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The ragged border crossing that could become Gaza's lifeline

A Palestinian-German woman shows her German passport at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Saturday. The crossing point remains closed, but is a potential route for foreign passport holders to leave Gaza, and for humanitarian supplies to enter as the Mideast crisis worsens.
Hatem Ali
/
AP
A Palestinian-German woman shows her German passport at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Saturday. The crossing point remains closed, but is a potential route for foreign passport holders to leave Gaza, and for humanitarian supplies to enter as the Mideast crisis worsens.

I've made dozens of reporting trips to the Gaza Strip, most always because something terrible was happening. But there was one time when the mood was upbeat.

It was November 2005, and the place was the Rafah border crossing, at the southern end of Gaza, the gateway to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Today, dusty, ragged, Rafah is part of the latest Mideast crisis. But back then it was a small beacon of hope.

Israel had recently withdrawn all its settlers and soldiers from Gaza and Palestinians were taking control of the Rafah border crossing, an important practical and symbolic step.

"I think every Palestinian now has his passport ready in his pocket," said Mahmoud Abbas, who was then, and still is, the president of the Palestinian Authority. "Let them come to cross at this terminal whenever they want."

For the first time in nearly four decades, Palestinians could come and go from densely packed Gaza without having to pass through Israeli security. Rafah is the one Gaza crossing that doesn't connect to Israel, which had controlled all of Gaza's entry and exit points — including Rafah — after capturing the territory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

That was the promise of the Rafah crossing. The reality has been hugely disappointing for the past 18 years.

Israeli troops were no longer in Gaza. But the Israeli military and Hamas militants have battled long-distance, with Hamas firing rockets into Israel, and Israel hitting back with air strikes. They are now waging their most intense fighting ever.

Egypt, wary of Gaza's turmoil spilling over into its country, has often made it difficult for Gazans to pass through Rafah, particularly young Gazan men.

Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing at the southern end of Gaza, hoping to cross into Egypt on Monday. Negotiations to open the crossing, at least partially, are underway.
Fatima Shbair / AP
/
AP
Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing at the southern end of Gaza, hoping to cross into Egypt on Monday. Negotiations to open the crossing, at least partially, are underway.

A haven for smugglers

The border crossing splits the town of Rafah in two, with part on the Gaza side, and part on the Egyptian side. Many on one side have relatives on the other. When the crossing is open, Gazans go to Egypt for vacation, to study or to receive medical care.

Yet more often, the border has been closed or tightly restricted.

Rafah has long been a magnet for smugglers, who dug tunnels under the border, with some of entrance and exit points emerging inside homes on both sides of the border.

In quiet times, smugglers have brought in cigarettes and other goods to avoid taxes. In more recent years, Hamas used the tunnels to amass an arsenal of weapons, including some of those used in the surprise Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed more than 1,400 Israelis. More than 2,600 Palestinians have also died in the fighting.

The original tunnels in Rafah have expanded into the elaborate subterranean network Hamas has established under Gaza today. Many Hamas members are now believed to be hiding in the tunnels as the territory braces for what's expected to be a major Israeli ground incursion.

A possible opening

With U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shuttling between Mideast capitals, it appeared he had negotiated at least a partial opening of the Rafah crossing for Monday morning.

Hundreds of foreign nationals, including many Palestinian-Americans, lined up on the Gaza side in the hope that their passports would allow them to leave. On the Egyptian side, trucks carrying water, food, fuel and other humanitarian relief supplies were lined up, waiting to enter Gaza.

However, Israel dismissed reports that it was allowing aid to come in from Egypt, saying it believed it would be used by Hamas. Hamas has run Gaza since 2007, when it seized power in a bloody battle with its Palestinian rival, Fatah, the party of President Abbas.

"Israel has not agreed to give any humanitarian aid to Hamas," the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday.

The territory's more than 2 million people are running low on all basic supplies. Many residents have heeded Israel's warning and fled the northern part of Gaza, where Israeli troops have massed outside the border, for the southern end of the territory.

This has raised the possibility that large numbers of Palestinians may want to exit Gaza. However, many Palestinians fear that if they depart, they may not be allowed back in. In addition, Egypt has a long history of keeping the border closed in times of crisis because it does not want to see a flood of refugees surging into its territory.

Long gone is that promising moment in 2005.

Back then, I spoke with Attallah Abu Assi, 65, who was among 15 family members trying to reach Egypt to visit relatives. Over the previous five years, he said his family had tried about 30 times to pass through Rafah, but was always been turned back.

"Even if we have to wait until tomorrow, this is still a day of happiness because of all the obstacles we have faced," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.