In Rafah, despair and hope at the border

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

RAFAH, Egypt: Packed into the station wagon, under the dozens of boxes of blankets, clothing and food, is the casket bearing the body of Hanan Abu Traz’s 20-year-old daughter, Sabreen.

Together, they arrived in Egypt about two weeks ago – a mother seeking treatment for a daughter whose body was 80 percent burned after an Israeli strike demolished their home in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. Together, they leave – one as a mourner, another as cargo.

In the algebra of Israeli-Palestinian politics, Sabreen and Abu Traz are statistics. One more home destroyed. Another Palestinian dead in a three-week long Israeli offensive on Gaza that has so far claimed over 1,200 Palestinians lives, about half of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis also died.

But in Rafah, theirs is a common story, told in extraordinary times, in a divided border town where despair and hope are separated by a concrete wall.

“Israel has taken everything precious from me, including a piece of my heart, said Abu Traz, a mid-40s housewife whose niqab, or veil that exposes only her eyes, did little to hide her pain, or her worry about her other 10 children back home.

Here, along Rafah’s bustling streets, ambulances ferry hundreds of wounded from the border to Egyptian hospitals. Meanwhile, aid workers and doctors from around the world bide their time at cafes, waiting – impotently – for a chance to enter the coastal strip to help.

The crossing point has largely been closed to Palestinians since Hamas wrestled control of Gaza in 2007 from the rival Fatah government, which now controls the West Bank.

When Israel first began its airs trikes on Gaza, Egypt, fearing an influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians, said it would only allow in those needing medical care. Hamas initially rejected the offer, mocking Egypt for apparently kowtowing before Israel and only being willing to take in cadavers.

Recriminations and accusations followed, even as Arab nations struggled to find a unified stance on the assault and labored even to decide where and when to hold emergency summits.

Finally, the wounded were allowed in.

And Sabreen became one of those cadavers.

Egyptian medical officials handed over her body to Abu Traz last Monday afternoon, almost a week after they arrived in the Sinai border town, which is divided into an Egyptian and Palestinian side by a concrete security wall.

“She was aching all the time, said Abu Traz. “She was too weak even to speak.

Her body, now, is starting to decompose. The smell fills the station wagon Abu Traz hired to take them to the border.

“I feel bad for carrying all this stuff over Sabreen’s body, she said. “But she would understand if she knew these things will help her seven brothers and three sisters.

So far, 21 Gazans have died in Egypt, said Ahmed Abdel-Wahab, the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society in Rafah, adding that 430 wounded have been sent to Egypt.

Even with her daughter’s death, Abu Traz was still among the lucky.

Hamas declared a temporary ceasefire Sunday following Israel’s decision to do the same the previous day. The halt in fighting remains fragile.

On the Palestinian side of the border, 33-year-old businessman Ismail Mohamed was arguing with Egyptian officials to allow him in so that he could donate a kidney to his mother, who was suffering from renal failure.

“They’re not allowing me in, said the Gaza resident. “Should I wait and watch my mother die?

Mohamed had also brought his wife and seven-month-old daughter along, hoping for a reprieve from the bombing and a chance to stock up on supplies.

Gaza’s infrastructure has been ravaged by the Israeli offensive, and supplies are scarce, with international groups warning of an emerging humanitarian crisis in the coastal area where some 1.5 million people live.

“They won’t even let us go to Rafah to buy some diapers for the baby, he complained.

Egyptian officials are cautious from previous experience.

Last year, Palestinians blew up part of the concrete wall. Thousands of Gazans stormed through, headed straight for the shops where they haggled with Egyptians for gasoline, food, water, cigarettes, car batteries and even carpets.

Egypt is allowing in one person to accompany the wounded individual, said Deputy Health Minister Tarek El-Mahlawi, who is overseeing the operation at the Rafah crossing.

“Any case that is being sent from the other side, we’re taking it, he said.

Mohamed’s case was “fishy, said Abdel-Wahab, the Red Crescent official. But, after checking his papers, he was allowed to cross.

“It’s our responsibility to check … because we know all the Palestinians want to cross into Egypt, he said.

Dead daughter in tow, Abu Traz said she was reluctantly heading back to Gaza. She knows she can’t legally stay here and, anyway, couldn’t leave her family behind in Khan Younis to suffer.

“I know everybody thinks that Palestinians want to leave the Gaza Strip, she said. “Well, I say ‘No, we do not want to leave our land’.

“The Israelis have taken everything from us. But they can’t choose the place where we want to rest after we die.

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