There is one land crossing out of Gaza, Rafah on Egypt's border, and it is usually shut, confounding the life and travel plans of thousands of Palestinians.
RAFAH — Here in southern Gaza, the Rafah crossing is the only exit point for Palestinians from the narrow strip of land sandwiched between Israel and Egypt. The possibility of actually passing through into Egypt, in order to travel to any foreign destination, has become an almost mythical prospect. More than 25,000 Palestinians registered and waiting to leave can testify to this reality.
Alaf al-Saafini is one of them. Several times since graduating in medicine in 2015 from Gaza's Islamic University, this sharply-dressed young woman thought her lucky day had arrived. First there was a surprise grant to pursue her studies at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, which she had to forego since she could not leave Gaza. Then, last spring, she was offered work and a visa in Dubai. She packed her bags, paid the $1,700 to certify her degree and registered on the long list of people trying to cross the Rafah terminal into Egypt. Again, the veritable siege of Gaza thwarted her plans.
After several months of waiting, "they called me on October 14 to say I could go through tomorrow," she recalls. "As I entered a shop, people around me started talking about an armed attack that had just happened in Sinai. We then found out Egypt had decided to postpone opening the crossing. I'll be 30 soon, and that day, I saw my dreams melt away."
Trapped in Gaza by a decade-long blockade, some 26,000 Palestinian travelers are registered with the authorities and waiting for Rafah to reopen. Most have lost hope. The Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas recently retook control of the crossing as part of its reconciliation pact with Hamas, the Islamist party that's been running Gaza for the past decade. Abbas has promised a swift restoration of normality at the border, and Palestinian civil servants are back at the crossing. Initially it was to reopen on Nov. 1, then on Nov. 15, though that date was also postponed within hours of its announcement.
The government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fighting a Salafist insurgency in Sinai that last week attacked a mosque in the deadliest attack in modern history. Sisi's government said Rafah will reopen only when security conditions there allow it. Egypt certainly does not want to see the frontier become a porous crossing point for Islamic State terrorists, nor is it ready for now to relinquish control of a gateway that constitutes an effective lever for pressuring both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
He doesn't want me to step foot in here again.
Since early 2017, Rafah has been open just 14 days, and only 2,624 travelers have been permitted to leave Gaza. Politicians "keep dangling promises before our eyes," says Mona el-Banna, 23. "We are finding it more and more difficult to believe them." She has been trying to leave since January, to travel to Turkey where her husband is studying. Like the vast majority of Palestinians, she will find it virtually impossible to get permission to go through Israel, which makes Egypt the only exit gate.
Another medical graduate, 26-year-old Wala Faez, says "if I had known for a moment that I would be blocked like this, I would never have decided to return to do my internship at the Shifa Hospital." She studied medicine in Cairo, and has been trying for five months to return and start her specialization in gynecology.
There is nothing exceptional about this situation, says Abeer Aarouk, 47. She has found herself stuck in Gaza twice before. The first time was about 10 years ago, shortly after Hamas took power. She had to wait 19 months before illegally crossing what used to be a fluid frontier. Then, in 2014, she was stuck again for seven months. "My husband has refused to return since 2005, and says he doesn't want me to step foot in here again. But in spite of all these hardships, I simply don't feel I can burn all the bridges with my family and the place where I grew up," she says, sadly.
Briefly, during Mohammed Morsi's presidency in Egypt, more than 200,000 Palestinians managed to use the crossing, but it does not seem as if it will reopen permanently before the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt agree on a system to control people coming and going. The Authority's "pretty promises' should be taken with caution, says Raneen Ziara, a young woman sitting a little restlessly on her sofa at home. A cheerful expression and a touch of lip gloss can barely hide the way she nervously plays with the bejeweled ring on her right-hand ring finger. "I was engaged on September 3, 2015 and have waited since then to join the man who must, as tradition holds, pass the ring from one hand to the other."
Like so many other Palestinians confined to Gaza, Ziara hovers between giving up and the fierce urge to build herself a normal life in spite of adversity. One day, she says smiling, "out of despair, I called my fiancé to encourage him to end it all and start afresh with another woman. But he said he would never give up."
Her mother looks at her with benevolence, and has also encouraged her not to give up, though she herself makes an effort to suppress her fears about the future. She speaks as her daughter leaves for a minute to adjust her beige headscarf. On the one hand, she says, "I pray my daughter can finally fulfill her dream, but on the other, I tremble when I think we might never see each other again."