Gazans at Egypt border seek to escape blockade
RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: Separated from the impatient crowd by a flimsy barrier, Palestinian policemen read out names, their voices barely audible above the din.
Those called file forward, relieved to finally be leaving the crowded and ramshackle Gaza Strip for neighboring Egypt, some for the first time.
Many have a single large suitcase or holdall as they sit on benches in the gymnasium which serves as a waiting room in the southern Gazan town of Khan Yunis.
From there, they board a bus for the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, about 20 minutes away.
Since mid-May, after five long years in which the frontier was largely closed, Egyptian authorities have opened the crossing several days a week.
About 200 people make the trip in a day, a small number compared to the nearly two million people crammed into Gaza.
Yet it represents one of only two routes out of the strip and the only one not controlled by Israel.
Since Islamists Hamas seized control of the 360 square kilometer (139 square mile) territory in 2007, Israel has maintained a crippling blockade and imposes tight restrictions on its sole people crossing.
For much of that time Egypt has opened its Rafah border only intermittently, meaning those leaving didn’t know if and when they may be able to return.
Mosleh Derby, 21, waits in the sunshine, watching the tea and cigarette pedlars calling out their wares.
A medical student in Cairo, he had not been home to Gaza for three years until June for fear of getting stuck.
Despite registering for his return journey with the Gazan authorities in advance, Derby said he has been so delayed that he has already missed the first two weeks of class.
Some students who paid extra fees traveled earlier, he claimed.
Inside the gymnasium, many travelers reluctantly admit having paid between $1,500 and $2,000 for what they call “coordination” to travel.
Hamas interior ministry spokesman Iyad Al-Bozum denied that Palestinian border officials took payments.
“But some citizens can get in touch with officials on the Egyptian side of the crossing and make it easier for them to leave,” he said.
Bozum said there is currently a list of thousands of Gazans waiting to exit the strip, who are notified online when their turn comes.
Since Islamist president Muhammad Mursi was overthrown in 2013 and his Muslim Brotherhood movement quashed, Egypt has kept its Gaza border largely closed.
Cairo accuses Hamas, which began as an offshoot of the Brotherhood, of supporting militants fighting its security forces in the largely uninhabited Sinai region bordering Gaza.
Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed.
Egypt destroyed many tunnels for smuggling under the border, exacerbating Gaza’s isolation.
But relations between Hamas and Egypt have thawed somewhat, allowing Rafah to be opened regularly since May.
Only students, those in need of medical treatment, Muslim pilgrims or people with foreign citizenship or residence papers are allowed through.
The flow of travelers remains a trickle compared to the past, said Abdallah Shahin, 32, who has been a porter at the crossing for 15 years.
Under Mursi, he said, “every day, 30 buses crossed the border, it was about 1,800 people.”
Nowadays, he says, “those who leave do not come back, they emigrate.”
Such is the dream of an architecture student who gives his name only as Khalil.
He wants to go back to Germany, where he was born but never obtained citizenship.
“One way, no return,” he said.
“Abroad it’s different... someone creative can succeed.”
Two of his friends have already left, he said, calculating the cost for himself at more than $3,000, including at least $2,000 to get across the Rafah border.
At the departure point the bus starts its engine to a cacophony of farewells.
“On the Egyptian side, if all goes well, you wait for around six hours. Otherwise you spend the night there and sleep at the border post,” said Derby, the medical student.
The forced overnight stay is because of Sinai curfew regulations preventing travel at night, an Egyptian border official told AFP.
The remaining trip to Cairo is a long one, because of repeated stops at security checkpoints.
“Before 2007 I used to arrive in Cairo in six hours, now it takes at least 48 hours,” said Hosam Al-Ajuri, 35, heading to complete his history studies in Egypt.
Left behind in Khan Yunis is Aida Baraka, 52, who since June has been waiting for permission to visit her sick niece in Jordan.
Although her name was not once of those posted online she came to try her luck anyway.
“Where is the humanity?” she asked, her niqab revealing only her dark eyes.
She accused Egypt of not doing enough to help.
“The nearest ones to us are the Egyptians,” she said. “I want them to be human!“