By Omar H. Rahman
RAFAH, Egypt (Ma’an) — The siege on the Gaza Strip, maintained by Israel and Egypt for the past four years, will soon be significantly relaxed for would-be travelers, a decision that has Palestinians on both sides of the border waiting anxiously.
From students to tunnel smugglers, opening Gaza will transform lives drastically impacted by years of isolation. On Wednesday, Egypt announced that the crossing would open regularly for some travelers, six days a week, starting on Saturday.
Egypt’s transitional government has made opening the border with the beleaguered coastal territory a mainstay of its post-revolution foreign policy, along with mediating national reconciliation between Palestinian political factions and thawing relations with Iran.
Its announcement that the crossing would open Saturday under the regulations in place prior to the 2007 Hamas takeover was well received, and will see Palestinian women of all ages exempt from the necessity of visas, as well as men under 18 or over 40.
The exemption also applies to Palestinians entering Egypt for study as long as they have proof of affiliation to an Egyptian university, Egypt’s state news agency MENA announced.
The policy of the deposed government of Hosni Mubarak to cooperate with Israel in sealing off Gaza was highly controversial in the region and widely unpopular at home. Political and military authorities now in power appear to be bolstering support for their transitional government by focusing on issues of domestic import, potentially at the expense of Egypt’s strategic relationships with Israel and the United States, both of whom oppose the move.
“All the people on the Gaza Strip are waiting for the lifting of the siege. We are all cheering the opening of the borders,” says Mahmoud Youssef, 68, a retired schoolteacher from Gaza living in Egypt.
Palestinians hoping for Egypt’s move to open Rafah have had a long wait.
Mahmoud, who holds an Egyptian-issued travel document for Palestinian refugees, has made the trip to the border five times in recent weeks, hoping desperately to enter Gaza and see his wife and son. Each time, however, he had been denied entry.
“Unfortunately, it’s still a tragedy at the border. What has been announced has not been executed on the ground,” says Mahmoud. “A lot of Palestinians have come from Cairo and have been denied access.”
Military officials on the ground, who were unwilling to disclose details ahead of the announcement, had said they were prepared to open the borders permanently at anytime and did not require any major preparations. The decision to open the borders, they said, remained in the hands of top officials.
Despite the announcement of some concrete information, however, the practicalities of opening the border and what that will mean remain somewhat shadowy. Reports that the categories of civilian who will be permitted to cross will expand offer one scenario, in which permission from Hamas and Egyptian officials will still need to be sought. The process for men between 18 and 40 also remains strict.
Most Palestinians living in Egypt have been entirely cut off from their relatives living only a short distance away. For those who have been estranged at great length, the decision to open the border cannot move fast enough.
“The siege has separated me from my family, the friends I grew up with, and it is very frustrating because they are only a few hours away and I cannot go and they cannot come,” says Khail Abu Samhadana, 22, a Palestinian student living in Cairo.
Khalil has not visited his family in Gaza in two and a half years for fear of getting stuck on his return, a misfortune not uncommon here.
“During vacations from school, everyone gets to go home, to other parts of Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. And I cannot go anywhere. Me and a few other people from Gaza,” he adds gloomily.
In El-Arish, the largest city in northern Sinai, residents are also awaiting the opening of the border. El-Arish, which sits less than 30 minutes from Gaza, is a blend of Egyptian, Palestinian, and Bedouin influences, and its economy is closely linked with that of the coastal enclave.
“When the border is open legally, profits here increase by upwards of 40 percent,” says Gawad Abu Shabaan, owner of one of the largest retailers in downtown El-Arish.
“We are excited here. The soul of El-Arish is Palestine. It depends on the demands of Palestine. All the markets get higher profits when the Palestinians are allowed into Egypt and Arish,” he adds.
There is concern, however, over how the border will operate and if it will be open on a regular basis. When Palestinian militants blew up a section of the wall in January 2008, nearly half of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents poured into Egypt in a desperate scramble for supplies.
“When they blew up the wall, the merchants here shut down all the markets because it was chaos. There were too many Palestinians and there was no security. We just couldn’t meet the incredible demand,” says Abu Shabaan, himself a Palestinian from Gaza.
Under the blockade, El-Arish has been the hub of illegal merchandise smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels. As the blockade has eased slightly on basic goods over the past few months, the lucrative tunnel industry has been hit hardest, but has remained intact as a vital source for commodities that remain prohibited, like construction materials and farming products.
Abed, a smuggler with family ties to El-Arish and Gaza, explains how the illegal traders have been adapting to news of the border opening.
“We are not too concerned because we are shifting our business to the items that remain illegal: building materials, cars, petrol and gas, and of course guns. These things are very profitable,” he says, pointing out a lorry on its way to deliver construction supplies to a tunnel.
Security in the Sinai has been scant since the revolution that began on January 25 ousted Hosni Mubarak and his regime. Authorities have focused their energies on shoring up control in the more populous parts of the country, dealing with heavy sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians, and transitioning to a more democratic system.
The government of Egypt is also overseeing the melding of the Palestinian political system into a single unit again, after four years of division between the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government, on the other hand, has taken a hardline position in relation to Palestinian reconciliation, making it clear that opening Gaza borders will only be carried out in the south.
For Palestinians living in Gaza this reality mars an otherwise joyous occasion. These people fully understand that the siege on Gaza means far more than having an open border with Egypt: it is their connection to other parts of Palestine and their countrymen living only a few kilometers away.
Ebba Rizq, a 20-year old student, has never left Gaza. She has never visited her aunts and uncles living in the West Bank.
“I really wish I can go there some day. Before traveling to the rest of the world, you should be able to see your own country first.”
Ebba is thankful to the Egyptians behind the revolution for never forgetting the Palestinians, even at the most intense moments in Tahrir Square. Nonetheless, in her opinion the opening of the border at Rafah will not end the suffering of Gaza.
“It won’t really end the siege because [the] Rafah crossing is not everything. It won’t open Erez [the border crossing with Israel] that will connect us to our own people in the West Bank or open the seas for our fisherman,” she says, adding, “For now, though, it is a good start.”
Omar Rahman is a freelance journalist covering the socio-political issues of the Middle East region. His articles have appeared in Foreign Policy, the Guardian, and Al-Jazeera