Palestinians appeal to Sissi to re-open Gaza crossing

Factions also call on president to order Egyptian army to stop harassing and humiliating Palestinian passengers at military checkpoints in Sinai

Khaled Abu Toameh is the Palestinian Affairs correspondent for The Times of Israel

A view of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, in the southern Gaza Strip on November 18, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)
A view of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, in the southern Gaza Strip on November 18, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip on Monday appealed to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to reopen the Rafah border crossing on a permanent basis, and end the “suffering” of hundreds of stranded passengers.

They also called on Sissi to order the Egyptian army to stop harassing and humiliating Palestinian passengers at military checkpoints in Sinai.

Last week, the Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah crossing for three days (Wednesday to Friday) for the first time since the beginning of 2018. However, they shut it again, as Egypt launched a military operation against the Islamic State in the Sinai.

Since the crossing was closed, hundreds of Palestinian passengers wishing to enter the Gaza Strip have been stranded on the Egyptian side of the border crossing.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in Cairo, Egypt, on January 17, 2018.  (MENA, Egypt’s state news agency, via AP)

Other passengers who left the coastal enclave through the crossing last week have been unable to continue their trip to Cairo, due to severe restrictions imposed by the Egyptian authorities. These passengers have found shelter in the Egyptian towns of Al Arish and Rafah.

A group called The Follow Up Committee for the National and Islamic Forces (in the Gaza Strip) sent a letter to Sissi urging him to keep the crossing open permanently.

The group, which represents various Palestinian factions, also complained that Palestinian passengers were being mistreated and humiliated at checkpoints set up by the Egyptian army in Sinai.

The operation coincided with a visit to Cairo by a senior Hamas delegation headed by the terror group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh greets supporters during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Hamas militant group, at the main road in Jebaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, on December 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Adel Hana/File)

The delegation has been holding discussions with Egyptian security officials on ways of beefing up security cooperation between Hamas and Egypt, and easing restrictions imposed on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In their letter to Sissi, the Palestinian factions called for crafting a mechanism that would “alleviate the suffering” of passengers through the Rafah border crossing.

The factions said that while they were aware of the “magnitude of security challenges in Sinai and the efforts made by the Egyptian army in the war on terrorism, (they) are deeply saddened by the stories of the suffering of Palestinian passengers at (Egyptian) checkpoints.”

The factions pointed out that most of the passengers who traveled through the Rafah border crossing last week, and who were affected by the tough security measures, were women, children, patients, and elderly people.

“On behalf of the Palestinian people and our sacrifices and the blood of the martyrs, we appeal to you to reopen the Rafah border crossing and facilitate the travel of Palestinians, especially through military checkpoints, as they are leaving or entering the Gaza Strip,” the letter said.

Palestinian passengers stranded on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing on Monday called on the Palestinian Authority embassy in Cairo to intervene with the Egyptians to address their plight.

Portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hang at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on November 1, 2017. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Mohammed Al Wahaidi, one of the stranded passengers, said that over 100 men, women, and children who left the Gaza Strip on Friday were being held by the Egyptian authorities about 50 meters (164 feet) away from the crossing.

“After we crossed the Rafah border crossing into Egypt last Friday, we were suddenly stopped by Egyptian military checkpoints,” he recounted. “Since then, they have prevented us from proceeding with our journey without offering any reason.”

The conditions of the stranded passengers are “harsh and shameful,” Wahidi said.

“They are sleeping out on the streets in the cold. No one knows about us and no one has intervened to help us. We hope that the Palestinian embassy in Cairo will do something to help us travel to Cairo.”

A woman wrote in a message to her family in the Gaza Strip: “We are being treated like animals by the Egyptians. We have been left without water and food.”

The Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Cairo, Diab Al Louh, said that he was in contact with the Egyptian authorities to solve the crisis.

He noted that many Palestinians have not been able to return to the Gaza Strip because of the continued closure of the Rafah crossing and the Egyptian military offensive against the jihadists in Sinai. Dozens of Palestinian passengers who were on their way to the Gaza Strip are also being held at Cairo Airport.

“The distressing situation of Palestinians stuck on both sides of the Rafah border and inside Cairo Airport following the Egyptian authorities’ decision to close the crossing for passengers traveling in and out of Gaza constitutes a tragedy to many stranded patients and students,” the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor warned.

The group said that the Egyptian authorities allowed only 650 stranded passengers to enter the Gaza Strip when the Rafah terminal was reopened last week. Hundreds of other Palestinians are still stranded and being held on the Egyptian side of the crossing, it added.

“Further, the Egyptian authorities have ordered the return of more than 44 vehicles loaded with Palestinians to Cairo Airport and refused to let them in (to the Gaza Strip),” the group said.

“Euro-Med received several statements from a number of stranded Palestinians at Cairo Airport, saying that security personnel at the airport were holding about 100 people, mostly patients, students and children, in one room without providing them with food, drink or blankets. Most of them cannot afford to buy food.”

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