It was a late Saturday afternoon on 7 October when Mohamed Suleiman was finishing some errands in Cairo at the end of a 10-day business trip. “Things were going as scheduled, and I was getting ready to head to Arish to go through the Rafah crossing on 8 October. Then suddenly there was a new Israeli war on Gaza,” he said.
For 12 years, Suleiman has been frequenting Egypt every six months as part of his Gaza-Egypt trade activities. During these years, he said, he has always been prepared, “and it sometimes happened of course” that his trip would be delayed for one reason or another. It is not unprecedented for Suleiman to be notified that the crossing would be closed for a security emergency, including an Israeli attack on Gaza.
“It has happened before,” he said. He added that it was mostly the case that he would be unable to cross from Gaza into Egypt, and it was only on a few times that the opposite has happened, “especially for Gaza residents who wish to go back home.”
This time around, Suleiman thought it would be a matter of a week or two before the Israeli war on Gaza was suspended and stability was restored to allow the crossing to open once again. “Sometimes it would be open on one side and not the other, which means that we cannot cross,” he said.
However, a week down the road with the Israeli war on Gaza taking a brutal turn, it dawned on Suleiman that his expectations of a delay of a week or two were too optimistic. “This is a war like no other. Israel has launched wars on Gaza before during the past few years. However, they were never so harsh and devastating,” he said.
Suleiman is short on expectations on when he can go back home. “This war looks like it is going to be really long,” he said. “And it does not seem that the crossing will be open for people who want to go back home, given that the Israelis have hit the borders and even some ambulances carrying wounded Palestinian civilians to be treated in Egypt,” he added.
On 3 November, the Israeli military targeted a convoy of ambulances that was supposed to carry wounded Palestinians to receive medical treatment in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities reacted by closing the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, pending the restoration of the security measures to allow for the safe transportation of the wounded.
This was not the first time that the safety of the crossing has been called into question due to Israeli strikes. Since the beginning of the war, it has suffered four attacks — all on the Palestinian side of Rafah, with two having a spill-over effect on the Egyptian side of the border.
These attacks and the failure of the Israeli authorities to grant approval to safe passages into and out of the crossing has caused a significant delay in the transfer of basic relief material through it into Gaza. It has also caused a significant delay in the safe exit of foreign citizens and dual nationals, including Americans and Europeans, from Gaza into Egypt.
According to a well-informed Egyptian source, the Egyptian authorities made it very clear to the Americans, who were soliciting Egyptian approval for US citizens, including US-Israeli citizens, to pass through the crossing, that this would be dependent on a clear and confirmed Israeli agreement with the US that the citizens would have safe passage through Gaza to the Palestinian side of the border.
He added that Egypt also requested that the entry of foreign citizens and dual nationals from Gaza into Egypt should be simultaneously operated along with the entry of relief convoys into Gaza, “with a clear Israeli agreement that the convoys will be safe in their entry into and exit from the Gaza Strip,” he added.
According to the official narrative in Egypt, coordination with the Israeli authorities on the operation of the Rafah crossing is “unavoidable even if not mandatory” simply because Israel is in control of the border and not just during war time.
According to Abeer Yassin, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, “despite the so-called Israeli unilateral withdrawal of 2005,” the Gaza Strip is part of the Palestinian occupied territories that was never removed from Israeli security management.
In 1948, when Israel was established on over half of historic Palestine, Gaza, on the eastern Egyptian border, ended up under the administration of Egypt. This brought back the norms of Ottoman rule, when both Egypt and Palestine were parts of the Ottoman Empire, until Britain, which had imposed a protectorate over Egypt, agreed with the Ottomans, still in control of Palestine, to establish a border between the two countries.
In 1967, after Israel completed its occupation of all of historic Palestine, along with Sinai, things changed from the way they had been after 1948. “It was just the Israeli occupation as of that point,” said Aisha Zoaaber, a Palestinian doctor who spoke from Arish.
Zoaaber, starting her high school years in 1967, remembers that prior to the full Israeli occupation “life was going on well” in Gaza. “Of course, it was not easy because my family was forced out of the West Bank in 1948, but still Gaza was part of Palestine, and the Egyptian administration was well accepted.”
A clear recollection that Zoaaber still holds 55 years down the road is the easy walk from her parent’s house in the now-Palestinian side of Rafah into the now-Egyptian side to visit maternal aunts and uncles. After the 1973 October War, Zoaaber had hoped that things might go back to the way they were prior to the 1967 occupation, “but unfortunately Gaza was still occupied by Israel, just as it is effectively now still under Israeli occupation,” she said.
