|Rafah crossing closure takes tragic toll|
By Laila El-Haddad in Cairo & Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank
Monday 17 January 2005, 23:43 Makka Time, 20:43 GMT
Some 7000 people are stranded due to Rafah crossing`s closure
At least seven Palestinian refugees stranded at the Egypt-Rafah border crossing closed by Israel for the past six weeks have succumbed to various illnesses.
The dead men were part of 7000 people stranded somewhere between Cairo and the Rafah border crossing - the only crossing they can use to travel in and out of Gaza - since an explosion in a tunnel beneath the border killed six Israeli occupation soldiers on 12 December.
Medical sources in Gaza and security sources in Egypt have spoken of families waiting to bury their dead in their hometown of Gaza, but forced to resort to the Egyptian border town of al-Arish after being turned back at the crossing.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Palestinian patients who are badly in need of medical treatment abroad have likewise been prevented from travelling through the crossing point, in violation of their basic rights.
The rights group says the closure is a form of collective punishment under international law.
Lutfi Beldjelti, protection officer at the Cairo office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), visited the border crossing last week to assess the status of thousands of stranded Palestinians who have now effectively become refugees, many for a second time.
According to Beldjelti, there are at least 23 cases of Palestinians not allowed to leave the terminal hall itself into other Egyptian cities for what was cited as `security reasons`.
`Until yesterday 23 people were still there, not allowed to stay on Egyptian soil. We are trying with the authorities to help them stay in Egyptian soil. We even found a UN staff member with whom he can stay, but the Egyptian government refused,` he said.
Palestinian refugees ordinarily fall under UNRWA`s mandate, which has no offices in Egypt. As a result, the UNHCR has been doing what it can to assist the thousands of stranded Palestinians on a case-by-case basis. It has been unable to reach stranded Palestinians scattered throughout bordering towns, however.
`The [stranded Palestinians] do not have a protection programme, but we have shown the willingness to assist the government [in] assisting these people. It is limited but we are trying to do our best. We are mainly concerned that people are not allowed to move about the country,` Beldjelti said.
Reduced to begging
Families have been torn apart as a result of the closure, which comes just one week before Palestinians celebrate a major Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha.
Wisam Abu Shariya, a physician, spoke to Aljazeera.net from a motel on the Egyptian side of the crossing. `I came to attend a four-day course in Cairo University, and I have been stuck here for 40 days now,` she said.
`In these two months I have seen only bitterness and despair. I left my 15-month-old son at home with her father. He is sick and he is still nursing, and I have run out of the money I had brought with me.
`Yet my situation remains better than most,` she added. `I met a Palestinian woman begging with no money yesterday, she just wanted some money to buy food.`
Abu Shariya`s roommate, Dr Manal Muhsin, who works in the Palestinian environment ministry, has likewise been stranded for 40 days.
`It is a horrible situation. You can highlight one or two cases, but there are thousands upon thousands. And what will 150 do for people who have nothing?` Muhsin said, referring to a token sum of money the Palestinian embassy in Cairo provided to some stranded families.
Abd Allah Abd Allah, director-general of the Palestinian foreign ministry, told Aljazeera.net that Egypt, Jordan, the EU, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international bodies were contacted in an effort to get them to pressure Israel to allow the Palestinians to be repatriated, `but apparently to no avail`.
The Israeli government insists `Palestinian terrorists` are to blame for the ongoing ordeal, alluding to the 12 December explosion at the Rafah crossing.
But Palestinian officials dismiss the Israeli justification as a pretext to punish and torment innocent people.
On Sunday, a high-ranking Israeli foreign ministry official visited Cairo to discuss `bilateral relations` and the latest crisis in Israel-Palestinian Authority relations.
However, it was not clear if the plight of the stranded Palestinians came up during the talks.
An Israeli foreign ministry spokeswoman, Amira Oron, told Aljazeera.net that while she was aware of the problem, she did not know of any ongoing efforts to bring back the stranded Palestinians anytime soon.
The Egyptian government declined to comment on the subject when approached by Aljazeera.net.
For its part, the Arab League said Israeli actions `raise a series of question` about the true intentions of the Israeli government and its desire to reach a just and lasting peace.
`The truth is, what`s happening is just another expression of the Israeli policy of aggression against the Palestinian people. The closure of the crossing is just one facet of these ongoing policies,` Arab League spokesperson Hisham Yusuf told Aljazeera.net.
Asked what steps were being taken, if any, to bring an end to the closure, Yusuf said there are ongoing discussions between Arab countries and their foreign ministries on the subject, among others, and that Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath is currently holding meetings in Cairo.
At least 2000 more Palestinians will join those stranded in Egypt next week, when Muslim pilgrims will begin to journey back from Saudi Arabia to Gaza.