In Rafah, despair and hope at the border

"Israel has taken everything precious from me, including a piece of my heart."

Rafah waiting great 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Rafah waiting great 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Packed into a station wagon, under dozens of boxes of blankets, clothing and food, was the casket bearing the body of Hanan Abu Traz's 20-year-old daughter, Sabreen. They arrived in Egypt roughly two weeks ago - the mother seeking treatment for a daughter whose body was 80 percent burned after an Israeli strike destroyed the family's home in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. Theirs has been a common story at this entry point into the Gaza Strip since the fighting began between Israel and the territory's Hamas rulers, even now that a cease-fire has gone into effect. Here, at the concrete wall that separates Gaza from Egypt, a stream of wounded are trying to get to Egyptian hospitals for care. Sabreen, brought across by her mother, later died at an Egyptian hospital. "Israel has taken everything precious from me, including a piece of my heart," said Abu Traz, a mid-40s housewife whose niqab, a veil that exposes only her eyes, did little to hide her pain. She spoke late last week after her daughter died, just days before the fighting ended. Along Rafah's bustling streets, ambulances for weeks have ferried hundreds of wounded from the border. Meanwhile, aid workers and doctors from around the world have bided their time at cafes, waiting for a chance to enter the coastal strip and help its citizens. Most were still waiting Monday, even though the cease-fire took hold early Sunday. Egypt and European nations have pledged to get aid into Gaza as quickly as possible, but for now, Gaza's borders remain sealed until mediators can figure a way to ensure weapons and militants are not smuggled in. Egypt has allowed some aid workers, doctors and journalists into Gaza in recent days, under extremely tight conditions. The trickle of supplies and aid workers into Gaza has increased because of that, but only slightly. The crossing point has largely been closed to Palestinians since Hamas wrestled control of Gaza in 2007 from the rival Fatah government, which now controls the West Bank. When Israel first began its airstrikes Dec. 27 on Gaza in retaliation for Hamas rocket fire, Egypt, fearing an influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians, said it would only allow those needing medical care to cross into Egypt. Hamas initially rejected the offer. Recriminations and accusations followed, even as Arab nations struggled to find a unified stance on the assault and labored even to decide where and when to hold emergency summits. Finally during the fighting, the wounded were allowed into Egypt. More than 20 Gazans brought into Egypt for medical care have died here, said Ahmed Abdel-Wahab, the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society in Rafah. More than 450 wounded in all had been sent to Egypt by Monday, and wounded were still coming across. After Sabreen died, Egyptian medical officials handed over the body to her mother last week. Abu Traz placed the body in a station wagon she had hired to take her back to the border with Gaza, along with supplies for her family still remaining behind in Gaza. "I feel bad for carrying all this stuff over Sabreen's body," the mother said. "But she would understand if she knew these things will help her seven brothers and three sisters." Abu Traz headed back to Gaza after her daughter's death because she could not legally stay in Egypt. She also did not want to leave her family behind in Khan Younis with fighting then still ongoing. She made it back across to Gaza late last week, just days before the unilateral Israeli cease-fire went into effect. Hamas later declared it also would hold its fire for one week, too. "I know everybody thinks that Palestinians want to leave the Gaza Strip," the mother said, just before she crossed back into Gaza. "Well, I say 'No, we do not want to leave our land.'" Egyptian officials say they have allowed only those who truly are wounded into Egypt, because they are cautious from previous experience. Last year, Hamas militants blew up part of the concrete border wall during an earlier crisis in Gaza. Thousands of Gazans stormed through, heading straight for shops where they bought gasoline, food, water, cigarettes, car batteries, before Egypt again sealed the border. Israel complained that militants and weapons got into Gaza during that period, and then were used against it as Hamas fired rockets into southern Israel. Egypt is allowing just one person to accompany any wounded individual, said Deputy Health Minister Tarek el-Mahlawi, who is overseeing the operation at the Rafah crossing, even now that the cease-fire has taken hold. And it has held back other Gazans who have pleaded other family emergencies besides grave injuries. "Any (valid wounded) case that is being sent from the other side, we're taking it," el-Mahlawi said.