On May 11, 2016, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing to Gaza for a brief forty-eight hour period. The last time it was open was nearly three months ago on February 13, again for no more than forty-eight hours.
Despite the short time frame, the border’s opening was good news for Umm Ahmed, a fifty-five-year-old cancer patient living in Gaza. She had been waiting for several months to cross the border and receive treatment in Cairo.
Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have submitted applications to cross Rafah into Egypt, though only a fraction are likely to receive permits. Like Umm Ahmed, many of these applicants are patients in desperate need of basic medical care unavailable in Gaza. Others are like Ali Hamed, a twenty-three-year-old who won admission to a Turkish university, but had to wait for a year and a half before being allowed to cross the border and leave Gaza.
The arbitrary and unpredictable nature of Rafah is one of its most enduring qualities. Openings are never properly announced in advance; for those waiting to enter or exit Gaza, a missed opportunity can mean suffering indefinite delays to their plans.
This time around, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas managed to convince Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi to open the border, during his latest visit to Cairo. If this had not happened, the border would likely have remained closed for an unknown period of time.
Ever since the military coup that ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, Egypt has clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supposed allies, Hamas included. In an effort to maintain the false claim that Hamas, like the Brotherhood, is plotting to undermine Egypt’s national security, the Sisi regime has severely restricted movement from Gaza into Egypt—effectively subjecting Palestinians to collective punishment.
Under Sisi’s guidance, the Egyptian government has also been actively destroying the underground tunnels that lead from Egypt to Gaza. Thanks to Egyptian support of Israel’s siege against the territory, Gaza has become dependent on this tunnel infrastructure for transfers of food, medical supplies, and other necessities. For Umm Ahmed and the 1.9 million Palestinians subjected to Israel’s impenetrable blockade of Gaza, the tunnels are particularly indispensable when the Rafah border crossing is closed.
Against this backdrop, the opening of Rafah is like throwing scraps to a prisoner you have deliberately starved for months. With an unemployment rate of almost 45%—the highest in the world—and an economy the World Bank has described as “on the verge of collapse,” Gaza will only get worse for those trapped inside. As long as the Egyptian government continues to use “security” as an excuse to punish Gazans, Umm Ahmed and those like her will have to live in a perpetual state of limbo.