Hundreds of Palestinians gathered at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt over the weekend, waiting for their turn to be let through the checkpoint. The three-day opening allowed medical patients, students, and travelers with foreign passports to cross.
Rafah has largely remained closed since the ousting of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The Rafah crossing opened for only 32 days in 2015 and for 48 days in 2016. Under the decade-long Israeli-Egyptian siege, movement remains limited for Gaza’s population of roughly two million.
For many patients, leaving through Rafah is the only way to receive treatment abroad as Gaza has limited medical resources. And, the only other exit out of Gaza, the northern Erez crossing into Israel, is more tightly controlled.
With an unemployment rate of 42 percent, the highest in the world, Gaza’s youth often try their luck as international students and leave the besieged coastal strip to study abroad.
With huge numbers of Palestinians desperate to leave Gaza, travelers typically pay an exorbitant amount of money to local brokers who coordinate their passage with Egyptian authorities. It’s been reported previously that Egyptian authorities ask for bribes of up to $10,000.
Mondoweiss spoke with some hopeful travelers about their experience trying to get across the border from Gaza to Egypt while they waited in line.
“I fractured my shoulder. I was injured during the war and I’ve been trying to get treatment in Gaza but the doctors don’t know what to do. It’s not working out; they don’t know how to treat it. They keep saying I only need a massage. I can’t use my hand. That’s why I’m going to Egypt to see if they have alternative methods to treat it.
The doctors tried to treat my arm with electric pads but it didn’t work. What are electric pads supposed to do for me? Relocate the shoulder back? No, it’s not!
I can’t afford to pay $3,500 for coordination [bribes that are often given to Egyptian officials]. I’m going to try my luck to see if I can get in.
When I tried to get [financial] assistance [for disability], they said I need to be missing a limb to get it. So I have to cut off my arm in order to get assistance. [Laughs].
I was arrested and detained by the Israelis for two weeks during the war because I didn’t want to leave my home when we were ordered to evacuate Khuza’a, so they took me with them. They took us in their tank. We were blindfolded so I couldn’t see but a piece of metal hit my shoulder, which fractured it.
I was detained in Ashkelon [in Israel]; there were about 10, 15 of us there; they stripped us naked. They took us back to Gaza through Erez.”
Bilal Muhammad Said, 23
“I’ve been trying to get to Istanbul for the past eight months for my university studies. I’ve already missed a semester. The first time I tried going through Rafah, I paid $2,500 [in a bribe] but it didn’t work. The number of people who were trying to leave was huge so they said, “Just come next time.” We’re not sure if we’re going to be able to leave. This time I’ve faked a medical report to leave as a patient. It’s very hard to register our names on the list because we don’t fall into the specific categories.
I’m number 25,875 on the patient list. I can’t wait for long so that’s why I registered as a patient. Maybe I won’t cross this time; I might be able to pass in the fifth time that the border opens. We heard from our friends that once you cross to the Egyptian side, you have to still pay another $2,500 to [the Egyptian] authorities there.
I’m not planning to come back because of the miseries I’ve been through and because I’m afraid I’ll be stuck here again. I’ve paid a lot of money; this isn’t normal for a student to go through- to pay a lot of money and to fake a medical report in order to get out. My brother who is studying in Istanbul is afraid to return because he might get stuck. If he gets stuck, his residence in Turkey might expire. He left when Morsi was president; it was better then.
I don’t want to study here because I know I’ll end up unemployed. All the youth are dreaming of leaving to get away.”
Samira Fawzi Zoroub, mother of Ali Mahmoud Zoroub, 14
“We need to go to Egypt to get Ali’s medical report so we can try to get treatment for him in Israel rather than Egypt. Because you never know when the Egyptian border will open, and the condition in his second eye deteriorated because he couldn’t get out [through Rafah] to see the doctor.
He needs medical treatment for his eye which isn’t available in Gaza. He previously underwent surgery in Cairo but he couldn’t go back for a check-up, so we visited the doctors in Gaza, but they made his condition worse because they don’t have the proper equipment.
We were supposed to go to Israel but the doctors in Gaza refused to give us an application to fill out, saying that they could take care of his condition.”
Jozet Aboul Kheir, 40
I’m number 60 but number 100 already left. They keep the Egyptians last. I live in Gaza but I need to visit my family in Egypt. I’ve been trying to travel to Egypt for eleven years but because I don’t have connections, I can’t ever get through. You have to pay to get in.
They prioritize people. I have an Egyptian passport; I should be a priority, but that’s not the case.
Nothing is certain. We were supposed to be on the first bus to leave but all the other buses have already left and we’re left behind. I’m very upset and sad; I’ll start making problems soon because I’m fed up.
The situation has been getting worse over the years. They say relations are improving between Egypt and Gaza, but they’re not.
Walid Al Dauor
“I paid $4,000 to be placed on a special bus with [Mohammed] Dahlan’s coordination. I borrowed the money to pay. I’ve been accepted at a university in Norway and I’ve been waiting for a year to cross.”
“I worked for the PLO so it’s difficult for me to leave. I received a permit from the Egyptian ministry to enter. I’ve been begging [the authorities at Rafah] to let me through since this morning; I’m waiting for them to say yes or no.
I also received a Jordanian permit to leave but I was rejected at Erez. I can’t get out from anywhere. The medical treatment that my son needs isn’t available in Gaza. He has epilepsy; he’s 24 years old and can’t leave the house. He has a seizure once a week. I need to go to Egypt just to get medication for him and I would come back right away.
I’ve been trying to leave Gaza to get medication for him for two months. He’s been ill for seven years; he’s my only son. I paid 300 NIS [$80 in bribes] to enter Egypt but they [the Egyptian authorities] tricked me.”