Egypt's broken promises to Palestinians in Gaza

Rafah crossing - Getty
6 min read
17 November, 2021
In-depth: As part of the ceasefire agreement in May, Egypt promised to ease restrictions at the Rafah crossing, Gaza's only gateway to the world. Months later, Palestinians say Cairo has failed to keep its word.

In contrast to what she had expected, it took Huda Khaled two nights and three days to get from Cairo airport to the Gaza Strip, a trip that normally takes six hours.

Earlier this month, Egypt promised that it would ease border regulations for Palestinians, something that prompted the 55-year-old mother of seven to return to Gaza after an absence of more than 11 years due to political instability and the security situation in the besieged coastal enclave.

Huda was supposed to visit her relatives and married daughters, but reality had other plans.

"I believed the promises made by the Egyptian and Palestinian officials, and I thought there would be a real breakthrough on the movement of Gazan travellers through the Rafah crossing," she told The New Arab.

"The Rafah crossing is the only gateway for Gazans to travel abroad in light of restrictions that make it impossible to travel through the Erez crossing, which is controlled by Israel"

"There are a lot of checkpoints belonging to the Egyptian army, which searches all our luggage in a humiliating way... They throw our things on the ground and take some of our belongings, including perfumes and mobile phones. Nothing has changed," she complains.

Huda had bought an iPhone for one of her daughters, but an Egyptian soldier violently assaulted her and confiscated the phone on the pretext that it was not working. Huda says that she burst into tears.

"I don't know why they treat us like this. We are human beings who have our place in society and we are respected by everyone except by the Egyptians," she said.

In the south of the Gaza Strip, the Rafah crossing is the only gateway for Gazans to travel abroad in light of restrictions that make it impossible to travel through the Erez crossing, which is controlled by Israel.

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However, the Rafah crossing is managed according to the status of political relations between the Islamic movement Hamas, which has been running Gaza by force since 2007, and the Egyptians, especially the Egyptian intelligence, which manages indirect dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Last May, the Gaza Strip witnessed a massive military escalation between Israel and Hamas for 11 days, which resulted in the killing of more than 260 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, in addition to thousands of wounded on the Palestinian side.

Egypt mediated between the two sides to reach a temporary truce, and the idea was that Cairo would oversee a long-lasting agreement between the two sides. 

In an attempt to attract the Palestinians towards a ceasefire deal with Israel, Egyptian authorities made promises to ease the restrictions imposed on the Rafah crossing both for travellers and traders, who want to transfer their commercial interests to Egypt instead of Israel, which is still tightening its restrictions.

However, as time went by, Gazans came to realise that Cairo's words would not translate into action, with any improvements still dependent on political developments in the enclave.

Palestinians return to the rubble of their homes destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on 24 May 2021 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. [Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images]
More than 260 Palestinians were killed in Israel's war on Gaza in May. [Getty]

What should be a relatively quick journey from Gaza to Egypt has become arduous, the result of dozens of Egyptian checkpoints with extensive bag searches and identity checks.

Since closing the "Peace Bridge" on the Suez Canal for security reasons about seven years ago, Egyptian authorities have designated the Al-Fardan ferry crossing for the passage of Palestinians. However, the move has caused severe overcrowding and exacerbated the suffering of travellers.

Mohammed Saad (not his real name), who works as a merchant in Gaza, says that he had pinned high hopes on transferring his commercial trade from the Israeli crossing to Egypt in a bid to salvage his businesses after several financial collapses due to political instability and fighting. 

But just like others, he realised that the Palestinian-Egyptian crossing also works "in accordance with Israeli agendas and orders, based on joint coordination between Egyptians and the Israelis".

"In an attempt to attract the Palestinians towards a ceasefire deal with Israel, Egyptian authorities made promises to ease the restrictions imposed on the Rafah crossing, both for travellers and traders"

Saad told TNA, "Israel prevented me from crossing the Erez crossing nearly four years ago, in order to reach the West Bank, under the pretext that I have some relations with officials in Hamas - and this is not true".

He added that he breathed a sigh of relief after he learned that Palestinians would be able to use the Rafah crossing, noting that he immediately went to register to travel as a merchant to bring in his goods from Egypt.

"I arrived at the Egyptian crossing, hoping that I would be able to revive my business again... I waited for many hours after I handed over my passport to the Egyptians," he says.

"After dark, I was summoned by the Egyptian intelligence service present at the crossing. They interrogated me and asked me about names of leaders affiliated with the resistance factions," the man said, noting that he felt nervous during his interrogation.

"Unfortunately, after all these interrogations, the Egyptian officer told me that I am prohibited from travelling through the Rafah crossing for security reasons," he says, in a voice filled with grief. "The same phrase I heard from the Israeli officer when he told me that I was forbidden to cross the Erez Crossing."

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According to Palestinian economists, both Egypt and Gaza could generate significant economic profits via the border, especially since Israel cannot control commercial interests between the two sides.

Maher al-Tabbaa, Director of Public Relations at the Gaza Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told TNA that it is essential to strengthen and activate trade between the Gaza Strip and Egypt by implementing economic agreements signed between the two parties.

He also called for facilitating the entry of merchants and business people into Egypt through private sector institutions, motivating Palestinian producers to benefit from the agreement signed with Egypt, and using the El-Arish port as an outlet for the movement of exports and imports from and to Gaza.

For his part, Muhammad al-Assar, Secretary of the Construction Industries Federation in Gaza, says that the sector is in dire need of trade with the Arab world through the Egyptian gateway, especially given the obstacles caused by Israel.

He explained that commercial relations between Egypt and Gaza must expand and Egypt must exempt Palestinian products from taxes and customs duties.

"I believed the promises made by the Egyptian and Palestinian officials, and I thought there would be a real breakthrough on the movement of Gazan travellers through the Rafah crossing"

He also pointed out the importance for Gaza of importing fuel from Egypt instead of Israel, provided that it is bought from Cairo at lower prices and without the process being exposed to Israeli obstacles under false pretexts, which would enable the expansion and development of industry in Gaza.

"But this will not see the light of day unless Egypt succeeds in reaching a comprehensive truce agreement between the Palestinian factions and Israel that guarantees security and political stability in the Strip," says Husam al-Dajani, a political analyst from Gaza.

"Unfortunately, it is Israel that obstructs all Egyptian efforts to relieve the residents of the Gaza Strip by relying on the agreements signed between it and Egypt in the Camp David treaty," Dajani added.

The analyst also stated that, "The first and last factor responsible for the humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip is Israel, but this does not mean that Egypt will remain sitting idly by, as it will certainly have a clear position after all talks with the two sides are over."

Al-Dajani called on the Egyptian authorities to expedite economic and political relief for Palestinians, pointing out that Gazans are pinning their hopes on the Egyptian role in alleviating the stifling conditions of the blockade.

Sally Ibrahim is a Palestinian reporter with The New Arab based in the Gaza Strip