After 5 months of closure, Egypt to open Rafah crossing for Gazan pilgrims

Egyptian authorities have decided to open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the besieged Gaza Strip from Monday until Thursday next week to allow the passage of Muslim pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, Palestinian sources reported on Wednesday.

Spokesperson of the borders committee in Gaza Hisham Adwan said that Egyptian authorities had decided to open the crossing for four days next week in order to allow 2,500 Palestinians to leave Gaza for Egypt in order to take a flight to Saudi Arabia for Hajj — an annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Next week’s opening of the Rafah crossing will mark the first time the crossing has been opened for more than five months, according to Israeli NGO Gisha, which has been the longest time the crossing has been closed since the start of the year.

Gisha reported that some 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza approved for travel have been waiting for the crossing’s opening, including students, those waiting to meet relatives outside of the territory, and those needing medical treatment outside of Gaza.

This continued closure of Rafah also contradicts Egyptian claims made back in March, with sources stating that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi himself ordered Rafah to be opened twice a month in order to lessen the siege on Gaza.

Since the Rafah crossing has been sealed shut for five months — while its openings are infrequent as is — many Palestinians in Gaza must depend on the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing. However, permits for the exit of Palestinians in Gaza through Erez has dropped “dramatically,” Gisha noted, with the number of permits given monthly by Israel dropping to just half the amount issued in 2016.

“After a decade of closure, which has failed entirely in achieving its objectives, and even once Israel announced that it would ease restrictions on exiting and entering Gaza, freedom of movement for residents of Gaza has only declined and the closure has only tightened,” the group stated.

According to the United Nations, during 2016, the Rafah crossing was partially opened for only 44 days. In 2015, the crossing had only been open for 21 days.

The decade-long Israeli blockade has plunged the Gaza Strip’s nearly two million Palestinians into extreme poverty and some of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Policies imposed by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority — including cutting the electricity supply and reducing medical referrals for residents in Gaza to seek treatment outside the territory — in order to wrestle control of the besieged territory from the Hamas movement, has also adversely impacted everyday life for Gaza’s residents.

In 2012, the UN warned that Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020 if current trends were not altered. However, a new report released in July by the UN said that “life for the average Palestinian in Gaza is getting more and more wretched,” and that for the majority of Gaza’s residents, the territory may already be unlivable.