RAFAH, Egypt — An old woman stood quietly crying in front of the heavy steel gate at the entrance to the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip on a hot summer day.
She and her sister had been waiting in the beating sun for hours to enter Gaza, she told the officer in charge, who sat inside an air conditioned guard house with his bare feet propped on his desk. The heat was too much for her sister, said the old woman, her body leaning into the officer’s window. She said her sister collapsed and was taken away in an ambulance.
Now the old woman was here alone, in a scrubby desert no-man’s land between the teeming cities and refugee camps of the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s barren Sinai Peninsula. All around her were other Palestinians, watched by rifle toting Egyptian soldiers who stood in the shade of large black troop transports, lined up on the side of the road.
None of the soldiers or the border officials loitering on the other side of the locked gate would tell her where her sister had been taken, and she just needed someone to help.
“I just need to know where they took her,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek. “I am sorry, sir, but can someone tell me where the ambulances take people from here?”
The officer looked at her, expressionless, and then screamed. “I am not the ambulance!”
The old woman jumped, startled, and then pleaded again. “I know, I am sorry sir, I just don’t know where they took my sister.”
“I am not the ambulance!” he screamed again, jumping angrily out of his chair. “I am not the ambulance!”
The old woman apologized again, tears rolling down her face, and melted back into a crowd of hundreds milling in front of the border crossing.
Egyptian authorities say the border with Gaza has been open since June, when a deadly Israeli commando raid against a Turkish aid flotilla seeking to break Egypt and Israel’s three-year siege of the Gaza Strip ended with nine deaths.
But on this August day, the old woman was far from alone.
Palestinians from Gaza seeking to re-enter their homeland through Egypt say they are routinely met with abuse, mockery and demands for bribes by Egyptian border officials who seem more interested in keeping people out than in letting them in.
Officials in Gaza echo their complaints. They said that Gaza’s borders with both Egypt and Israel are far less open than meets the eye.
Many travelers coming from Egypt are held at the desert crossing for days, where soldiers and border officials verbally abuse them. Once inside the terminal building, a maze of dimly lit corridors scattered with pools of standing water, they are charged entrance and exit fees not found at the country’s other border crossings.
Border officials commonly demand bribes, some travelers said. The officials tell them that they cannot cross because of a lack of “tanseeq,” or coordination, which many here know can be purchased from the officer for several hundred dollars.
Often, Egyptian officials abruptly stop processing passports or close the terminal with no advance notice, bringing traffic through the crossing in both directions to a stand still and frustrating travelers, many of whom wait for days to pass.
For many in Gaza, these border troubles give rise to hostile feelings towards Egypt.
“Do you know what it means to bluff?” asked Ahmed el Ashi, spokesman for Gaza’s Ministry of Health.
He said that patients sent to Egypt for treatment from Gaza — where the health care system has been sapped by the blockade and overwhelmed with patients — face many of the same troubles crossing the border as everyday travelers making the journey without medical permission.
Mahmoud Daher, director of the World Health Organization in Gaza, said that each month about 1,000 people need to travel to Egypt for treatment. About 80 percent of those are eventually allowed to pass through Rafah terminal, although in the last year the World Health Organization said between 35 and 40 people have died while awaiting clearance to travel.
“Egypt uses this accident on the flotilla to deceive the world,” he said, referring to the deadly Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid flotilla in May that left nine dead. “Egypt is saying ‘Oh, the borders are open, who could ever say we have closed them?’”
Gazans have lived under a blockade since 2007, when the Islamist Hamas movement took power here after a brief and bloody struggle with the rival Fatah movement, with which it had been in a power-sharing government.
Ihab Saloul, a Dutch citizen born in Gaza, said that when he heard the borders were being opened in July after the international outcry following Israel’s May attack on the Turkish aid flotilla, he brought his Dutch wife and children to Gaza. He had first left Gaza in 1994 to study in the Netherlands and now teaches literature and politics at Maastricht University. He had not been home in six years, and his wife and young daughters had never met his family.
But Egyptian authorities would not let his wife enter, citing her foreign passport. After traveling from the Netherlands, he had to enter Gaza alone with his daughters, aged 3 and 1, while his wife attempted to get help from the Dutch Embassy. After five days he decided to cut the trip short and return to Egypt to reunite his family, but crossing back through the Rafah terminal presented a serious problem.
After being processed by Palestinian customs officials, Saloul and his children boarded a bus to travel the 50 meters between the Palestinian and Egyptian terminals, but the bus was inexplicably held at the gate to Egypt for four hours.
“The system is basically that Egypt controls both sides of the border,” he said. “The Palestinians have no control at all. All they do is escort you to the Egyptian border so you can see what the Egyptians will say.”
After four hours on a hot bus his daughters began to overheat, he said. At two in the afternoon, Egyptian officials announced no one from Gaza would be entering Egypt that day. His 4-year-old daughter, Lina, passed out from the heat and a doctor in the Palestinian terminal poured cold water over her in an attempt to cool her down.
He said the director of the Palestinian terminal took pity on them and arranged for him and his daughters to be let through. The experience has left him, like many Gazans, deeply angry at Egypt.
“Everyone says in the West that the border is open, but that is bullshit,” he said. “It is torture. It ruins normal people’s lives. I am just a normal person like everyone else.”