The ‘freedom gate’: Between Gaza and Egypt’s hospitals

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Twenty-year-old Essam Hasna is a cancer patient from the Gaza Strip who was supposed to get his treatment four months ago. In February, he went to the Rafah crossing – the main gateway for Gaza patients to Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the outside world – and was told by Egyptian border control that he could not cross over to Egypt because his brother, Mohammed, who was accompanying Essam on the journey, had been blacklisted by Egyptian authorities.

In 2008, Mohammed was put on a blacklist for those denied entry into Egypt, and for reasons that are still unknown, he said. Despite being put on the list, he had been able to travel to Egypt on a security clearance from the Egyptian intelligence until last June, when mass protests and a military coup forced the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, resulting in increased security measures, most heavily on the borders.

Mohammed told Al-Akhbar that he and many others like him had been unjustly blacklisted and are suffering as a result. He feels that his status has dealt a blow to his ailing brother Essam, who needs to receive the necessary medical attention across the border in Egypt, as such treatment is not available in Gaza because of Israel’s suffocating siege. Before June, Mohammed and Essam were able to make four medical trips together.

There are around 1,000 medical cases, like Essam’s, all of whom are in urgent need of medical attention. “I am willing to stand in front of a court to exonerate myself from the accusations held against me,” he said, his voice tinged with desperation.

There are around 1,000 medical cases, like Essam’s, all of whom are in urgent need of medical attention, Iyad al-Bozm, Gaza’s Interior Ministry spokesperson, told Al-Akhbar in a phone interview.

Al-Bozm claimed that sealing the borders caused a surge of fatalities in patients who were unable to seek treatment in Egyptian hospitals. The Rafah crossing specifically is considered the only humanitarian port of refuge for some 1.7 million Palestinians living under an Israeli-imposed blockade of the strip since 2007.

Since the beginning of 2014 until the end of May, Rafah crossing has been opened only 14 out of 120 days, limiting access to humanitarian cases and for other authorised travelers – including foreign nationals and visa holders. The longest closure this year lasted 50 days and ended in March.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report published in March 2014, only 40 Gaza patients were able to travel to Egypt through Rafah, compared to more than 4,000 in the same month in 2013.

The decision to reopen the borders in March allegedly came after Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, speaking at the Arab League Summit in Kuwait that same month, stressed the need to “lift the misery off Palestinians in Gaza”.

Al-Bozm also expressed other misgivings about the lack of coordination between the Egyptian and Gazan authorities.

“The Egyptian authorities will notify us unexpectedly as to when the borders will open, without prior coordination or notification. We can never predict when that will happen,” he said.

When the borders finally reopen, he added, it is for no longer than four days a month.

Political borders

The near permanent closure “fulfills an Egyptian security need that has arisen due to the movement of individuals with certain political affiliations across the borders between Gaza and Egypt, and vice versa,” Eman Ragab, senior researcher at the Security and Strategic Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Akhbar.

After militants attacked an army post in North Sinai in August 2012, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers, Egypt’s government began to eliminate hundreds of underground tunnels running between the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, a key route for the trafficking of goods – and, Egyptian officials allege, weapons – to anti-government militants in Sinai.

As of September 21, 2013, the crackdown left only 10 tunnels in operation, down from an approximate 300 operational tunnels prior to June 2013.

Since mounting a major offensive against Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula – operating on a quasi-daily basis since last September – Egypt has accused Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rulers of Gaza, of meddling in its internal affairs as well as having a hand in the spike of terrorist activities in the country and throwing its support behind its allies: Morsi and the Brotherhood.

Hamas has denied these accusations.

We call on Egypt not to open the borders for aid – because we do not need aid and convoys to come. Rather, we need human rights. In March, the Egyptian government officially declared Hamas a terrorist organisation, and issued a ban on the party’s activities in Egypt, reaffirming a pre-existing animosity between both parties.

In that vein, Hamas needs to “better its image with the Egyptian authorities,” who have had a shaky relationship with Hamas since the movement’s came into power in Gaza, Ragab said.

Above all: Human rights

In response to the dire situation, human rights activists and defenders have scrambled to bring the issue to the world’s attention.

Palestinian Majed Abusalama, a human rights defender and award-winning journalist, runs an international campaign that has popularised the Twitter hashtags #OpenRafahBordersNow and #LiftTheBlockade.

He has traveled to nearly 30 countries, mostly in Europe, in order to sound the alarm on the dangers of the permanent closure of the Egypt-Gaza borders. He along with solidarity groups and activists that have joined his cause have gathered 13,000 signatures in a petition drive, which has been presented to Egyptian embassies and foreign governments.

Unlike some activists, though, his plea is visceral. “We call on Egypt not to open the borders for aid – because we do not need aid and convoys to come. Rather, we need human rights,” he told Al-Akhbar.

Abusalama started the campaign after being deported back to Gaza in 2012 for his political activism in Egypt.

“The Rafah border is the freedom gate, where dreams and life pass through for students and patients who are dreaming of leading a better life,” he said.

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