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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Gazans at border with Egypt seek to escape blockade

Travellers pay up to $2,000 for 'co-ordination' to cross the only border post not controlled by Israel

Palestinians load bags on top of a taxi before travelling to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip AFP
Palestinians load bags on top of a taxi before travelling to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip AFP

Separated from the impatient crowd by a flimsy barrier, Palestinian policemen read out names, their voices barely audible above the din.

Those called file forward, relieved to at last be leaving the crowded and ramshackle Gaza Strip for neighbouring Egypt, some for the first time.

Many have a single large suitcase or holdall as they sit on benches in the gymnasium which serves as a waiting room in the southern Gazan town of Khan Younis.

From there, they board a bus for the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, about 20 minutes away.

Since mid-May, after five long years during which the frontier was largely closed, the Egyptian authorities have opened the crossing several days a week.

About 200 people make the trip in a day, a small number compared to the nearly two million people crammed into Gaza.

Yet it represents one of only two routes out of the strip and the only one not controlled by Israel.

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Since Hamas seized control of the 360 square kilometre territory in 2007, Israel has maintained a crippling blockade, imposing tight restrictions on people crossing.

For much of that time Egypt opened its Rafah border intermittently, meaning those leaving Gaza do not know if and when they may be able to return.

Mosleh Derby, 21, waits in the sunshine, watching the tea and cigarette peddlers.

A medical student in Cairo, he had not been home to Gaza for three years until June for fear of becoming stuck there.

Despite registering for his return journey with the Gazan authorities in advance, Mr Derby said he had already missed the first two weeks of class.

Some students, who paid extra fees, travelled earlier, he claimed.

Inside the gymnasium, many travellers reluctantly admit having paid between $1,500 and $2,000 for what they call "co-ordination" to travel.

Palestinians wait to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip AFP
Palestinians wait to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip AFP

Hamas interior ministry spokesman Iyad Al Bozum denied that Palestinian border officials took payments.

"But some citizens can get in touch with officials on the Egyptian side of the crossing and make it easier for them to leave," he said.

Mr Bozum said there is a list of thousands of Gazans waiting to exit the territory, who are notified online when their turn comes.

Since president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in 2013 and his Muslim Brotherhood movement quashed, Egypt has kept its Gaza border largely closed.

Cairo accuses Hamas, which began as an offshoot of the Brotherhood, of supporting militants fighting its security forces in the largely uninhabited Sinai region bordering Gaza.

Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed.

Egypt destroyed many smuggling tunnels under the border, exacerbating Gaza's isolation.

But relations between Hamas and Egypt have thawed somewhat, allowing Rafah to be opened regularly since May.

Only students, those in need of medical treatment, Muslim pilgrims or people with foreign citizenship or residence papers are allowed through.

The flow of travellers remains a trickle compared to the past, said Abdallah Shahin, 32, who has been a porter at the crossing for 15 years.

Under Mr Morsi, he said, "every day, 30 buses crossed the border, it was about 1,800 people".

Nowadays, he says, "those who leave do not come back, they emigrate".

Such is the dream of an architecture student who gave his name only as Khalil.

He wants to go back to Germany, where he was born but never obtained citizenship.

"One way, no return," he said.

"Abroad it's different ... someone creative can succeed."

Mosleh Derby, 21, accompanied by his parents and a friend, waits to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip AFP
Mosleh Derby, 21, accompanied by his parents and a friend, waits to travel to Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip AFP

Two of his friends already left, he said, calculating the cost for himself at more than $3,000, including at least $2,000 to get across the Rafah border.

At the departure point the bus starts its engine to a cacophony of farewells.

"On the Egyptian side, if all goes well, you wait for around six hours. Otherwise you spend the night there and sleep at the border post," said Mr Derby, the medical student.

The forced overnight stay is because of a Sinai curfew, an Egyptian border official said.

The remaining trip to Cairo is a long one, because of repeated stops at security checkpoints.

"Before 2007 I used to arrive in Cairo in six hours, now it takes at least 48 hours," said Hosam Al Ajuri, 35, travelling to complete his history studies in Egypt.

Left behind in Khan Younis is Aida Baraka, 52, who has been waiting since June for permission to visit her sick niece in Jordan.

Although her name was not one of those posted online, she came to try her luck anyway.

"Where is the humanity?" she asked.

She accused Egypt of not doing enough to help.

"The nearest ones to us are the Egyptians," she said. "I want them to be human."