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Gaza border opening offers fewer opportunities than hoped

The 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip could not leave - until Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing in May. That gave rise to many hopes, some of which have been disappointed.

Rafah border crossing

Palestinians eagerly awaited Egypt's opening of the Rafah border crossing

The fields of farmer Ahmad Shafi are located just one kilometer from the Israeli border. From nearby fields, Palestinian militants sometimes fire homemade rockets into Israel. As long as such attacks continue, Israel says it will severely restrict imports and exports into Gaza. Israel uses the sanctions as a means to to pressure Hamas, the governing party in Gaza.

74-year old Ahmad Shafi

Farmer Ahmad Shafi opposes Israel's continued blockade of Gaza

But Ahmad Shafi calls this collective punishment. The 74-year old grizzled patriarch says he can't export strawberries or other crops as he did before the blockade.

Israel began its economic blockade of Gaza in 2006 with the cooperation of Hosni Mubarak's government in Egypt. It wasn't until Mubarak was ousted that the new, post-revolution government in Egypt changed policies and permanently opened the border at Rafah Gate. Since late May, there have been no limits on the number of people crossing daily and except for men aged 18 to 40, travel was visa-free for all Palestinians.

Egypt opened its border crossing - but only to people, not to goods

Shafi had hoped the opening would help soften the effects of the Israeli blockade. His family and other Gazans still can't get building supplies or certain medicines. But Shafi's hopes were disappointed because only people, not commerce, can cross the border with Egypt.

Inside a shaded, plastic tent that serves as a smuggling tunnel entrance, a man who asks to be called Abu Omar operates a tunnel that used to bring smuggled consumer goods from Egypt to Gaza. He explains that the tunnel operates only once or twice a month now, compared with daily jobs in the recent past.

Hamas security stand guard at the Rafah border crossing

Hamas security stand guard at the Rafah border crossing

"Now people bring their own goods across through Rafah Gate," he says.

But other goods still remain scarce. Gaza Economy Minister Allaa El-Rafati says Palestinians have been unable to export most products or get raw materials for their factories.

Prior to 2005, he says, Gaza managed to export $250 million (173 million euros) worth of flowers and strawberries. But now, he says, "all of our exports total less than $2 million per year."

As a consequence, the unemployment and poverty rates have risen, making people suffer, he says.

Israel fears allowing trade would pave the way for arms smuggling

Israeli officials argue that opening the Egyptian border to normal trade would facilitate arms smuggling. So far, they have succeeded in pressuring the Egyptian government to prohibit such commerce.

vendor in a stall selling food in Gaza

More goods are available in Gaza today, but many are still in short supply

Back at his farm near the Israeli border, Ahmad Shafi wants a normal life for his extended family of 25 people. Regular trade with Israel and Egypt, he says, would help everyone.

Shafi says both sides will have to recognize the right of the other to exist as an independent nation.

"We are neighbors. We are on the same land."

Shafi says ending the economic sanctions on Gaza would be a good first step towards peace. But Israel shows no signs of lifting the blockade. And it appears likely that trade will be banned at Rafah Gate at least until a new Egyptian government takes power after parliamentary elections this September.

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting provided travel support for this report.

Author: Reese Erlich, Gaza
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg

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