For Gazans, an open border crossing still presents barriers
Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing to Gaza during the month of Ramadan. But as thousands seek to leave the tiny Hamas-controlled territory, bureaucracy at the border has made passage slow and costly.
Rafah Border Crossing, Gaza Strip
Just after daybreak, Hamed al-Shaer came down the narrow stairway of his family's home in southern Gaza pulling a black suitcase and said goodbye to his mother. They hugged at the gate and he kissed her hands in a show of devotion as she struggled to control her emotions.
"Emigration is better," she said of his plan to return to Saudi Arabia where he has lived for the past 13 years, most recently working as a driver.
But by nightfall he was back, despondent after his third failed attempt this week to exit the blockaded Gaza Strip through the congested Rafah border crossing.
Egypt has opened Rafah for the duration of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, temporarily easing a border blockade of Gaza that it has enforced, along with Israel, for the past 11 years. But thousands of people hoping to travel are on a waiting list, a backlog created by long periods of closures, and Egyptian border officials are processing them at an excruciatingly slow pace.
Mr. Al-Shaer, whose name was near the top of the list of those cleared for travel, was getting increasingly desperate. If he didn't get out by early June, his Saudi residency permit would expire.
"I was shocked," al-Shaer said, adding that he had considered not returning to his mother's home after his latest failed attempt, "because I don't want to make another round of hard farewells."
Despite his anxiety-filled ordeal, al-Shaer considers himself lucky.
Most Gaza residents can't travel at all under the strict blockade imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas group seized the territory in 2007.
Israel permits only a small number of medical patients, business people, and aid workers to exit each month. Egypt opens Rafah sporadically, and those trying to leave Gaza must sign up with Hamas, which gives priority to patients, students at foreign universities, dual nationals, and those with residency in third countries.
In recent weeks, anti-blockade protests on the Gaza-Israel border – organized by Hamas, but driven by the despair of Gaza's residents – have drawn new attention to the hardships faced by Gaza's 2 million people.
They are enclosed in a narrow strip of territory just 25 miles long and six miles wide.
The high casualty count during the protests – more than 100 Palestinians killed and more than 3,600 wounded since late March by Israeli army fire – has lent new urgency to international efforts to improve conditions in Gaza.
Two senior Hamas officials said discreet talks are under way, through mediators such as Switzerland and Norway, about having the United Nations take the lead in improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Egypt promised to reassess its closure policy after Ramadan, raising the possibility of letting goods into Gaza as part of any UN-led projects, the Hamas officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss back-channel contacts.
For the past decade, an intractable standoff has prevented fundamental change in Gaza.
Israel, which along with its Western allies considers Hamas a terrorist group, says the blockade is needed to prevent the group from arming. Hamas has refused to disarm or renounce violence, rejecting a key condition by Israel and Egypt for ending the blockade.
Hamas' counterproposals, including a long-term cease-fire with Israel and ceding some power in Gaza to its political rival, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have not gained traction.
The crippling blockade has robbed Gaza residents of any chance to chart their lives. Polls indicate that one in two Gaza residents would emigrate if given a chance. Two-thirds of its young people are unemployed.
Yet, Gaza's population is unlikely to rise up against Hamas because there's no apparent alternative and because anger over the blockade remains largely directed at Israel and to a lesser extent at Egypt.
Al-Shaer comes from a typical Gaza family where those who are able to leave seek their fortunes abroad. Three of his brothers work in Saudi Arabia and one in Bahrain. He left Gaza in 2005, before the blockade, settling in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. For the past year, he has worked as the personal chauffeur of a corporate executive.
In September, he returned to Gaza for a visit because he missed his parents, who wanted him to marry a local woman – which he did in December.
When al-Shaer first registered on the Gaza Interior Ministry's waiting list in November, he was told that it would take more than a year to leave Gaza. Rafah has been closed for 110 days this year, while the waiting list has about 25,000 names, though not all may still be planning to travel.
He began a frantic lobbying effort, frequently visiting the ministry and even approaching a ministry official at a neighborhood mosque. Al-Shaer argued that he should be allowed to leave sooner so he wouldn't lose his Saudi residency.
For those with money, there's also the option of what Gaza residents sarcastically call "Egyptian coordination." This refers to payments, reportedly up to $3,000 per traveler, to Palestinian middlemen who claim to have connections on the Egyptian side. Both Egypt and Hamas deny bribe-taking, though some travelers have witnessed people being moved to the front of the line for "coordination."
Al-Shaer said he was finally able to persuade Hamas officials that he deserved to be moved up the waiting list. On Saturday, he was told he was cleared for travel and should report the next day to a converted gym that serves as a departure hall.
His elation was quickly clouded by worry.
Egyptian border officials had been clearing only about 250 travelers a day, about a third of the usual volume in the past. As a result, many slated for travel had to wait for hours near the border, only to be told to come back the next day.
On Sunday, al-Shaer was at the departure hall, waiting his turn. He kept checking his phone and pacing up and down as Hamas officials – sitting behind a counter and separated from the crowd by a fence – called out names. Some travelers waved papers, hoping to get the officials' attention.
Al-Shaer's turn didn't come that day or the next. Finally on Tuesday, he was able to board a bus bound for the border, but he and his fellow travelers were turned away at the last minute because the crossing was about to close.
On Wednesday morning, he left his parents' house in the town of Khan Younis at about 6:40 a.m. Four hours later, he had reached the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and got his passport stamped. By noon, the bus arrived at the Egyptian side of the border.
Al-Shaer and the other passengers ended up spending the night there, ahead of a trip by bus Thursday through the turbulent Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian security forces have been battling an insurgency by Islamic militants. Gaza passengers can only travel by bus during daylight hours from Rafah to Egypt's capital of Cairo and the city's airport.
Buses crossing the Sinai have to stop at more than a dozen military checkpoints. At each one, passengers get off the bus and open their luggage for inspection. Last fall, it took al-Shaer three days to get from Cairo airport to Rafah.
This time around, his trip through Sinai took more than 13 hours. At 8:30 p.m., al-Shaer finally crossed the Suez Canal, his bus bound for the airport, where he would try to book a flight after the tiring journey.
His new wife remains in Gaza for the time being, until he can arrange for a Saudi residency permit for her.
Al-Shaer said he left Gaza with mixed emotions – glad he spent time with his parents and found a wife, but railing at the steep price.
"You may lose your residency, job, and future – sacrifice all of that just to see your family," he said.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.