Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat – Asharq Al-Awsat met with him twice by the Salah al Din Gate [Rafah crossing]; once last Saturday morning before the crossing was blocked, and a second time on Monday after it was resealed. In those two meetings, Munir al Arrir’s (45 years old) psychological state was substantially different. Married and supporting a family of 10, al Arrir told Asharq Al-Awsat that his life had changed dramatically during the 12 days in which the crossing was open between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
“Before the border crossing was opened I was unemployed and lived off aid that was provided by charitable institutions in order to support my family,” he said, “However after the border was opened I able to go back home every day with 400 Shekels (approximately US $100) in my pocket. My life has changed dramatically and positively and I find it hard to believe that this source of livelihood will dry up.”
After al Arrir heard that the border between Egypt and Gaza had been knocked down, Mustafa his cousin (20 years old) suggested that they could start a business partnership by selling goods in Gaza after purchasing them from north Sinai. Munir replied that he had no money but Mustafa told him that he had enough money to set up their venture. Al Arrir agreed and said that he would ask his wife if she would be willing to sell her jewelry to help raise funds for their business venture. She agreed and so the two crossed the border and stocked up on cigarettes, almonds, livestock and diesel fuel to bring back and sell on the strip.
Al Arrir said that his four children now had new clothes to wear to school for the first time after having to wear used ones bought from stands in Gaza’s popular markets. He also gave his wife 500 Shekels (approximately US $110), which he allocated for the school’s second term that began last week, in addition to a little extra to buy stationary and supplies for the children.
“I felt that I deserved to live,” disclosed al Arrir, “I found work throughout the 12 days [the border was resealed after] and used to leave the house at four in the morning to return at 10pm to find most of my children fast asleep.” Munir said he hoped that the border would remain open so that he could repay back his debts, which have reached 12,000 Shekels (approximately US $3,500).
Sitting in a taxi with Mustafa and Munir, Asharq Al-Awsat accompanied them on the journey to the border and past it as they stocked up on supplies and bought everything they could get. When asked why they were buying with such frenzy, Munir said, “Because we will sell them at a much greater profit.”
When Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Munir last Saturday he was in high spirits as he walked with Mustafa through Salah al Din Gate, however by Monday the signs of distress had started to appear on his face after elements from Egyptian security had resealed it. Al Arrir said that he had hopes that the border could be reopened again but in an official and legitimate manner.
As for Mustafa, who suffers a minor injury as a result of the occupational force’s gunfire following its raids on al Shagiaya Street where he lives, he told Asharq Al-Awsat that prior to the opening of the border he used to sit around in the family home, “I used to quarrel with the neighbors over trivial matters and did not feel like I knew who I was. I had not given marriage any consideration. However, after the crossing was opened, I got some money from my mother and sister to use for trading and it made me feel like anything was possible and that I was capable of fulfilling my dreams in life if the border remained open,” he said.
Moreover, Mustafa asserted that if he continued to make the same profit he was making for six months that he would be capable of purchasing an apartment and financing his wedding ¬– with the knowledge that he is an only child. Although both Munir and Mustafa are aware that their chances of getting across the border in the foreseeable future are close to zero, and because of that they hope that one day they could gain official and legitimate access into Egypt ¬– not only to north Sinai but rather throughout the whole country.
Talking to citizens who have crossed the border reveals that their lives have dramatically changed ¬– in those 12 days.
Azooz Barakat (54 years old) who drives his own truck in Gaza said that his life had completely transformed after the border crossing was left open; he supports a family of 10. Barakat told Asharq Al-Awsat that he usually only worked one day a week in which he transported some agricultural crops from the south of the strip to Gaza city in return for 80 Shekels (approximately US $22).
He added that he previously used to stay at home never going out except when his boss contacted him for work. My family only eats lentils, beans and dried peas, he said, since we never get meat because we cannot afford it. He added that his wife seldom invited family members over because they could not provide food for such occasions and were moreover indebted to the neighboring supermarket owner. Barakat revealed that one of his brothers who works in the Gulf sends him a small sum of money every once in a while to help him and his family get by.
Azooz said that as soon as his cousin called him that night, 23 January at one o’clock in the morning, and told him that the border was open, he immediately drove his truck up to the crossing so he could transport the goods into Gaza. He confirms that on that day he came back home with 1,500 Shekels (approximately US $450) saying that figures such as these are considered astronomical for someone who earns three dollars a week.
Barakat affirmed that throughout that week, his daily revenue was no less than 1,000 Shekels (approximately US $286) and added that he repaid back his loan to the shopkeeper and bought new clothes for his children and that his wife cooked meat everyday during that time.
