By: Fatima Abdallah
Published Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Gaza – Today, Palestinians in Gaza will begin fasting for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, but they will not be able to practice their religious rites in comfort and tranquility. The markets in Gaza are almost empty of food supplies for traditional Ramadan meals because the Egyptian government has closed down the border tunnels.
Meanwhile, scores of Palestinian pilgrims remain stranded at the Rafah crossing, unable to travel to Mecca to perform the umrah, or pilgrimage. Thousands of Palestinians have also been trapped at the deportation hall of Cairo airport for several days after Egyptian authorities instructed airlines not to board them onto flights because of the Rafah crossing’s closure. The Egyptian authorities officially closed the crossing on July 4 until further notice, citing security concerns.
At the crossing itself, hundreds of Palestinian passengers from different parts of the Strip come here every day, despite knowing that the crossing is closed, in the hope some kind of miracle occurs.
Their reasons for travel are many. A large number of them are students who came to visit their families for summer. Others stranded at the crossing include Palestinians seeking treatment abroad, and pilgrims wanting to perform the umrah in Saudi Arabia.
Gaza resident Safia Abu Rizk, 54, booked a trip to Mecca with a travel agent back in June. After packing and preparing to embark on her first trip to al-Masjid al-Haram in Saudi Arabia, she found out, much to her disappointment, that the crossing had been closed.
Although the Egyptian authorities have shut down the crossing until further notice, the travel agent told Abu Rizk that it could be reopened in a few days. She said, “For three days in a row, I carried my bags and came to the crossing, which is about one hour by car from my home. In the end, my son told me the crossing would not reopen.”
In addition to the hundreds of pilgrims who could not travel because of the crossing’s closure, there are nearly a thousand Palestinian pilgrims currently stranded in Saudi, after the Egyptians instructed Cairo airport not to admit any Palestinians, according to travel agencies in Gaza.
Although the Egyptian authorities began to demolish many of the tunnels linking the besieged Strip to Egypt, a few of them have remained open, and are admitting some of the goods piled up on the other side, albeit with extreme caution.
Um Mohammed al-Ashi, owner of a ready-to-wear clothes shop in Gaza City said that a lot of her merchandise has been waiting to be brought in through the tunnels for more than two weeks.
Pointing to her nearly empty shop, she added, “I opened the store a month ago, and received my first shipment of clothes from Turkey shortly after. I sold many of these, and now I’m waiting for the rest of the clothes to come through the tunnels that Egypt closed down last week.”
Over the past two weeks, the Strip has seen a severe shortage in fuel supplies, leading to a transport crisis as many motorists purchase the relatively cheaper Egyptian fuel and avoid expensive fuel from Israel. Gaza requires approximately 700,000 liters of fuel each day.
But on Monday, the association of fuel station owners in Gaza announced that limited quantities of Egyptian fuel were brought into the Strip through the tunnels. Mohammed al-Abadleh, a spokesperson for the association, said, “It seems there will be a solution soon to the fuel crisis, albeit a partial one,” pointing out that the small quantities secured have since been distributed to fuel stations in Gaza and the power plant.
Many of Ramadan’s staple items are absent from Gaza, such as dates, Amar al-Din (Ramadan apricot juice), cheeses, and canned goods that the Palestinians use at suhur – the traditional meal eaten before sunrise to help sustain those observing the fast. Usually, such items would reach Gaza well before Ramadan through the tunnels.
Abdul-Karim al-Hayek, a shop owner in Gaza, denied that these items have disappeared off the shelves, but confirmed that their prices have risen dramatically. “There are plenty of special Ramadan goods left over from last year, but many merchants are increasing their prices in parallel with the closure of the crossing, which is aggravating the problem,” he said.
However, Um Mustafa al-Nahhal, 46, has a different view. She said, “The tunnels are the only way for foodstuffs to come in. Most of the existing supplies are old and I do not know whether they expired or not.”
Ihab al-Ghussein, spokesperson for Hamas’ government in Gaza, called on Egyptian authorities to keep the crossing outside political wrangling in Egypt.
Ghussein said, “True, security conditions in Egypt are bad, but this should not mean that the crossing must continue to be closed, disrupting the lives of Palestinian passengers. Opening the crossing will not affect Egypt’s security conditions.”