By Victoria Schneider, Aljazeera, 25 October 2015
At the end of the road that leads from Gaza to Egypt is a big black gate. It’s locked. A thick layer of dirt has settled on the plastic chairs in the waiting area beside it. An empty fridge and an empty counter are dusty reminders that this is supposed to be a busy border crossing.
Two men are sitting on prayer rugs in the shade. They used to work in the departures hall and are now security guards with nothing to do, as border operations were shut down by the Egyptian government after two attacks in the Sinai last year left 33 Egyptian soldiers dead.
“Did you see the martyr?” asks one of them. Earlier that day, the body of Ahmed al-Khaledi, who died in the Ankara bombings a few weeks ago, was allowed to enter Gaza.
“Rafah now opens only for the dead,” says photographer Ezz al-Zanoon. “Maybe I must die to get out,” he adds, laughing about his morbid joke.
The 23-year old Palestinian wants to leave – like almost every young person in Gaza these days. But travelling has become nearly impossible since Egypt has started a crackdown on Hamas, the Palestinian movement that governs Gaza, which the Egyptians has accused of being involved in the deadly attacks last October.
As a result, Egypt shut the Rafah border, the only remaining gateway for Palestinians in Gaza to the outside world, after Israel had imposed a siege on the Strip in 2007. With this total closure, 1.8 million Palestinians are “locked in and denied free access to the world”, as the UN Agency OCHA wrote in a report in July, a condition which is weighing heavily on people’s psyche.
“We are tired. Fed up. We don’t have energy any more,” says Nagham Mohanna, a senior training programme coordinator at the Gaza Center for Media Freedom.
Mohanna was abroad when the crossing closed last year. Her two-week visit in Dubai turned into a 50-day nightmare. “I went crazy,” she remembers. “My visa ran out, and I couldn’t buy a ticket to Cairo because Egypt prevented Palestinians from returning because of the situation.”
“You are suddenly deprived of the right to decide by yourself,” she continues. “I had to leave Dubai. I couldn’t go home and didn’t get a visa to go anywhere else. You feel like nobody wants you.”
Mohanna finally succeeded to get a ticket to Egypt, where she was stuck for another week before the border was opened for two days to let stranded Palestinians cross back into the strip: “There were so many people. The Egyptian security guards beat people up; they shot [their guns] into the air. Many of the people trying to cross didn’t make it.”
The experience was so bad that Mohanna says she will not try to leave again as long as the situation persists.
Since last October, Egypt has only opened Rafah occasionally – for two or three days at a time – and mostly only in one direction. According to Eyad al-Bozom, the spokesman of the Interior Ministry in Gaza, the last year was the worst year for border crossings in five years.
The last time the crossing was opened was 65 days ago. “It’s the right of everyone to move. Animals are allowed to move, why can’t we?” asks Bozom. “Gaza’s people are living in a prison.”
Before Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi started an ongoing campaign in July 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas respectively, which Egypt considers an extension of the movement, things were different: In 2012, an average of 34,000 people crossed Rafah every month.
After Sisi and the Egyptian military toppled then-President Mohammed Morsi, relations with Gaza deteriorated dramatically. In 2014, the border remained closed for 241 days, and in 2015 it was open for a mere 19 days.
According to the Interior Ministry in Gaza, there are currently 25,000 humanitarian cases of Palestinians waiting to leave through Rafah, among them those with illnesses, students, and foreign passport holders.
Bozom says he has no information about when the border will open, nor does he expect the situation to improve as “Egypt does not show any sign [of intending] to change the status quo”.
Hasan Zeyada, head of Gaza Community Center’s mental health programme, has observed the psychological impacts of the closure: “We can see a growing feeling of helplessness,” especially among the youth. This is mixed with a feeling of disappointment about their neighbour, Egypt, as “we used to respect each other in the past”.
The impossibility to predict anything and of being completely controlled by external forces leads to a state of despair, says Zeyada. “People are losing their will, and at one point, [they] stop trying,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s a form of torture.”
But people inside Gaza are not the only ones affected. Mohammed Jabaly is a film-maker who left Gaza the week before the crossing was shut down. He was going to Norway for a month, but that’s now become a year. “Everything is available here: electricity, water, work … But not being able to see my family is really hard,” Jabaly told Al Jazeera.
He doesn’t know what will happen in the future. He only knows that going back now is no option. The risk of being stuck in Gaza is too high.
“I knew I might be locked in for months if I came [to Gaza],” says Mohammed Saftawi, a 25-year-old PhD student in Gent who came to conduct research for his thesis. Saftawi has involuntarily been in Gaza since August. “The price you pay if you decide to come to Gaza is high.”
Saftawi is stressed. He was supposed to start working at a partner university in Ankara last week, but has no idea when he will be able to leave again. He can no longer enjoy the view of the sunset in the coffee shop. “I should leave. I am losing everything,” he says.
The humanitarian and economic situation in the Gaza Strip has worsened significantly over the last year, mostly due to the nine years of the Israeli-imposed siege, as well as the devastating effects of repeated wars by Israel on the coastal territory, most recently in 2014.
International organisations, UN agencies and the World Bank have been calling for the lifting of the blockade for years.
According to the OCHA closure report from August, the dire situation the people of Gaza are in was “compounded by the Egyptian restrictions at Rafah crossing”. Another UN report published in September warned that, if current trends persist, Gaza could become “uninhabitable” by 2020.
“The Rafah crossing became a lifeline to a society being strangled at so many levels – at the level of the individual, the family and whole communities,” says Christopher Gunness, spokesperson of UNRWA.
“Opening Rafah permanently is not an alternative to a full lifting of the Israeli blockade. All crossings, including Rafah, must be opened without restrictions if some two million people in Gaza are to avoid further descent into a humanitarian crisis, which is depriving them of rights and dignity on an appalling scale.”