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Who Really Controls the Rafah Crossing?

By Kate

My friend Patrick and I arrived in Cairo last night and left early this morning for the Rafah crossing into Gaza. We didn’t leave as early as we had planned, due to a comedy of errors involving hosts who could not be woken up with vigorous shaking and shouting, drivers with non-working cars, and the ubiquitous fighting/scamming of taxi drivers.

I decided I will cover my head for the border, and maybe the whole time I’m in Gaza if it seems people prefer it. A Palestinian friend who was planning to meet us at the border had asked me to, because she’s afraid of our being kidnapped. My friend Nagwan, whom I stayed with in Cairo, tied my scarf for me. She used to wear hijab, so it looked much more authentic than if I had done it myself. At the many checkpoints we passed en route to Rafah, the driver would say, “They’re Americans,” and the soldiers would be very confused about why my head was covered.

We finally reached the border at about 2 p.m. Initially everyone assumed we were Palestinians. People were motioning to us to go one way, but I spotted a sign that read, “Exit Tax,” and thought maybe we were supposed to pay the tax there. That’s how it works at the Jordanian border, and if you don’t have the stamp that indicates you paid the tax you have to go back and wait again. As we were standing and looking around a guard took our passports. He asked Patrick where we were from, and Pat said in Arabic that we were Americans, and the guard said, “Well, does she have a hawiyya?” referring to the Palestinian ID card. He didn’t even seem to believe Pat when he said no.

The Egyptian security guards, wearing armbands that read “Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities,” looked at a list and said we were not on it, which we already knew from our friend Laila, who has been pressuring the Palestinian Border Ministry to get our applications approved. They told us we couldn’t enter, and seemed ready to hustle us back to Arish, the nearby resort town.

We persisted and wound up sitting in the little security office calling everyone involved to find out what the story was. Later it occurred to us that if we had not stopped, we might have been able to just walk by; maybe at the next point they would have assumed we were on the list. Hard to know.

We talked to Ashraf Dahlan, the person responsible for processing applications by foreigners to cross through Rafah. He is the nephew of Mohammed Dahlan, a powerful figure in the Palestinian Authority. Laila said she’s never seen an office as big as Ashraf’s in Gaza. Ashraf told Pat that the papers had been sent to the Europeans, who he said have the ultimate authority to decide whether to let us in or not.

In case you are not familiar with the arrangement, the Rafah border crossing was opened because James Wolfensohn, formerly head of the World Bank and now U.S. special envoy to Israel-Palestin, visited Gaza about two months after the much-hyped disengagement. He noticed that it was a prison, with no one allowed in or out. So Condoleeza Rice flew out and by all accounts basically forced Ariel Sharon, who still had brain waves at that time, to agree to a border between Rafah in Palestinian Gaza and Rafah in Egypt. The border was to be controlled by the Palestinian Authority with oversight by the European Union and Egypt, with Israelis allowed to surveil from a nearby room using video cameras. The border opened on Thanksgiving weekend, to intensive televising, and viewing audiences around the world watched Palestinian border police stamp the passports of smiling Gazans who rushed through and hugged their Egyptian family members and bought cigarettes.

But that is only how it works for Palestinians (when it does work, because it’s been abruptly closed a number of times, leaving people stuck on the other side from where they lived, not knowing when they could go home). For foreigners it is trickier. A friend was told twice by representatives of the PLO that foreigners cannot use the crossing under any circumstances. I called the PLO mission in Washington and was told it was absolutely no problem, you can go, you don’t need a permit, it will all be taken care of at the border. Fortunately, Pat didn’t believe them and asked around. He learned about the official process: you submit your application to the PA, who sends it to the Liaison Office, which is composed of Palestinians, Europeans and Israelis. From there, no one exactly knows who makes the final decision, and on what grounds. Some say it’s the Europeans, some say it’s the Palestinians; Palestinians, not surprisingly, say it’s the Israelis, though it’s definitely not supposed to be. When Ashraf told us it was out of his hands, Pat heard him say, “Now it’s up to the Is—the Europeans.”

Some people have reported that getting in through Rafah was “easy,” which I’m sure means they did not go through this bureaucratic process. Pat was told that fewer than 5 percent of applications are denied. Before the election, a number of foreign journalists were turned away, but during the election many people gained easy entry. Immediately afterward, the border tightened up again.

So back to our story: we called an EU Liaison, who Pat had talked to before we came. He had told Pat that decisions was made case by case. He said he would check on our applications and Pat should call him back in a few minutes. Pat finally reached him about an hour later, and he said the papers had never been delivered to the Liaison Office. Pat called Ashraf back, and he said, “There is some problem with the coordination between the Europeans and the Israelis, and I’ll have to check on it.”

We called a well-connected friend who works in the Palestinian Authority. He had someone in Gaza encourage Ashraf to help us, saying we are in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Another man told Pat he did not think we would qualify to get in because our invitation was from a Palestinian NGO, and the current regulations require it to be from an “accredited international NGO.”

I became incensed. Why is access to Gaza limited entry so carefully? This is the international community’s hard-won agreement. Disengagement is supposed to mean freedom for Palestinians, and they cannot even have visitors. We have invitations from at least ten Palestinians: come whenever you want; happy to see you; “from Rafah with love,” said one email, sent by a woman I had never met. Why isn’t that good enough? Why is friendship not a good enough reason to visit someone?

The people of Gaza can get passes to go and come, though they can only enter the West Bank through Jordan. But Gaza is still a prison. While we sat there, I watched people streaming in and out, with luggage and packages, and I know it is much better to go through a border controlled by Palestinian police than to have Israeli soldiers asking invasive questions at gunpoint. But even in most prisons, you are allowed to see the visitors you want.

We returned to Arish; one of the Egyptian guards got us a taxi to a hotel he recommended (from which presumably received a little kickback). For not much more money than we were hoping to pay we got a pleasant room right on the sea. We walked on the beach for a long time, looking at Rafah, just out of reach, and talking about how crazy it is that this quiet resort town, which presumably in the summer is teeming with Egyptian vacationers and the tourists, sits thirty kilometers from Rafah Camp, which must be one of the most traumatized places on earth.

It emphasized for us the artificial nature of the “conflict.” There is nothing about the landscape or the culture that creates danger for the people. Once, the people of Palestinian Rafah and the people of Egyptian Rafah lived as one community. Then the colonizers stuck a border in between them, and then a fence, and then a wall, then some gun towers, and now they are tortured pawns in an international game of “mine’s bigger than yours.”

Scenario is replicated around the world. For example, Alta California and Baja California – family members on one side of the fence belonging to the richest country on earth, those on the other side, to the “Third World.” This situation is so recent, and the distances are so small, it puts the whole insanity in perspective.