Palestinians in Sinai desperate to return to Gaza

Source: Reuters

By Abigail Hauslohner
RAFAH, Egypt, July 17 (Reuters) – Khowla Salah al-Ghalban, nine months pregnant and barely able to move, lies on a concrete floor in the Egyptian border town of Rafah as flies buzz around her. She hopes to make it home to Gaza before her baby comes.

Ghalban, 24, travelled to Saudi Arabia late in her pregnancy to have a cancerous tumour in her abdomen removed, but returned to find a closed border that forced her into a cramped shelter with 14 other Palestinians.

Ghalban is one of an estimated 5,000 Palestinians stranded in dusty Egyptian towns in northern Sinai. Many of them are living in cramped low-budget hotel rooms or sleeping on mats on the floor in bare concrete shelters as money runs out.

“I will give birth any day,” said Ghalban, taken in by a Palestinian community leader who keeps a house in Rafah. “But my husband and my home are in Gaza and I have no money to go to the hospital. I want to go home.”

The Rafah crossing point into Gaza — the impoverished strip’s main outlet to the outside world — has been largely shut since June 9, shortly before Hamas Islamists routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and took control of the territory.

While the stranded Palestinians include some holidaymakers, Egyptian officials said most are Gazans like Ghalban who sought medical treatment abroad. Many show off fresh surgical scars and present visitors with medical reports detailing their treatment.

The Egyptian side of Rafah, where many of the Palestinians have sought shelter, is a sparsely populated patch of sand littered with garbage and dotted with low-rise concrete housing and frequent security checkpoints.

HULKING GUARD TOWERS

A chain of hulking guard towers and a rusting metal wall are all that divide the quiet, dusty Egyptian Rafah border town from shell-damaged Palestinian Rafah in densely populated Gaza.
Although Palestinian and Egyptian officials technically control the crossing, it can be blocked by Israel. The European Union decided to cut down its monitoring mission at the crossing earlier this month because it was unclear when it would reopen.

Proposals to allow stranded Palestinians to cross into Gaza through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing have run into obstacles. Some Palestinian officials object to using that crossing because it is subject to Israeli controls.

In the meantime, Palestinians in both Rafah and el-Arish in northern Sinai say they are rapidly running out of money and complain of inadequate assistance.

“The U.N. has not come to help, nor has any international aid agency, or the Muslim Brotherhood … We are running out of money. Where will we go? We’ll have to go to the streets,” said Zuheir Abu Malouh, who has an amputated leg and was living in two cockroach-infested rooms in el-Arish with 18 other people.

Aid agencies said a recent U.N. assessment mission to Sinai found most Palestinians were managing to get by on their own, and were in better shape than during some previous closures.
“The big concern is if this thing drags out. Because even if you can support yourself for a while, if it keeps going indefinitely it begins to strain all those resources,” said Erma Manoncourt, a UNICEF representative in Cairo.

Last week, Egypt deployed hundreds of additional police to reinforce its border over fears that Palestinian militants could try to storm it after around 500 Palestinian demonstrators in el-Arish demanded its reopening, security sources said.

In the summer of 2006, Hamas gunmen blew a six-metre (20 foot) hole in the Gaza-Egypt border wall, allowing nearly 1,000 stranded Palestinians to cross home during a border closure.

AIRPORT CLASHES

At least 10 Palestinians have died in Egypt since the border closed due to complications from pre-existing medical conditions, Egyptian medical officials said.

On Tuesday, clashes broke out between Egyptian police and Palestinians detained at the al-Arish airport who tried to break free after complaining of dwindling funds and a lack of food and medical supplies, security sources and witnesses said.

Three people were injured during the clashes after Palestinians started breaking windows in the room where they were being detained and security men hit them with sticks, security sources and Palestinian witnesses said.

Those Palestinians were among close to 100 who have been detained at the airport since the border closure after arriving in Egypt without proper visas.

Those detained at the airport include 22-year-old Raafat al-Jammal, who had sought medical care in Jordan after being wounded in a blast in Gaza’s Beach refugee camp.

“I have burns all over my body. I should be in a hospital in Gaza or under good care at home,” he told Reuters by telephone from the room where he was being detained at the airport.

“There are no good doctors or medical equipment or medicine here,” he said. (Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Sinai, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Cynthia Johnston in Cairo)

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