The world is watching in awe as events unfold in Egypt, including residents of Gaza who are closely monitoring the uprising and expressing their empathy for the people of Egypt. The events taking place in Egypt, however, have a direct impact on the residents of Gaza. They illustrate the fragility of the situation in the Strip and how vulnerable freedom of movement really is. Gaza’s border with Egypt is the only remaining operating crossing for people since Israel imposed a closure on the other crossings (land, sea and air), allowing passage only in exceptional humanitarian circumstances.
The Rafah border crossing opened last June, following the flotilla incident, after being closed for nearly four years. However, it was closed again in late January, until further notice, due to security concerns in the Sinai Peninsula. While Egypt and the Hamas government administer the border crossing by way of ad-hoc agreements, Israel also exerts partial control of the crossing through its control of the Palestinian population registry (in other words, Palestinians who wish to cross must be listed in the registry administered by Israel). Israel also exercises control through joint security arrangements with Egypt. According to reports in the Palestinian media, approximately 4,000 people are waiting in the Sinai Peninsula for the crossing to re-open so that they can return to Gaza. A number of Palestinian residents of Gaza were also being held at the airport in Cairo, since, according to Egyptian protocol, they can not leave the airport except to go directly to the Rafah border crossing, and this requires a police escort. Other residents of Gaza worldwide are also waiting to return home.
On the Gaza side of the crossing, 300-500 people in need of medical attention are waiting to exit the Strip in order to receive treatment.
Students who returned to Gaza for the vacation cannot return to their schools. Among them is Ahmad, a medical student studying in Egypt. He hesitantly agreed to return home after five years during which he had avoided making the trip, fearing that once in Gaza, he would not be permitted to return to his studies. His worst fears have now come true and he is missing out on his studies while waiting to leave: “We never could have imagined that the source of our problems in returning this time would be instability in Egypt”, he said. The exit of students through the Erez crossing, which is controlled by Israel, is limited to those with a scholarship for study in a “Western” country. So exit through Rafah is Ahmad’s and many other students’ only option. If the opening of Rafah last June indicated a partial solution to the movement restrictions faced by students seeking to study abroad, recent events show how easily this freedom can be undermined.
Events in Egypt have also led to a rise in the cost of fuel and construction materials in the Strip as a result of a drop in activity in the tunnels and shortages in supply on the Egyptian side. Last week, the price of cement rose by more than 30%, while the price of gravel increased by about 20%. The rising fuel costs were checked following the government’s decision to set a fixed maximum rate, but shortages continue. Since Israel imposed restrictions on the transfer of these goods in 2007 (claiming that this would “weaken” the Hamas rule), the trade in fuel and construction materials has operated through the tunnels, where the Hamas government levies taxes on it. As events calm down in Egypt, tunnel activity is resuming.
Recent events in Egypt illustrate how the closure of Gaza and the dependence it creates on the border with Egypt make freedom of movement in Gaza as vulnerable as a leaf blowing in the wind.