Palestinians continue to be stranded at Rafah International Crossing Point and in Al-Arish
PCHR Situation Assessment
Palestinians continue to be stranded at Rafah International Crossing Point and in Al-Arish
(Note: this follow-up assessment was carried out December 6-7, 2007. The first assessment was June 30th – July 2nd 2007).
The Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) originally closed Rafah International Crossing Point on June 25th 2006. Since that date Rafah Crossing has, bar a few partial, irregular and unpredictable opening times, remained closed.
A year later, in June 2007, after the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Egypt and Israel both completely sealed their borders with Gaza. The IOF subsequently opened Rafah Crossing on June 15th, 2007, in order to facilitate 150-200 Palestinians to enter the Gaza Strip. The IOF opened the crossing again on June 18th, to allow another 160 travellers to enter Gaza. However, during June and July the estimated number of Palestinians who remained stranded in and around Rafah, and the Egyptian town of Al-Arish, was estimated at more than 6,000. This included 400-700 Palestinians stranded near Rafah border crossing without any shelter or assistance. Palestinians were also stranded in Cairo, unable to travel to Rafah Crossing because of police checkpoints en route to the crossing.
At the beginning of August 2007, the IOF allowed approximately 6,000 Palestinians to enter the Gaza Strip via Israel.
On December 3rd, 2007, Egypt opened Rafah Crossing in order to facilitate the passage of Palestinian pilgrims en route to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. This was the first time a substantial number of Palestinians had been allowed to enter Egypt since the Hamas takeover in Gaza. Initial reports suggested approximately 700 pilgrims were hoping to cross into Egypt on December 3rd, having previously secured visas for Saudi Arabia. However, Hamas Deputy Minster for Religious Affairs, Salah al-Rikib, claimed his Government had smuggled the passports of 2,200 Gaza pilgrims through a tunnel into Egypt, where the Saudi Arabian Consulate had issued them visas. According to Sakah al-Rikib the passports were then returned to Gaza.
On December 4th the Rafah Crossing was reopened to allow more Palestinian pilgrims to cross into Egypt. According to border officials at Rafah crossing, approximately 2,200 Palestinians crossed into Egypt on December 3-4th. However, no-one was allowed to enter the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
Situation Assessment – Al-Arish, December 6-7th 2007.
Travellers in Egypt still have to cross a number of police checkpoints en route to Rafah border crossing. However, there appear no major problems at these checkpoints, as the ban on travelling to Rafah crossing had been lifted.
Situation on the ground in Al-Arish
According to Mohammed al-Kiki from the Al-Arish Municipality, the number of Palestinians in Al-Arish and Rafah waiting to cross into the Gaza Strip is approximately 1-2,000 people.
These Palestinians are being accommodated in beach chalets, or with local friends or relatives. According to local sources, including Palestinians in Al-Arish, there are around 700 Palestinians living in the beach chalets, plus several hundred more staying with relatives and friends in Al-Arish. In addition, approximately one hundred Palestinians are in Rafah waiting to cross into Egypt.
There are two Palestinian patients in the main Al-Arish hospital (compared to 48 in June).
The hospital director, Dr. Khairy Mahmoud, has confirmed that both patients suffered gun shot wounds, and remain in the hospital as they have no family locally to take care of them.
Food, money and medical assistance
According to local sources, including owners of local accommodation in Al-Arish, the Cairo Medical Syndicate (CMS) is the only organisation currently offering Palestinians stranded in Al-Arish regular supplies of food aid and basic medical care. This food aid consists of one chicken, two kilograms (kg’s) of rice, one kg of pasta, one kg of sugar, and cooking oil. The supplies are delivered every fifteen days.
Other aid supplies have apparently been sporadic. Since June, the Egyptian Red Crescent Society has apparently delivered only one carton of food aid to the Palestinians in Al-Arish. The Palestinian Embassy agreed to one-off payments of 125 Egyptian Pounds (approximately 18 Euros) to Palestinians in Al-Arish in order to pay for their chalet rent. However, local chalet owners claimed this was insufficient to cover the rent. Subsequently some chalet owners wanted to evict the Palestinians, whilst others agreed to let them stay on in lieu of further payment from the Palestinian Embassy.
According to these local sources, the Palestinian Embassy has offered no further assistance to Palestinians stranded in Al-Arish.
One local source in Al-Arish reported that there are 135 Palestinians suffering from health problems, including heart problems. As they receive only basic assistance from the Cairo Medical Syndicate, these Palestinians do not have enough money to buy medication, or to admit themselves to hospital.
However these reports remain unconfirmed.
Camps on the border
Some members of Fatah who fled the Gaza Strip after the Hamas takeover are now staying in camps in Al-Arish and Rafah. According to local sources, around sixty five Fatah members are living in a camp in Al-Arish, and another eighty eight are living in a camp in Rafah. In both camps the Fatah members are apparently provided with food, medical assistance and $250 per week.
