RAFAH — It has been one month since the Rafah Border Crossing was opened, marking the longest window in which Gaza residents have been permitted to leave and reenter their besieged territory since 2013.
What was initially purported to be a four-day opening was extended on May 17, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced that travel across the Egypt-Gaza border would be permitted throughout the month of Ramadan. (On Tuesday, Egypt extended the opening for at least another two months, ANSA Mediterranean news service reports)
In recent days, Mada Masr spoke to several travelers waiting on the Palestinian side of the crossing.
Zuheir al-Qashash, 44, a father of four, was there with his family. "I sold my apartment," he says. "I registered my entire family for crossing, and we are going to live with my mother in Egypt. To live in Gaza is to die slowly. I will not have my children continue to suffer through what we have been experiencing for the past 10 years."
Qashash tells Mada Masr that he paid nearly $7,000 for registration and "coordination in order to cross through Rafah."
"It's a big gamble," he says. "But the biggest gamble of all is to patiently wait in Gaza, in hopes that conditions will improve."
To travel across the Rafah crossing, Palestinians must board special buses and pay large sums of money to register through travel agencies in Gaza. These agencies then submit applications to officers on the Egyptian side, according to several people who attempted the trip. Once officials in Palestine receive a select list of names approved by the Egyptians, they notify those selected to prepare to cross. The list, however, is always handwritten and never bears the official mark of Egypt's Interior Ministry or any other government agency.
We have to take advantage of this opportunity.
Palestinians have left Gaza in increasing numbers since the 2014 war with Israel. It is not unusual for entire families to leave at the same time, according to copies of the lists of travelers obtained by Mada Masr. Some of these families have since relocated to Europe.
The sight of entire families waiting at the Palestinian terminal for their passage to be approved has become increasingly common, following Sisi's Ramadan announcement.
Maryam Abu Serr's family is one of them. "I'm taking a trip with my children and grandchildren. Then I will come back alone to be with my husband," who stayed behind, she tells Mada Masr.
Abu Serr is slowing down in her old age, and she wishes she could have her grandchildren around to help her. But she opted to have them escape the decade-long blockade. "This is the first time the Rafah crossing has been opened in this way. We have to take advantage of this opportunity and remove the children from the hell that is Gaza," she says.
Ramzy Abul Qumsan, a public relations officer at the Palestinian General Agency for Crossings and Borders (GACB), tells Mada Masr that approximately 4,000 people left Gaza between May 12 and the close of last week, at an average rate of 250 people each day.
In that same period, 534 people reentered Gaza, and the Egyptian authorities have denied 522 people entry into Egypt.
The GACB, an affiliate of the Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry, has yet to disclose any official figures on the number of people who have crossed the border since May 12. The agency is expected to release final statistics once the crossing is closed again.
The Rafah Border Crossing has been periodically opened in the past, but typically only for three days at a time. According to Abul Qumsan, up to 1,000 people would be granted passage into Egypt each day during these openings, compared to the 250 daily average permitted entry by Egypt over the last month.
Several Palestinians who spoke to Mada Masr see a need for the Egyptian authorities to permit more people through.
Momen Sokkar, a 34-year-old plumber and security guard for a residential building, tells Mada Masr, "This is the first time I have attempted a trip. I'm a father of four. My uncle in Turkey got me a job and I hope to be able to get there this month."
This partial easing of the siege comes amid ongoing Israeli violence during the Great March of Return protests. On May 13, one day before Israeli forces killed at least 62 people, a Palestinian delegation — headed by Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas' political bureau — left Cairo after a round of diplomatic talks with Egypt's General Intelligence Service (GIS) to discuss a European Union proposal that would have lifted the siege in exchange for an end to the Great March of Return protests.
"Hamas agreed to the proposal," one of the sources said. "But it was not happy about the unstable security conditions at the Rafah Border Crossing, which prevent the crossing from remaining open at all times." Hamas had demanded that a sea and air corridor be opened and managed by joint international committees as a condition for acceptance of the agreement. But the Egyptians rejected this condition.
The timing and the unusually short duration of the two-hour meeting prompted speculation. When the violence broke out the following day, Egypt offered to facilitate the Rafah crossing and allowed the passage of urgent humanitarian and medical aid supplies.
The crossing is volatile.
Palestinian observers perceived the measures taken by the Egyptians, and the ensuing media campaign, as an attempt to portray Hamas as using the mass mobilization to leverage either limited progress in the talks or acceptance of the continuation of its rule over the Gaza Strip. These efforts were aided by Hamas' political performance, which fell short of the public's expectations — at least with respect to its management of the political battle that paralleled the popular movement, according to Palestinian observers. Back in November, Hamas had handed over control other the Rafah Border Crossing — alongside the Beit Hanoun and Karm Abu Salem crossings between Gaza and occupied Palestine — to the Palestinian Authority as part of a reconciliation agreement reached between the groups and mediated by Egypt.
Safaa Khalil, 30, has been residing in Stockholm since 2007. The news of the land crossing being open throughout the month of Ramadan motivated her to pack her bags and plan the journey back to her hometown with her children. However, she hesitated and has not been able to make a final decision about whether to embark on the trip. "The crossing is volatile," she tells Mada Masr over the phone. "I fear, if we come home, that we would get trapped inside and not be able to go back to our work and lives."
Back at the Palestinian terminal, Khalil's mother, Fayza Ashour, tells Mada Masr: "I long to smell my daughter. I long to hug her children."