Approaching the Rafah crossing on the morning of its historic opening, I pass a lone Palestinian woman in her mid 20’s holding a newborn, walking into Egypt.
Twenty yards behind her, sweltering in the late morning desert sun is a cluster of children and teens, pressed beside the black gate of boarder. Beside them, standing indifferently is a white donkey.
Obviously, these children are from Gaza, and along with their donkey, have marched through the night to the Rafah crossing. Now, having made it to the Egyptian side, they await their parents and grandparents.
It is just the scene I had imagined, almost.
Drawing near, I notice that these Palestinian children are leaning on empty luggage carts. Then, the Palestinian children, all looking back through the gates of the crossing, begin wrestling each other.
The big kids push aside the medium sized kids while the little ones, aged 7 or 8, hold on to the gate bars in defensive stances. There is yelling and pushing, as the children call out to a man approaching the gate with his suitcase.
When the man opens the gate, the closest child offers to tote his suitcase for a fee on the donkey and cart. But the man ignores them and wheels his suitcase down the street as the children turn around and peer into the gate once again.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that these Palestinian children are really Egyptian Bedouins here to cash in on the flood of Palestinian refugees that have somehow failed to materialize.
The Bedouin children aren’t the only ones with deflated spirits.
All around, the international press has encamped on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing with their film crews and radio equipment. Most of them sit in the shade of a side street café, idly punching their blackberries in boredom or looking out vacantly at the empty road, waiting for the throngs Palestinians to show up.
While the press waits, I question them.
“So where are all the Palestinians?” I ask a journalist from a Middle Eastern news agency who preferred to speak off the record.
“Nothing changed today.” He replies. “The border has already been open since the Mavi Marmara flotilla was attacked by Israeli forces last year. After the attack, the former Egyptian Regime decided to reopen the border to not be blamed for the bad humanitarian situation in Gaza.
“So actually, nothing changed. It was open. And it’s still open today. “
In reality, what had been billed in the Western media as an “opening of the gates” was really an easing of regulations. Under new rules, Palestinians would be permitted to travel in and out of Egypt without visas. However, men aged all 18-40 would have to pass security checks before being granted passage.
Inside the immigration-processing center, the atmosphere is bleak and the air is heavy with the smell of cigarettes. The vast majority of the waiting room is empty. Scattered throughout the vacant rows of blue chairs are mostly elderly Palestinian men waiting with dull, expressionless, vacant gazes.
Among them is Mohammad, a 43-year-old worker in an Israeli clothing factory.
Mohammad has dressed to make a positive impression on the immigration officials. Although the afternoon summer heat is in the mid 90’s he wears a wool navy blue, pinstriped blazer beneath a baby blue and white striped Polo shirt. The effect of the wool jacket and the heat has caused Mohammad’s face to turn red and on his head, beads of sweat amass in the cubic spaces between his hair plugs, causing tiny pearls of perspiration to drip down the front of his forehead.
“So, where are all of the Palestinians?” I ask.
“People don’t trust the Egyptian Government,” he begins. “They’ve suffered so much crossing before that they don’t trust that there will be change. They’re going to wait to see what happens in the first few days, and then they’ll start coming.”
Mohammad holds a medical letter verifying that he suffers from an enlarged colon that requires treatment in Cairo. This is the eleventh time he has applied to cross through Rafah in the past five years—all prior attempts have been rejected.
After being declined a visa earlier in the day, he is awaiting word on an appeal from Cairo. He has been waiting for the last four hours.
“Most of the people that are here now are here for medical reasons,” he says pointing around the room. They are awaiting security clearance too.
Mohammad seems unaware of the fact that since he is 43, the new laws do not require a background check on him. Technically, he should be allowed free passage. It appears that procedures on the ground are not in sync with new changes in the law.
Perhaps this is why there are so few Palestinians.
Around us, there are nearly as many journalists trolling up and down the empty isles, looking for a story as there are infirmed Palestinians seeking treatment.
But these are mostly sick and old Palestinians, content to sit quietly and without protest, resigned to whatever fate the bureaucratic gods of the Middle East will bestow. They’re a docile lot, unfit for gripping news copy, in a milieu that bares more resemblance to a Greyhound bus terminal waiting room at 3 AM than the sudden liberation of a besieged people.
Mohammad is called into the security office. His appeal has been rejected from Cairo. No reason is given.
“I’m going to go crazy,” he says. “Next time I will attempt to get in by using money. They are just doing this to get money.”
Mohammad turns around and walks out of the lobby, into the late afternoon sun. He walks back along the pavement strip he had crossed this morning and from there, out of the Rafah gates, back into Gaza.