In 1982, when Egypt regained control of Sinai, except for Taba which was restored seven years later following a process of arbitration, Zoaaber knew that the dream of an afternoon walk to her aunt’s house was gone forever, as the borders were set between the freed Egyptian-territories and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories in Gaza.
It was in that year that she first crossed from the officially operated Rafah crossing into Egypt, where she was finalising her studies at Al-Azhar University. Prior to that date, Zoaaber and other Palestinian students studying at Egyptian universities needed the help of international bodies to be able to get out of Gaza into Egypt.
When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, went back to Gaza after the Oslo Accords of 1993 and the Cairo Agreement of 1995, Zoaaber was working in the UAE. However, talking to family and friends who needed to go from Gaza to Egypt, she knew that Israel was never out of the picture when it came to the management of the Palestinian side, even though the PA had a more or less symbolic presence there.
According to Yassin, Israel never really let go of the border even after the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. After that, the Palestinian side of the border was controlled by European Union monitors, PA presidential guards, and Israeli security, with Israeli security monitoring who was going through the checkpoint through cameras installed on the Palestinian side.
The passage of Palestinians through the crossing always required dual security approvals from the Israeli side after a notification put through the PA and from the Egyptian side. Requests for a passage through the crossing could be easily declined for “security concerns” without explanation.
In 2006, the Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas won a landslide legislative victory in Gaza, starting more political squabbling with the older and then more influential Fattah movement in control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the PA, with both Arafat and his successor at the head of both the PLO and the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, being Fattah leaders.
In 2007, a confrontation between the representative of the PA in Gaza and Hamas ended up with the PA being effectively expelled from Gaza and Hamas taking control of the Strip. This was the beginning of a tough Israeli blockade on Gaza and also a cautious Egyptian policy that declined to keep the Rafah crossing operating on its daily schedule.
Egypt also declined to drop the 2005 agreement and to accommodate a proposal by Hamas to write a new border-management agreement with the now de facto ruler of Gaza.
GATEWAY TO THE WORLD
“Hamas wanted to get Egypt to agree to make Rafah a crossing point not just for individuals, but also for commodities, which was not possible given the way the checkpoint is built and the fact that Egypt did not want to double its screening responsibilities,” said Ashraf Abul-Holl, Al-Ahram’s former correspondent in the Gaza Strip.
“Egypt was of the opinion that sparing the other crossing points that connect Gaza to the West Bank from possible roles would amount to a de facto separation between the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967,” he added.
Yassin said that Rafah is only one of six checkpoints that connect Gaza to the outside world, either through Israel or through Egypt. From the north of the Gaza Strip to the south, where Rafah is located, there are five others: Erez, Nahal Oz, Karni, Sufa, and Kerem Shalom.
Yassin said that in its attempt to put forward a narrative whereby Gaza is the responsibility of Egypt not of Israel, even though Israel is the occupation power, Israel wants to make the world think that Rafah is the only exit that Gaza has, but in fact it is one of many. “The travel of any Palestinian from or into Gaza is overseen by Israel, which controls the Gaza registration office,” she said. “Egypt was always very careful about this.”
According to Abul-Holl, with Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip, Egypt had to be a lot more cautious about who was coming in and out of Gaza to avoid issues over security with Israel. “This was the beginning of a very difficult moment for the management of the border; and this was when Rafah started to become a story for the press to follow,” he said.
He said that Egypt was aware that Israel was always in control of Gaza. “Gaza was never really allowed any serious Palestinian sovereignty,” he said. He noted that following the Palestinian Intifada of 2000, Israel acted to destroy Gaza Airport, which had been inaugurated by Arafat and US president Bill Clinton in November 1998, and denied Gaza the right to have a naval port.
Abul-Holl arrived in Gaza in 2005, when “it was not so difficult for most Palestinians to pass through, including for access to medical care, education, or simply for travel purposes, with Egypt being the destination or passage country.” However, he added, later things became more difficult due to variables including the relations between Hamas and Israel and between Hamas and the other Palestinian factions and Egypt.
“Then, as of 2014 Egypt was engaged in its war on terror and the management of the whole Sinai situation was subject to serious security considerations,” he said. “However, the Egyptian authorities always made it possible to accommodate emergencies.”
