Palestinians Stranded in Egypt

Human Rights

Last week, I awoke to the persistent stammering of my 2-year-old son Yousuf: "I think today the crossing will open mama!" After we had waited at the border for over two weeks, Yousuf's prediction came true. Israel finally opened the border for a few hours.

Amidst chaotic crowds of thousands of stranded travelers, my son and I managed to squeeze through Gaza's Rafah crossing from Egypt to reach our home in the Gaza Strip.

However, the hardships persist for thousands of Palestinians on both the Egyptian and Gaza sides of the passage who were unable to cross during those fleeting hours. They now must wait until the Israeli government temporarily opens the border again.

The Rafah Crossing, the gateway to the world for 1.4 million Gazans, was shut by Israel in late June after Palestinians captured an Israeli soldier. It has been open only for a few days since.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region last week. Her visit coincided with the one-year anniversary of the Gaza Agreement on Movement and Access she brokered. The agreement aimed to facilitate the movement of Palestinian people and goods and to lead to Palestinian control over Rafah Crossing after one year.

At the time, she proudly promised that it would "give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives."

The year has passed, and all our crossings, our air, our water, and our lives remain under Israeli control.

In fact, according to a November 30th UN OCHA report, the Israeli government has broken every single provision of the Agreement.

Israel began violating its commitments immediately, well before Hamas' election victory, refusing to allow supervised bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank, or to speed the flow of vital goods into and out of Gaza.

Israel had also agreed not to close Rafah and other crossings due to security incidents unrelated to the crossing itself. For example, according to the Agreement, Palestinian rocket fire into Israel -- now largely ceased â€" does not constitute a valid reason for closing Rafah.

So why close Rafah? Countering Israeli accusations, senior European diplomats told both Israel's Jerusalem Post and Ynet News that there have been no major Palestinian violations of the agreement, and that weapons are not smuggled through the crossing. The European Union has monitors stationed at the crossing pursuant to the border agreement.

An Israeli military document leaked to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz in August suggested that the closure was intended "apply pressure" on Gaza's residents to return the captured Israeli soldier. This action, says the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, constitutes collective punishment of Gaza's civilian population, a grave violation of international humanitarian law.

But instead of holding Israel accountable, last week Secretary Rice praised Israeli Prime Minister Olmert for taking steps likely to "advance the peace processes in the region."

One week ago, upon hearing rumors of the crossing's imminent opening, we rushed there along with thousands of other stranded Palestinians. We waited for seven hours two days in a row, languishing in limbo, only to learn that the Israelis had closed the crossing again after a single hour.

We stood in the sun packed together like cattle, penned in between steel barriers on one end, and Egyptian riot police on the other.

"We've been waiting for 15 days. Only God knows when it will open -- today, tomorrow, the day after?" 58-year-old Abu Yousuf Barghut told me.

His wife wept silently by his side. "We went to seek treatment for him. My four children are waiting for me in Gaza. We just want to return home now, that's all." Nearby, a group of people tried to comfort a young girl with muscular dystrophy, who was screaming uncontrollably in her wheelchair.

Israel denies Gazans access to all other borders passages except Rafah. With Rafah closed, patients cannot get medical treatment, students cannot reach universities or work abroad, and family members are separated from one another.

Providing Palestinians with their most basic rights -- the right to move freely in and out of their own land -- is critical to furthering peace, and ensuring a viable Palestinian state.

Neither Israel, the U.S. government, nor the rest of the world, can imprison 1.4 million Palestinians, and expect that somehow, someway, their "problem" will disappear.

We certainly aren't going anywhere.

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