But Barakat was aware that the border was going to be resealed again and is not optimistic that the crossing will be accessible once more, and thus said he hoped for there to be some form of agreement between Gaza and Egypt pertaining to the crossing.
“Everyone has now become aware that the Palestinians will no longer accept this miserable reality. And if the parties responsible for imposing the blockade do not become aware of what is happening, the consequences in the future will be much graver,” Barakat said.
Nahid al Masri, a 49-year-old resident of Gaza who was transferring scrap metal from Gaza into the Egyptian border believes that the manner with which the border had been opened was severely detrimental to the Palestinians and Egyptians alike. However, he told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Palestinians were compelled to do it because of the embargo and added that if the border were to remain sealed and if Israel were to continue imposing its blockade on Gaza, “the Palestinian people will destroy the border again, whether Egypt’s or Israel’s,” he said.
He questioned: “My income before the border was opened was zero but during the last 12 days I earned a minimum of 400 Shekels (approximately US $100) a day – so why do we have to go back to this miserable state?”
Ibrahim Shashi, 32 years old, owns a donkey-drawn cart and supports a family of 12. He transported goods across the border and said that his revenue went from 5 Shekels (one dollar) to 150 Shekels (approximately US $75) per day and added that he worked from dawn until late night.
“People here could be given another opportunity to access the border in a legitimate and official manner, but if the situation remains unchanged I will be among those who will head to the border and I will try to save my family from the poverty that we are living in,” Shashi said.
Despite the deep political disputes among the Palestinian factions as to who will be in charge of managing the Rafah crossing, they can agree that the border should be dealt with as a Palestinian-Egyptian crossing [accessible from both sides].
Dr. Yehia Moussa, deputy head of the Hamas parliamentary bloc in the Palestinian Legislative Council believes that despite the considerable rifts between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas movement with regards to the crossing, he is certain that an agreement may be reached.
Moussa hinted that Hamas would not insist on having an active representative presence on the crossing, provided two conditions are fulfilled: Firstly; that the border not be exploited to exert pressure on the Palestinians so that it becomes a form of collective punishment, and secondly; that the financial returns resulting from it are to be used for development services in Gaza so that no Palestinian party would exert full control over it.
A senior Fatah member, Taysir Nasrallah, stresses that all efforts must be focused on one goal, which is to make the Rafah crossing an Egyptian-Palestinian one in order to alleviate the suffering of the people’s life in Gaza. He added that all measures must be taken to ensure aid and relief for the residents of Gaza, pointing out that Israel had had taken advantage of the crossing in the past to oppress the Palestinians.
Parliamentarian Qais Abdul Karim and member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) bureau believes that any resolution over the border issue must involve all the concerned parties: the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the legitimate Palestinian authority, the PLO on one side and Egypt on the other. He also called upon the immediate implementation of the government’s (headed by Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad) proposal to take charge of the crossing. Abdul Karim also called on the European Union (EU), since it is a participating party in the agreement* to take action to end the Israeli hegemony over the crossing; in light of the occupational force’s ongoing punishment of the Palestinian people.
Meanwhile, some circles in Ismail Haniyeh’s ousted government have disclosed that the movement is inclined towards severing the economic ties between Gaza and Israel and reinforcing economic ties with Egypt instead. However, this idea was received with considerable reservations in the Palestinian arena.
Talal Okal, political commentator and writer has warned of scapegoating Egypt and blaming it for the difficult economic situation suffered by the Palestinians, which is the outcome of the Israeli blockade, in the case of the border between Egypt and Gaza remaining closed.
“Egypt can help”, he said, “but it should not be largely condemned because it is a sister state that has a national duty to fulfill towards the Palestinian people and their cause.”
Okal also warned of the consequences of reinforcing Gaza’s status as an independent entity and separating it from the West Bank ¬– in the event of Gaza forging an economic agreement with Egypt. However, he too believes that the chances of opening up the crossing are very slim in the foreseeable future, “because the crisis between Hamas and Abu Mazen has reached a point beyond resolution.”
Economic advisor to Haniyeh, Alaa al Araj, said that regardless of whether the border remained closed or open, the government in Gaza would not abandon its “resistance” to end the blockade imposed by Israel.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We are confident that the crossing will be reopened and there will be no need to repeat what happened. The Egyptian government recognizes the urgent need to put an end to the suffering that afflicts the Palestinians in Gaza.”
* On 15 November 2005, Israel and the Palestinian Authority concluded an “Agreement on Movement and Access”, including agreed principles for the Rafah crossing in Gaza. On 21 November 2005, EU Council welcomed the agreement and
conceded to undertake the third party role proposed in the agreement.