He added that the Egyptian authorities had to be mindful of the forced entry that tens of thousands of Palestinians had made into Egypt in January 2008, which prompted subsequent security measures on the Egyptian side of the border to prevent any recurrence.
The concern over border management and the war on terror have had an impact on the plans of many Palestinians to cross from one side of the border to the other. Shams, a Palestinian woman who has been living in Arish where she married her cousin who had ended up on the Egyptian side of the border following the 1982 demarcation, said that she could not get over “the very bad experience she had” in 2014 when she went to Gaza to attend a wedding and got stuck there for weeks when she was originally planning to stay just for days.
But Abul-Holl said that Rafah was always the first choice to step out of Gaza. Suleiman agreed that for most Palestinians in Gaza Rafah was a gateway to the world and away from the full control of the Israeli occupation that is in charge of other crossings.
However, as Yassin noted, this gateway was often influenced by occurrences at other crossings. The Hamas operation on 7 October led to the beginning of the fifth Israeli war on Gaza and the closure of the Rafah crossing. The same thing happened with the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilaad Shalit, which prompted the first Israeli war on Gaza in late 2008.
Shalit ended up in the custody of Hamas until he was released in 2011 in a prisoner-swap deal mediated by Egypt that allowed for the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, including current Hamas leader in Gaza Yehia Al-Sinwar, one on a list of top Israeli targets.
On 6 November at a downtown travel office in Cairo Rawan Saleh is receiving calls and WhatsApp notifications from Palestinians who are “anxiously waiting for the border to open so that they can go back home”.
“I know that it might be hard to believe, but people actually want to go back, despite the war and the horrible destruction,” she said.
She said that Palestinians stranded in Egypt since the Israeli war on Gaza started on 8 October are not having an easy time. “They are running out of money; they don’t have a place to go once they cannot pay for hotels or rented flats; they cannot reach their families in Gaza to check on them, as Israel has been shutting down communication towers; and they don’t know when this nightmare will end,” she said.
An informed Egyptian source said that no ceasefire is likely to be reached before a month at least. “The Americans are still adamant that a ceasefire is not in the works because this would give Hamas a chance to pick up the pieces. They say that Israel is not willing to stop now, and they speak of a few more weeks,” he said.
He added that those few more weeks could turn out to be a month or more, “depending on how far the current Israeli military operation on the ground goes.”
“It is unpredictable; we are trying to get a humanitarian truce of a few days to allow for relief convoys to get in and for the wounded to come out for treatment,” he added.
The official said that he was not sure whether Palestinians stranded in Egypt would be able to go back through Rafah if a truce is reached. “The priority now is to get food, medicine, and hopefully fuel in for Gaza and to get Palestinians with serious injuries or critical health conditions out for treatment,” he stated.
According to Saleh, another month might be possible for those Palestinians who have families in Arish or elsewhere in Egypt. It might also be possible for those Palestinians who have sufficient financial resources or who have family outside Gaza that can offer them money transfers. “Unfortunately, this does not apply to everyone, and the longer this war lasts, the more horrible the lives of those people will be,” she stated.
For Farah Rashid, a Palestinian who could not make it to Rafah as she arrived at Cairo Airport on 7 October after a trip overseas, the issue is not about money or residence but about family. During the past month, Rashid had been helped by the “very generous hospitality” of a Palestinian woman who has been living in Arish for years.
“She is a friend of my aunt; when my mother told my aunt that I was in Arish with nowhere to go, my aunt called up her friend and she arranged for me to stay with her,” she said.
However, despite this hospitality, Rashid is uncomfortable. During the past week, she has had a difficult time trying to reach her family in the north of Gaza. Eventually, she received a message indicating that the family had to move south upon the orders and threats of the Israeli occupation that is hard at work emptying the north of the Gaza Strip.
“Currently, they are staying with a family in the south of Gaza that is also hosting other people who came from the north,” she said.
Rashid is not really concerned about where she will stay when she gets through the Rafah crossing.
“I just want to go back to be with my family, and then whatever will happen will happen. I am just waiting for Rafah to open, and then I will just run back home,” she said.
She added that she cannot wait for the war to end but that nobody knows when this “nightmare will end”.
Yassin agreed that predicting an end to the war is difficult, not just due to the complex situation on the ground and the biases of international support to Israel, but also due to the complexity of internal Israeli politics, especially in relation to the threatened political career of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
She added that when the war comes to an end, it is not clear which old or new rules will apply to the management of the Rafah crossing.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly