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Gaza: The Rafah Gate Lies Open

Gaza: The Rafah Gate Lies Open

World attention became focused on the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip following the murderous Israeli attack in May 2010 on aid personnel attempting to deliver desperately-needed supplies by sea to alleviate the Gazan humanitarian crisis. As a result of the Mavi Marmara Massacre, as it is now known, and in light of international outrage at the plight of the Gazan people and the complicity of neighbouring countries in enabling Israel’s illegal blockade (which is itself in breach of international humanitarian law ), Egypt loudly proclaimed that the Rafah land crossing, between Egypt and the Gaza strip, was now open.

Why, then, was former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark refused entry into Gaza through the Rafah gate last week, only being granted permission after three days of international publicity and pressure? Why then are hundreds turned away each day, every day? Why, then, was I refused entry on Thursday to present a paper to the International Forum on Gaza Reconstruction this weekend? And not only I, but also many other international participants in this forum designed to get Gaza back on its feet?

Why was I refused entry? On booking my fare I had rung the Egyptian Embassy to New Zealand, located in Canberra, Australia, to enquire about visa requirements and documentation needed to enter Egypt, and what I needed to do to pass through the Rafah gate into Gaza. I was told by staff at the Egyptian Embassy that I could buy a visa for Egypt on arrival at Cairo airport, and that I did not need anything for entry to Gaza, I just had to go to Rafah, as the Rafah gate is open.

That was clearly a lie.

A few days before leaving New Zealand I received an email from another New Zealander who had received the same information from the Egyptian Embassy in Canberra, informing me he had just tried to enter Gaza through Rafah and had been told he needed a ‘tanseek’. This required him as a person travelling on a New Zealand passport to provide the New Zealand Embassy in Cairo with a copy of his passport, the dates he wished to enter and leave Gaza, and his reasons for going. The New Zealand Embassy then had to write a letter to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking permission for him to enter, and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs would notify the NZ Embassy whether he could enter Gaza.

One can only wonder why Egypt decides who enters Gaza – it is like the Australian government deciding who enters New Zealand, or the Canadian government deciding who enters the United States of America…nevertheless, in the interests of attending the forum to present my paper, I complied.

I immediately contacted the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Wellington to confirm this requirement (which they in turn had to contact Cairo for, never having heard of it themselves), and some ten days before the forum was to start I provided the NZ Embassy in Cairo with a copy of my passport, my letter of acceptance from the forum organisers, and the dates I wished to enter and leave Gaza. The NZ Embassy informed me that it usually took at least a week, but they would stress the urgency given that the forum was the following weekend. I caught my flight a couple of days later, bought my Egyptian visa at the airport, and contacted the NZ embassy the next morning to see whether Egyptian Foreign Affairs had replied. They had not.

Each day I called the NZ Embassy, each day the NZ Embassy contacted the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (or so they told me, and I have no reason to doubt them), and each day the answer was the same – no reply.

As the Rafah gate is closed on Fridays and Saturdays, and as the forum is on Saturday and Sunday, I clearly had to cross the border on Thursday, if I was to attend the forum I had come halfway around the world, and at considerable expense, to present at. It is a six-hour journey from Cairo to Rafah, so I had to get the 7.30am bus to Al-Arish then a taxi the additional 40km, and hope that the ‘tanseek’ would arrive during the day and be faxed to Rafah, or that, as the Egyptian Embassy to New Zealand in Canberra insisted, the border was indeed open, and as a NZer I could just turn up, and pass through.

I struck out on both counts. I was not permitted to just pass through. Worse still, I was told by the border official that I had been refused entry by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I then borrowed a cell phone from another person also refused passage, to call the NZ Embassy in Cairo (they have a quaint habit of blocking phones with global roaming at the border, to ensure the maximum inconvenience to people refused entry). The NZ Embassy informed me that what the border official said was not true, that I had NOT been refused entry. Lie number two from Egyptian officialdom.

After three days of hanging around Cairo waiting for a response from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to a request marked ‘URGENT’, and after four hours of waiting at Rafah, I was no nearer attending the forum. The Rafah gate closed at 6pm, and that was it. I and several other people refused entry took taxis back to Al-Arish. Some gave up and returned to from whence they came, others, like me, went back to Al-Arish to try again on Sunday, when the border again opens. Others have slept on the ground here for three nights already, waiting, waiting, waiting....

After being lied to by Egyptian Embassy staff in Canberra who should reasonably be expected to know their own country’s documentation requirements, after being lied to by an Egyptian border official about the status of my ‘tanseek’, I am not overly confident of receiving a transparent, fair, and honest appraisal of my application for entry to Gaza.

Like Ramsey Clark, like most of the Palestinians here, I have committed no crime. I came to Egypt to enter Gaza in good faith on the advice of the Egyptian authorities, and have every right to expect my application for entry to be successful, given the established right in international law to freedom of movement, particularly my right to enter to participate in the humanitarian task of the reconstruction of the decimated Gaza. The Palestinians have even more right – to enter their own country!

On Sunday I returned. Many of the same people from Thursday were there again, still waiting. Again I was refused, again others were refused, especially foreigners. Over the course of the afternoon several Palestinians, many who had been trying literally for a week, were finally allowed through. A man with Australian and Palestinian citizenship trying to visit his parents, who he had not seen for eleven years, was refused entry, while his sister was allowed through. A Gazan woman trying to visit her parents with her Lebanese husband was finally granted entry after four days – but told if she went in, she would not be permitted to leave, and her husband was not permitted to enter at all. Faced with the choice of an effective divorce or seeing her parents, she remained outside with her husband. In two days at the Rafah gate, we saw the princely total of only THREE trucks of aid enter Gaza, one carrying medical supplies - boxes of saline solution from Holland.

I have missed the forum at which I was to present my paper, but that is a minor, if expensive, inconvenience compared to that faced daily by hundreds of Palestinians trying to exercise their human right to freely enter or leave their own country, let alone the daily torment faced by the overwhelming majority of Gazans in desperate need of food, medicines and all of the other materials prevented from entering their territory. They, at least, are under no illusions as to Israel’s intentions and Egypt’s complicity in them.

But I, New Zealander, remain bewildered by the Egyptian authorities’ prevarications to me, and to the rest of the world. Does the Rafah gate lie open, as the Egyptian government insists, or is it just an open lie?

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is the result of a blockade that the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict designated “collective punishment intentionally inflicted by the Government of Israel” (sec 1878 pp 404-5), which has been compounded by Operation Cast Lead, a three-week military offensive between December 2008 and January 2009 that was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.” (sec 1893 p 408). The report can be found here.

UNSC Resolution 1502 (2003) Article 4 requires states in close proximity “to allow full unimpeded access by humanitarian personnel to all people in need of assistance, and to make available, as far as possible, all necessary facilities for their operations, and to promote the safety, security and freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel and United Nations and its associated personnel and their assets.” It can be found here:


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