is closed- permanently.” We never knew what to do.

We learned that the only time flights to Cairo would be sold to Palestinians was when the border was going to open. Another Palestinian stuck in Jordan told us about a branch of Palestinian Airlines that was still open in Amman. Since the bombing of Gaza’s airport in 2001 they didn’t operate as an airline but as a travel agency. We called them twice everyday and asked them if they had any news regarding Rafah. On Sunday May 24th, they said, “Yes, the border will open.” They received notice from the Egyptians that Rafah Crossing was opening, but only for those returning to Gaza. We immediately dropped everything, packed our bags, and headed to Amman. We purchased 2 one-way tickets to Cairo because once Hanaa left Jordan she would not be able to return. She would not be allowed to remain in Egypt, so like all Palestinians heading to Rafah, she had no choice but to make it across the border.

I still had a problem. Not being Palestinian meant I was required to receive permission from Egypt in order to cross the border at Rafah. After a month of trying to procure permission, I still did not have the necessary document. The Egyptian military, which has been carrying out attacks throughout the Sinai since the coup, now maintains tight control over the region. I was warned that I would be stopped at the first military checkpoint into the Sinai and sent back to Cairo.

In the attempt to arrange permission, I faced a Catch-22 that proved insurmountable. I sent all my documents to the Egyptian consulate in Los Angeles. (This office had been extremely helpful and friendly when I asked for a visa and permission for other trips to Gaza.) After 10 days they called me and told me there was a new policy. I would need to procure security clearance from the U.S. Consulate in Cairo. I had done this on previous trips, it amounted to paying a $50 fee for a notarized piece of paper saying that the U.S. was not responsible for my safety in Gaza and I was going on my own accord. It also noted that I understood that once I entered Gaza the U.S. Consulate would not help me if any issues arose. In the past, the Egyptian consulate provided the visa. This time they told me it would not be possible and returned my paperwork.

Because my understanding was that my friend would not be able to travel freely around Cairo, I called the State Dept. in Washington DC, asking for this travel document in advance. They claimed they could not provide it, that I needed to contact the U.S. Consulate in Cairo. I emailed the consulate my request. The consulate responded:

Unfortunately, issuing such type of letters is not among our services.  If you need a permission or a visa, you should contact the Egyptian Consulate.

I sent a return email and asked them to consider the body of my original email, which came from the Egyptian Consulate and in which I was told to contact The U.S. Consulate in Cairo. The Consulate responded:

Unfortunately, we stopped issuing such letters long time ago.

For weeks I reached out to the main Egyptian Consulate in Washington DC. They never once responded to me. In fact, I couldn’t even get a human being on the telephone. Feeling desperate, I tried the Egyptian Consulate in NYC and was told, “No problem, we are glad to help, send us your documents and the fee for the visa and we will take care of it.” For a moment my hope was renewed, but it wouldn’t last long. After several days they called me back to say they couldn’t help me, and reiterated that a new policy was in place, and that I must contact the U.S. Consulate in Cairo.

Finally, the day before we flew to Jordan, I copied the U.S. Consulate in Cairo and the Egyptian Consulate in the same email and asked why they were both telling me to speak to the other agency. The Egyptian Consulate never responded, but the U.S. Consulate in Cairo emailed:

Despite what may have been done previously, current policy of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is not to issue travel letters and this has been the official policy for over four years.  This isn’t to say the Egyptians do not still require it, but that we do not issue them.

Of course this was not correct as I received this letter on my last trip to Gaza in November 2012, but no need to quibble. In order to cross the border I needed a letter and they refused to issue it.

This runaround is nothing compared to the process that Palestinians from Gaza must endure. Conflicting information, changing rules and regulations, ambiguity, bureaucracy layered upon more bureaucracy, and government delays and inertia are all designed to deter people from even attempting to travel into or out of the confines of Gaza. This deterrence would be amplified exponentially in the coming days at the Rafah Crossing.

The U.S. Consulate in Cairo concluded with this:

With this information, I consider this matter closed from our end. Your entry to Gaza is something that we do not advise and do not support with a travel letter or other assistance.

So I didn’t have permission from Egyptian security because my own government wouldn’t provide it.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region (behind Israel), mostly in the form of 1.3 billion dollars per year in military assistance. It behooves Egypt to do as they are told when it comes to Gaza.

The matter was not closed from my end, yet. Before leaving Jordan I went to the U.S. Consulate in Amman. When I stated I needed permission to enter Gaza at the Rafah Crossing, they claimed they didn’t know what I was talking about, but explained that for a $50 fee I could write my own affidavit, which they notarized and signed off on. It wasn’t what was required, but it was something.

We were heading to Rafah.

* The name has been changed.

- Johnny Barber writes on the Middle East. He can be reached at: [email protected]. (This article was first published in CounterPunch.org and is republished in PalestineChronicle.com with permission from the author)

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