Waiting at Rafah. (All Photos: Ruqaya Izzidien)
Arms grappled through the black metal barrier that separates Palestinians from the Rafah terminal. A barrier which only ever shifts to let through ambulances, press and- very occasionally- a busload of travellers, successfully making it out of Gaza.
Elderly ladies wait for hours brandishing their passports through the bars. Welcome to the new, improved, siege-free Gaza.
When the gate opens, it traps those loitering beside it between its two frames, and people hurriedly look for a gap in the guards’ attention through which they could make a break for it. Those who found a seemingly unguarded exit route where manhandled back behind the fence.
Currently officials at the Rafah border are working their way through an ever-growing backlog of registered travellers. Until the quota of up to 400 travellers per day is lifted, the mayhem at Rafah will only intensify. “I know today is the 18th June,” a guard announced over a loudspeaker, “but today only people registered to cross between 6 and 10 of June will be crossing.”
When the border closed at around 2pm that day, it came with another announcement via loudspeaker, “this isn’t from us; it’s because of Egypt.”
When the Rafah ‘reopening’ was first announced in April, Gazans were promised a border that would permit women, children and the elderly to travel freely, as well as men who had registered to in advance. Currently none of this is true.
Qasem and Qayis Farah are two British-Palestinian children who are have been trying, with their mother, Wesam, to get home to Sheffield in the UK. I first met them on June 16.
“We are trying to get out of this terrible place” eight-year-old Qasem explained. Every time the family was given a window in which to cross, it was retracted. Qasem added, “I miss my dad, I miss all my friends, I miss my best friend, I miss my house, I miss my home; home sweet home.”
The Farah family made it through the Rafah barrier but after waiting for six hours, they were returned to Gaza. They were back at the Rafah crossing when it reopened on 18 June, determined to cross once more.
“When we finally got through last time,” Qasem said, “they just took us back and we had to go through the border again. They just surrounded us and every time we wanted to get through the guards would tell us that your passport is not in, you’ve not got any permission to come through.”
The line at the Rafah crossing.
This experience is typical for Gazans wanting to cross into Egypt. Shahd Abusalama has a summer leadership programme scholarship in the University of Delaware, USA. She was registered to cross the border on June 18, five days before her flight out of Cairo.
“I feel so worried, I’ve been working hard to get this scholarship and everything depends on the border. I can’t leave and move freely, it’s really hard. After the Egyptians said that Rafah border is going to be open permanently, we had lots of hope that we would be able to leave freely and have no more difficulties but everything was an illusion. The reality is far different to what the media and leaders say, the reality is that sometimes the border is open, sometimes it is closed, and sometimes not all buses are allowed to enter. I’ve heard of people who come to the border every day for a whole week in order to enter. It’s like a torment. It makes me feel like I’m less than human.”
But inhumane border regulations are just part of the humiliation that Gazans face at the border. Before being allowed to enter the Gazan Rafah terminal, they must wait in a metal shed, filled with plastic chairs and toilets which are so smutty-looking that they make you want to wash your eyes for just looking at them. A Gazan must stay seated:
“Sit in your chairs and an explanation will be given to you,” the loudspeaker rang out. A Gazan cannot challenge the guards without being escorted from the building. It was like being transported into George Orwell’s mind; people are crammed into an eerie shed which still bears bullet holes I could fit my fist through as the Rafah sub-culture takes hold of everyone by the wrist.
“If you want to get out, sit down in your chairs” the loudspeaker dictated again. Shahd Abusalama’s father looked at me, “This is the system; this is their system.”
Qasem Farah recalled, “We had to stay sitting down because if we didn’t, they would take us back to the border. I don’t think we need permission, we just came in to see our family.”
Border control forces are overwhelmed by the numbers crossing and while the travellers quota remains (currently permitting between 300 and 400 out of Gaza per day), the situation will only escalate as Palestinian authorities attempt to work their way through the ever-increasing backlog of registered travellers.
Shahd Abusalama was sent back from the border, twice, like hundreds of other Palestinians. She is still trying to make it out in time for her scholarship.
Ruqaya Izzidien is a British journalist and cartoonist based in Gaza.