Gaza struggles as gateway to Egypt stays shut

AFP , Friday 11 Feb 2011

As Egypt's Rafah border crossing remains closed during the mass protests, Gaza suffers even more food and medical shortages

A Palestinian boy rides a horse in Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip (Photo: Reuters)

Gaza's lone gateway to freedom has been closed for two weeks, with the ongoing turmoil in Egypt keeping thousands from leaving the enclave and hundreds more from coming home.

Until a fortnight ago, the Rafah border crossing had been a busy transit point with up to 500 Palestinians a day crossing into Egypt and a similar number coming back, many of them travelling for urgent medical treatment.

But a few days after mass protests brought Egypt grinding to a halt, the Egyptian troops guarding the Rafah crossing fled after coming under attack by demonstrators, forcing Gaza's Hamas rulers to keep their side of the frontier closed.

"It's the blockade all over again. Thousands of people are trapped," said crossing head Ghazi Hamad, referring to the Israeli siege which for nearly five years has kept Gaza's population of 1.5 million people trapped in the coastal enclave.

"The situation is terrible. Gaza has become one big prison again," he told AFP in this sprawling city which straddles the southern border with Egypt.

The normally bustling Palestinian side of the terminal is deserted, save for a handful of police and a fleet of empty buses standing idle in a nearby car park.

On the Egyptian side, the silhouettes of two hooded soldiers could be seen on a rooftop. Egyptian police and border guards abandoned their posts after an attack on their headquarters by Bedouin demonstrators on January 29. The clashes, which could be heard on the Gazan side of the border, left three dead.

"Normally we have 400 to 500 travelers crossing into Egypt every day and about the same number coming back," explained Hamad, saying his big concern was that the closure would create "a humanitarian crisis."

Although Hamad has been in daily contact with the Egyptian security services about reopening the border, so far it has made little difference.

And every day, he faces a barrage of phone calls from hundreds of Palestinians who are stuck in Egypt and have been unable to get home since January 30.

Most travelled to Egypt for medical reasons, for operations or other treatment, but among them are also students and people visiting family living there.

On top of the problems caused by the border closure, Egypt's immigration services told AFP on Wednesday they had been ordered not to allow Palestinians to enter the country, although there was no immediate explanation as to why.

It is not only the human traffic which has been hit by the crisis in Egypt -- trade through the cross-border smuggling tunnels has also largely ground to a halt.

Not far from the border crossing, Abu Taha is supervising a team of workers who are bringing in bags of cement through a tunnel that he owns. Since the start of the uprising in Egypt, which began on January 25, his tunnels have been operating at only 30 percent capacity.

"Before, we received 100 tonnes of cement a day. Today, we are scarcely managing to get 70 tonnes over four days," says Abu Taha, admitting that the developments in Egypt took him by surprise.

Not surprisingly, the price of cement -- a rare commodity which Israel does not allow in to the strip -- has shot through the roof, rising from $105 per tonne to $200.

And Gazans have also been stockpiling fuel over concerns that supplies from Egypt, which are also brought in through the smuggling tunnels, could be halted by the political unrest gripping their southern neighbour.

Despite reassurances by the Hamas authorities, there were still long queues outside fuel depots as a wave of panic-buying swept the population.

Privately, many Palestinians believe the border has been closed as a result of the insecurity gripping the Sinai peninsula, stronghold of the Bedouins, where the Egyptian army holds little sway.

Paradoxically, the only place along Gaza's southern border where there is any activity is at Kerem Shalom, the goods terminal linking Gaza with Israel, where around 150 lorries enter on a daily basis.

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