‘We have been trying to get out of Gaza for two years’

Donald Macintyre

A Palestinian girl sleeps on luggage as she and
her family wait to cross to Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the
southern Gaza Strip this week

June 11, 2010

Donald Macintyre visits the Rafah crossing reopened by Egypt after
the flotilla attack

Zahra Puhisi sat with her sick and elderly mother in the cool and
quarter-full departures hall on the Palestinian side of the Rafah
crossing and wondered how long it would be before a Hamas official would
allocate them seats on the bus to take them across the border.

"I will only believe it when I am in Cairo," she said. "Because I live
in Gaza I never believe in anything until I can touch and feel it."

They had waited in vain throughout the previous day to be among hundreds
who have crossed over on each of the nine days since Egypt announced it
was opening the border.

Ms Puhisi, a government zoologist from Deir el Balah, was anxious to
take her mother, who has painfully swollen legs and wrists, to the
Egyptian doctor who had treated her successfully when times were easier.

She had had to go first to the [Hamas] Ministry of Health to get the
trip approved as medically necessary, then to the Ministry of Interior
to get an exit permit, and then wait for the authorisation from Egypt.

"We have been trying to do this for two years," she explained. "First I
blame Israel [for the closure of Gaza], but there are also many parties
who are responsible for this problem for all the Palestinian people."

Although Egypt opened the crossing in the wake of the lethal Israeli
commando raid on a pro-Palestinian flotilla last week, apparently to
escape some of the blame for the closure, it has restricted passage
mainly to students with visas to study abroad, serious medical cases,
and those with foreign residency or passports.

One of Gaza’s leading paediatricians, Dr Adnan al Wahaidi, who has an
international reputation, planned to escort his Egyptian wife and their
two daughters to see his ailing and elderly mother-in-law in Cairo, but
was obliged by two bad-tempered uniformed security guards to wait in the
heat with scores of other hopefuls outside the terminal’s gates for
three hours.

"We did it, we did it," exclaimed his older daughter Hind, 17, as they
finally arrived at the departures hall. "I am so looking forward to
seeing my grandmother for the first time since I was 11, and all my
other relatives." And to get out of Gaza for a breather? "You said it.

Dr Wahaidi said he had lobbied Egyptian colleagues to help him obtain an
entry permit, and pointed out that he had missed six international
medical conferences as far afield as the US and Peru in as many years
because of the closure. Critical of Western governments for not doing
more to ease the blockade, Dr Wahaidi was glad the flotilla raid had
focused international attention on it, but added: "I am afraid that the
World Cup will now make the Palestinian problems from the siege less
prominent in the media."

Mohammed Al Masri, 42, an engineer from Beit Hanoun hoping to see his
brother in China for the first time in 12 years, was impatient with
Palestinian bureaucracy. "I’ve been here since 2am and I paid an 80
shekel fare every day to get here for five days," he said.

But a more serious charge was levelled by one family at middlemen in
Egypt and their agents. Rihan Talal, 21, a student desperate to get back
to Southern Illinois state university, said he and his uncle had
refused an offer from someone who said he could get an entry permit from
Egypt for between $2,000 and $3,000. "I am paying enough for my
education already," he said.

Asked about this, Ghazi Hamad, the senior Hamas civilian overseeing the
crossings, said: "I have no comment. You should ask the Egyptians."

He added that Hamas officials would not take "one shekel" from would-be
travellers. "It is against our morality, our ethics."

Mr Hamad said he was sorry that travel was still restricted, and added:
"I want all people to cross the border freely. I want all the crossings
open." He had yet to have official confirmation that Egypt would keep
the Rafah crossing open permanently.

But at least one woman returning from Egypt â€" where her daughter had
got married to a Palestinian without ID and therefore was unable to
reach Gaza â€" was unimpressed with her travels. "I want to kiss the
ground," said Feryal al Sinwa, 48. "There is nothing better than Gaza.
Despite the blockade, despite the siege, Gaza is better than anywhere in
the world."


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