In general, the Palestinians in Al-Arish, especially the men, were extremely reluctant to discuss their situation. This can be partly explained by the fact some of the men believe they are on Israel’s wanted list (according to a local source fifteen Palestinian men in Al-Arish are wanted by Israel), but this reluctance was also due to fear of the local Egyptian authorities. Local Palestinians who were prepared to speak out claimed that twelve Palestinians have been arrested by the Egyptian police, and are being detained at the Al-Arish police station.
According to guards at Al-Arish International Airport, eleven Palestinians have also been detained at the airport. Local Palestinians back these claims, but say the number is around twenty three, and that all detainees are under 40 years old. As access to the airport was requested, but denied, these figures could not be confirmed.
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Examples of Palestinians stranded in Al-Arish
Salim (41) – photographer from Gaza city
Salim travelled to Morocco via Egypt to look for work nine days before the Hamas takeover in June. He could not find work in Morocco, and tried to return home to the Gaza Strip in August, but has been stranded in Al-Arish ever since. Salim’s wife and six children are all in Gaza, and he is currently dependent on aid from the Cairo Medical Syndicate and assistance from local friends.
Mohammed Nhala (65) from Gaza city
Mohammed left Gaza on June 1st to visit his daughter in Saudi Arabia and take part in the Muslim Omra. When he tried to return to the Gaza Strip in mid September he became stranded in Al-Arish. He is suffering from problems with his knees, but cannot afford medical assistance.
Dr. Heba Naim Dawud (27) from Jabaliya camp, Gaza
Dr. Heba left Gaza in May to work in Egypt. When Rafah border crossing was opened in August she could not return to Gaza as she was still working. Her work finished at the end of August, and she is now staying with a local Egyptian family in Al-Arish. She has received 100 Egyptian Pounds from the Palestinian Embassy in Egypt, plus one cartoon of food Aid from the Egyptian Red Crescent Society.
Abu Rami, (50) from Ramallah on the Palestinian West Bank
Abu Rami left Ramallah in the spring in order to travel to Dubai. He wants to return to Ramallah but says he is afraid to travel to the West Bank via Israel because he believes he is wanted by Israel. His wife and three children are in Ramallah.
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Situation on the ground in Rafah, December 6-7th, 2007
No Palestinians were identified in the local Rafah hospital. No Palestinians were identified as sleeping rough outside in fields or under trees near Rafah crossing. In this respect the situation in Rafah appears to have changed substantially since June. According to local Bedouin families only a few Palestinians remain stranded in the area, and are currently staying with relatives.
Although the number of Palestinians stranded in Rafah and Al-Arish appears to have fallen in recent months, the crisis itself remains unresolved. An unconfirmed number of Palestinians still remain stranded throughout Egypt, where they have resorted to staying with relatives, friends or in basic hotel accommodation. Palestinians stranded in Al-Arish are receiving only minimal food and medical aid from the Cairo Medical Syndicate.
There are several possible explanations for the reduction in visible numbers of Palestinians at Rafah, and Al-Arish, since the first PCHR situation assessment was carried out six months ago. During the reporting period of the first assessment (June 30th – July 2nd 2007), there was still widespread hope that Rafah Crossing would be re-opened, and this clearly encouraged Palestinians to wait in both Rafah and al-Arish. However, the crossing has not re-opened, winter has now arrived and the nights have become cold, deterring rough sleepers. Therefore the problem of Palestinians stranded on both sides of the border, especially in Al-Arish, has become less visible. But the need to open the border clearly remains urgent.
PCHR has consistently condemned the closure of Rafah International Crossing Point by the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF). The closure of Rafah crossing represents one component of the IOF total siege of the Gaza Strip, and its policy of closing Gaza off from the outside world as a form of collective punishment on the entire civilian population.
PCHR has also challenged the functional arrangements of the European Union (EU) Border Mission at Rafah International Crossing Point, which have not facilitated the passage of Palestinians wanting to travel between Gaza and Egypt. PCHR believes the functional arrangements of the EU Border Mission at Rafah have been exploited by Israel in order to continue impose collective punishment on the people of Gaza.
Under the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the opening of Rafah International Crossing Point is contingent on the presence of the EU Border Mission. However the physical presence of the EU Border Mission has been totally controlled by Israel. If the Israeli military decided there was a “security alert” at Rafah, they made a unilateral decision to let the EU Border Mission personnel leave the crossing, at which point they immediately closed Rafah crossing. The functional arrangements of the EU Border Mission therefore served to maintain Israel’s total control of Rafah crossing, and the IOF have, bar a few partial, irregular and unpredictable opening times, continued the closure of Rafah International Crossing Point.
PCHR believes the EU acceptance of the restrictions imposed on them by Israel is actively encouraging Israel’s systematic closure of Rafah Crossing, and the continuing closure and siege of the entire Gaza Strip.
Al-Arish, December 7th, 2007.