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February 22, 2009

Border Politics Slows Aid to Gaza

by Jim Lobe

Egyptian authorities are continuing to prevent humanitarian aid from crossing the border into the Gaza Strip, according to local sources.

"Until now, only about a quarter of all humanitarian aid to arrive in Egypt has made it across the border into Gaza," Hatem Al-Bulk, journalist and political activist, told IPS. "It's all piling up in Al-Arish because the authorities are refusing to let it through the Rafah border crossing." Al-Arish is located some 40 kilometers west of the border in Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

Egyptian Prime Minster Ahmed Nazif declared in parliament Feb. 9 that over the previous six weeks more than 5,000 tons of medical supplies and more than 6,000 tons of foodstuffs had entered the Gaza Strip via Egypt's Rafah border crossing. Nazif said that over this period "Rafah was open on a continuous basis for humanitarian considerations."

Independent sources at the border challenge Nazif's assertions, saying that far less aid has been allowed through Rafah. The Rafah crossing is the only transit point along Egypt's 14-kilometer border with the Gaza Strip. Egyptian authorities have kept the Rafah crossing sealed for the most part since Palestinian resistance faction Hamas seized control of the strip in the summer of 2007 (after winning elections in 2006).

On Feb. 1, ten opposition and independent MPs who had been denied entry into Gaza two days earlier declared that no humanitarian aid from Egyptian donors had passed through Rafah since the end of the conflict. "Forty thousand tons of food rations have been denied entry and are still sitting in the cities of Rafah and Al-Arish," they declared in a joint statement.

Local sources tell IPS there has been no sudden rush of aid going in since Feb. 1.

Egypt has defended its unpopular border policies by pointing to a 2005 U.S.- sponsored security pact between Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA). According to that agreement, the Rafah crossing cannot be opened in the absence of officials from the U.S.-backed PA – Hamas's bitter rival – and EU observers.

Unnamed border authorities have also been quoted in the local press as saying that the Rafah crossing is "not equipped" to handle large aid convoys.

The situation appeared to worsen Feb. 5 when Egyptian officials announced that Rafah would be formally sealed. "The Rafah crossing will be definitively closed and will be opened only in the case of dire humanitarian emergencies," North Sinai governor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha was quoted as saying in local media.

Shousha said humanitarian aid convoys would henceforth enter Gaza "only by way of the Kerem Abu Sallem and Al-Auja crossings." These two crossings both lie astride Egypt's border with Israel – roughly 10 and 50 miles south of Rafah respectively – and not along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip.

Attempts to circumvent Rafah, the strip's only entry point not under Israeli control, have been made before.

Shortly after Hamas's 2007 seizure of Gaza, Israel began calling for the use of Kerem Abu Sallem as the sole entry point into Gaza. Egypt, citing the 2005 border security arrangement, seconded the proposal.

Hamas leaders strongly objected, saying that the replacement of Rafah with the Israeli-controlled Kerem Abu Sallem would "sanctify the Israeli siege" on the Gaza Strip. Days later, Palestinian resistance factions underlined their rejection of the proposed arrangement by shelling positions near the crossing.

Nevertheless, local sources say most humanitarian aid has entered the Gaza Strip since the recent conflict through Al-Auja and Kerem Abu Sallem. "Since the conflict began, all the food aid sent to Gaza from Egypt has passed through the Al-Auja and Kerem Abu Sallem crossings, not Rafah," said Al- Bulk, a resident of Al-Arish.

From there, Al-Bulk said, aid shipments are taken by Israeli authorities, who collect 55 dollars a ton customs duties from the Palestinian Authority, and then deliver the shipments to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA officials then distribute the aid.

The circuitous route has led to bitter complaints by aid donors.

"A hundred tons of food aid from Qatar is stuck in Al-Arish because the Egyptian government insists on sending it to Gaza via Al-Auja," Ahmed Othman, head of a prominent Qatari charity organization involved in sending donations was quoted as saying by independent daily Al-Dustour on Feb. 3. "Qatar completely rejects this."

According to Hamdi Hassan, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, Egypt's reluctance to open the Rafah crossing on a permanent basis represents "proof of the regime's complicity with Israel against the elected, Hamas-led government in Gaza.

"The continued closure of Rafah is an essential component of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip," Hassan told IPS. "By simply opening Rafah on a permanent basis, Egypt could – if it wanted to – bring an end to the siege single-handedly."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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