Abu Yousef Hammouda shuffled into the Rafah border crossing to travel to Egypt for his periodic medical treatment and a smile grew on his weary face as he entered the newly renovated and air conditioned halls.
“I have traveled to Egypt many times before,” said Hammouda, who looked much older than his 30 years. “The arrival hall wasn’t modern or efficient but today I see what a huge effort has been made and what a great job has been done.”
One of the few things all Gazans could agree on was that the ramshackle Rafah border crossing had been in need of some serious renovations.
The main gateway for the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million inhabitants to the rest of the world is the Rafah crossing into the Egyptian Sinai peninsula. First constructed in 1994, with additional facilities added on a decade later, the crossing had never been efficient enough to meet the demands of travelers who were often subjected to hours of waiting to be processed.
It surely made some ponder whether they shouldn’t risk the other route, clandestine, narrow and perilous tunnels dug into the sand used by smugglers and overseen by Hamas that run under the border fence.
But now, the Rafah border crossing has undergone a major renovation that officials say have brought it up to international standards, including sophisticated X-ray machines, luggage carousels and much appreciated air conditioning. There was even a new cafeteria.
“The crossing is much better than before,” Mahmud Hams, a photographer for the Agence France-Presse, gushed to The Media Line upon his return to the Gaza Strip, as he gawked at the shiny marble floors and fancy lighting.
“Now it can accommodate a larger number of travelers. The procedures are faster now. You don’t want to wait a long time to get through immigration and get your luggage after a long and tiring trip. The bigger space and faster processing times were all long-overdue, particularly for summer travel,” Hams said.
With the introduction of sophisticated CT scanners, intrusive baggage checks have become a thing of the past for Gazans. As the returnees rested, terminal workers took their luggage and placed it on the CT scanner machines where they are scanned for contraband and weapons.
The renovation, with a budget of $1.5 million to bring the facilities up to international standards, was initiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council's Program to Rebuild the Gaza Strip and funded by the Islamic Bank for Development and the Islamic Relief Foundation.
The renovations began in late 2011 and include the restoration of the existing buildings, including the entrance to the crossing, and expanding the arrival and departure halls. According to Refaat Diab, consultant at the Islamic Development Bank in Gaza, the project included construction of a main gate and a new arrivals and departures lounges.
Diab told The Media Line that the renovations also included upgrading the fire alarms, sound systems and other monitors as well as new furniture for lounges.
Ahmed Abu Me'ilaq, the project’s engineer and director, enumerated the many improvements made during the makeover: the arrival hall was enlarged from 600 sq. meters to 970 sq. meters; the departure hall was expanded from 350 sq. meters to 800 sq. meters and can now accommodate four buses; the electronic equipment, such as baggage scanners, has been upgraded and includes the most up-to-date technologies; and the border crossing’s facilities are now more comfortable, with a modern cafeteria, renovated bathrooms, central air-conditioning and pleasant lighting.
In theory, the revamped terminal was designed to handle nearly a quarter of a million people a year. But in reality, only a tiny fraction of that currently enjoys the facelift.
According to the Al-Zaytouna Center, the crossing currently handles only about 90-290 travelers a day, depending on the political and security situation in Gaza and Egypt, but if travel in and out of Gaza were unrestricted and the border-crossing were open 24 hours a day, an estimated 900-1,000 people would cross the border each day, with about 230,000 travelers crossing annually. The new facilities will enable the border-crossing to handle increased traffic without increasing wait times.
Mohamed Al-Muqayed, Director of Construction Projects at Islamic Relief, explained that the first proposal presented to the Islamic Development Bank was modest, focusing on a few changes and enhancements to the border crossing.
“The Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah requested a better proposal, which required us to hire an external consultant architect and focus on facilities that serve people directly, which granted us the approval of the Bank’s funding and we began the process of implementing this makeover,” Muqayed explained.
Bashir Abu Al-Naja, director of border crossings in Gaza, was full of praise for the new terminal.
“The Rafah crossing now meets international standards in terms of design and services,” he said, adding he was thankful to the Islamic Development Bank and the Islamic Relief Foundation for turning a dream into a reality.
“Having bigger spaces and high-tech devices will allow us serve a bigger number of people who wish to leave or enter Gaza,” Al-Naja said. “People no longer have to wait for hours."