Egyptian authorities are continuing to prevent
humanitarian aid from crossing the border into the Gaza Strip, according to
"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
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
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."
(Inter Press Service)