Rafah chaos escalates as Gazans continue to wait for the border to open

on 12 Comments
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.

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  Every time the family was given a window in which to cross, it was retracted.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.”

rafah2The 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.

12 Responses

  1. Kathleen
    June 20, 2011, 10:37 am


  2. Philip Weiss
    June 20, 2011, 10:44 am

    Yes thanks Ruqaya for excellent report from the front line!

  3. Kris
    June 20, 2011, 11:32 am

    This fills me with such despair, and I’m not even in Gaza. There is no end to Israel’s cruelty. I feel as if I’m watching a cat tormenting a baby bird.

    • GuiltyFeat
      June 21, 2011, 5:40 am

      Kris, the Rafah Crossing sits on the border between Gaza and Egypt. Despite the unsubstantiated claims below, Israel’s cruelty has nothing to do with the delays here.

      • Shmuel
        June 21, 2011, 5:52 am


        Without absolving Egyptian governments of their responsibility for the situation in Gaza, Israel’s role (and, yes, cruelty) is decisive, even at Rafah. Why this is so is clearly explained in ch. 6 of the Gisha-PHRI report (“Rafah Crossing: Who Holds the Keys?”), to which I have linked before: link to gisha.org

        As there have been no substantial changes in Egyptian policy since the report was published – political upheaval and grandiose promises notwithstanding – Gisha’s rationale basically stands.

      • GuiltyFeat
        June 21, 2011, 6:55 am

        Dude, there’s been a revolution and a regime change since this report was published.

        It’s time to stop blaming Egyptian policies regarding Gaza on Israel. Israel is not responsible for Egypt’s relationship with Hamas.

        I think that even Gisha might admit that their report is no longer current.

        More recently Gisha welcomed the Egyptian decision to relax restrictions at Rafah saying:

        “If Israel wants a say concerning passage via Rafah, it should implement its commitment to allow Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank.” – link to gisha.org

        In other words, Israel doesn’t currently have a say concerning passage via Rafah according to Gisha.

      • Shmuel
        June 21, 2011, 7:25 am


        Has there really been a regime change in Egypt? The military is in charge, and they are as (more?) subject to US and Israeli pressure as Mubarak was. The changes at Rafah have been mostly cosmetic – in an attempt to placate Egyptian public opinion, while reassuring Israel and the US that it will be the same old same old at Rafah. Were Israel to remove its objections, Egyptian restrictions would disappear in a flash. The same logic that applied to Mubarak’s lousy policy thus applies to the Egyptian military’s lousy policy.

        Of course Gisha welcomed the decision to relax restrictions at Rafah, but that doesn’t mean that it has observed any significant change in Egyptian policy. The passage you cite from the Gisha press release actually confirms Israel’s effective control over Rafah (through the veto it has exercised over the implementation of the AMA), saying that if Israel wants to keep Rafah closed, it should allow travel to the WB – not because it currently lacks control, but because that is its obligation.

      • patm
        June 21, 2011, 8:44 am

        Guilty, just out of interest, why haven’t you answered my question of June 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm — on the “London is turning into Israel’s laboratory in preparation for 2012 summer Olympics” thread.

        My question was this: “Why on earth should we believe this [Mickey Levy] fellow when he tells a reporter that Israeli “officers had to be sure they could see a suicide vest or explosives before they opened fire?”

        In case you didn’t see my reply to you here it is again.


        Guilty, In the Guardian article you cite, it states that Major General Mickey Levy, was the police commander in Jerusalem from 2000 to 2004.

        I’ve been checking Mickey Levy out:

        Here is a documented account of one incident that occurred on his watch:

        “In October 2000, Israeli police used live ammunition against unarmed civilians demonstrating their solidarity with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Thirteen Palestinians, of whom twelve were Israeli citizens, were shot dead.

        An official commission, headed by Judge Theodor Or, was appointed to look into the events which came to mark a dramatic deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations inside the country.

        In 2003, the Or Commission confirmed that the police used “excessive” and unjustifiable force, reported that the police viewed the country’s Arab citizens as “enemies” and documented a pattern of “prejudice and neglect” towards them by Israel’s establishment.4

        While the Or Commission recommended a number of measures to redress the sharp disparities between Jews and Arabs in the country, families of the victims regarded the report as a whitewash.

        The Commission failed to examine the forensic evidence in each of the killings, and none of the killers, nor any responsible official, were ever brought to justice.5

        By 2007, according to Elie Rekhess of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, there remained “yawning” gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel and “the bottom line” is “that the conclusions and recommendations of the 2003 Or Commission remain conspicuously unimplemented.”6

        link to thejerusalemfund.org

      • James North
        June 21, 2011, 9:15 am

        Shmuel: Thank you for this and your other recent comments; you characteristically elevate the level of discussion here. You bring hard facts plus a humanist perspective to the debate. Please keep on keeping on.

      • Shmuel
        June 21, 2011, 9:57 am

        Thanks, James.

  4. Lydda Four Eight
    June 20, 2011, 12:27 pm

    remember it is not just travel to Rafah that is denied. travel from Gaza to West Bank is also denied and has been denied for decades.

    i currently have a story of a beautiful woman who is desperately seeking permission from Israel to travel from Gaza to Ramallah to get married.

    can anyone help?

  5. chet
    June 20, 2011, 1:01 pm

    Doesn’t this mess at the Rafah crossing have the smell of US – Israeli obstructionism surrounding it?

    With the huge political uprising in Egypt, the new political establishment had to give in to the massive rejection of the populace of the border closing, opposition to which, I am certain, the US and Israel recognized as futile.

    Now that the Egyptian situation has stabilized, has the US threatened a reduction in its foreign aid to Egypt if unimpeded crossing at Rafah is allowed with the rationale that anything that causes pain to the Gazans is a net benefit to Israel?

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