After the Pullout / Thousands Stuck in Gaza Strip Until Rafah Crossing Reopens

For the first time since Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, Palestinians were supposed to be able to cross the border to Egypt through the Rafah checkpoint today without being stopped and examined by Israelis. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who toured the border terminal on Wednesday, promised that today would be the big day, as agreed with the Egyptians.

But yesterday PA officials hinted that the Egyptians had reneged on the agreement, apparently due to Israel's objections.

Yesterday some 2,500 Palestinian students and some 300 sick people in the Gaza Strip were still biting their nails and fretting: Would they be able to leave today via the Rafah crossing, which Israel had closed down on September 7?

Until the implementation of the Oslo Accords in 1994, Gaza's residents could go abroad via the Allenby Bridge and Ben-Gurion Airport, after passing through the Erez checkpoint in the northern Gaza Strip. In the 1990s, Israel gradually cut the Strip off from the West Bank, prohibiting Gazans from leaving via the Allenby Bridge. At the same time, Palestinians were almost completely forbidden from leaving via Ben-Gurion Airport. Rafah remained Gaza's only connection with the outside world.

In 1999, more than half a million people passed through the crossing. During the past five years, Israel's restrictions on Palestinians' movement and its closure of the terminal for weeks on end reduced the number of people passing through to about 133,000 in 2004. This explains the Palestinians' feeling of suffocation, since most of them also were not allowed to leave via Erez.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Abbas' announcement on Wednesday that the Rafah checkpoint would open for students and those seeking medical treatment aroused much excitement. However, by last night it was not clear whether he would keep his promise. Meanwhile, thousands of people planning to go overseas were thwarted by the disengagement. The main victims are students studying abroad and patients with scheduled operations.

Last weekend, Israel allowed about 50 students to leave in two buses through the Erez checkpoint and the Allenby Bridge. In addition to those waiting to leave, many hundreds of Palestinians who were overseas are stuck in Egypt, unable to come home. They did not imagine that Israel would close down the Rafah checkpoint before the Strip's evacuation.

Long months of talks between the Israelis, Palestinians and Quartet representative James Wolfensohn did not produce an agreement on operating the Rafah crossing. Israel rejected the proposal to have Europeans supervise the security arrangements.

The Palestinians refuse to use the Israeli checkpoint at Kerem Shalom, which is still under construction. In any case, passage via Kerem Shalom would only complicate travel. There is no access to Kerem Shalom from the Gaza Strip. According to Palestinian sources, Israel says Gazans wishing to leave would first have to pass through the Erez checkpoint, where they would receive a temporary transit permit via Israel. Then they would have to return south some 60 kilometers to Kerem Shalom, and from there go to the Egyptian terminal in Rafah. Gazans returning from Egypt would have to leave from Kerem Shalom and enter the Strip via the Sufa crossing, which handles incoming construction materials.

Last Friday Israel reportedly threatened that unless the PA agreed to the Kerem Shalom arrangement, it would cancel all the agreements so far, revoke the customs agreement, refrain from removing the rubble from demolished houses and further sever Gaza from the West Bank.

After the IDF's pullout, the PA was eager to show it could operate the checkpoint and ensure its residents' freedom of movement. But when they entered the Rafah terminal, the Palestinians found that all the computers had been removed and all their cables had been torn out. The water and power supply had been cut off, furnishings had been removed and even the luggage conveyer belts had been torn out, to prevent the Palestinians from operating the terminal.