Egypt blocks Gazans’ access to the outside world

More than 1,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip have become stuck in the northern Sinai region of Egypt as the Egyptian authorities try to force them back into Gaza. The authorities have prevented the Gazans from travelling abroad to receive medical treatment that is not available in Gaza or to reach their places of work and study in different countries.

In the last week, the Egyptian authorities have been stepping up efforts to reseal the border wall, which had been blown open by Palestinian militants on 23 January. The breach allowed hundreds of thousands of Gazans to cross into Egypt to buy food, medicines, fuel and other basic necessities that have been sorely lacking in Gaza due to the stringent blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip.

Many of the people now stuck in Sinai became trapped in Gaza in June 2007, despite having legitimate reasons to travel to other countries. Some had already been travelling abroad for medical treatment, or had appointments for treatment, while others have jobs or are students studying at universities and other educational institutions abroad.

The Gaza-Egypt border was sealed in June, virtually imprisoning the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza. Most live in abject poverty as a result of stringent Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza, which has destroyed the Palestinian economy.

The food and other supplies available in the small towns in Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip, ran out within days. The Egyptian authorities have, since 26 January, been preventing the local stores and markets from receiving new supplies – an attempt to discourage Gazans from crossing into Egypt to buy supplies and to force Gazans who had already crossed to return to Gaza.

“Egypt has the right to secure its border with Gaza, but a return to the situation whereby the Gaza-Egypt border – Gazans’ only means of passage to the outside world – is completely sealed, as it has been for the past seven months, is not acceptable,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“Whatever agreement about the management of the border is reached between the governments of Israel and Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas de-facto administration in Gaza, it must respect fully the fundamental rights of the population of Gaza.”

The wall was breached following the Israeli authorities’ tightening of their already stifling blockade on Gaza, preventing the passage of essential goods, such as fuel and humanitarian assistance.  

On 30 January, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a petition by 10 Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations seeking to stop the Israeli government from cutting supplies of fuel and electricity to the Gaza Strip. The petitioners contended that it was a punitive measure, which constitutes collective punishment and violates international humanitarian law.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, has said that only 32 truckloads of goods entered Gaza between 18 and 29 January due to Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip, causing a backlog of some 224 trucks belonging to various UN agencies to build up.  

Prior to the tightening of the Israeli blockade on Gaza imposed last June, an average of 250 trucks of goods entered Gaza daily. UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have been complaining for months that the Israeli blockade prevents them from delivering the necessary quantities of aid to satisfy the needs of the population of Gaza.

The situation remains dire even though the Israeli authorities are now allowing limited quantities of fuel and other basic necessities to enter Gaza, but rolling power cuts continue to severely affect hospitals and health clinics and their treatment of the sick.

Medical facilities in Gaza also lack the specialized staff and equipment to treat a range of conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular illnesses. Amnesty International is urging the Egyptian authorities to facilitate access to medical care for patients from Gaza who are now in Egypt and renews its call on the Israeli authorities to expedite access to medical care for patients in need of urgent medical treatment not available in Gaza.

The organization is also calling on the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government to help facilitate access to healthcare for these patients.