Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Gaza: 300 Yards Between Life And Death


Mathematically, it’s not a tricky equation. Politically, though, it’s a complete conundrum. I’m talking about the scenes on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing Sunday.
Aid has been kept waiting on the Egyptian side of the border.
Aid has been kept waiting on the Egyptian side of the border.

It was the morning after the start of the Israeli ground assault on Gaza. In the dark, a few hours earlier, I’d been able to make out the sound of Israeli tank tracks grinding through southern Gaza; the whoosh of missiles fired by Apache attack helicopters into targets just a few hundred yards away and the rat-a-tat of assault guns as Hamas and Israeli fighters closed in on one another.

Now, it was light, and around 30 trucks lined up at the Rafah border gates. They were piled high with much needed medical supplies for the teeming hospitals of Gaza and the mounting casualties. The aid had come from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egyptian NGOs and even Scotland. There was even an eight-strong team of Greek trauma surgeons ready to go in and rescue the dying.

It would have been a heartening sight after the madness of the night except for one major detail — the border was closed, the gates firmly shut. That medicine was going nowhere.

And that’s the simple equation. Three checkpoints and 300 yards separated life-giving supplies from the Palestinian wounded and dying. There was fuel in the trucks, drivers at the wheel and politics in the road.

Now the border has been open sporadically over the last few days for a few hours at a time to let aid in and a trickle of wounded Palestinians out (about 120 since the current hostilities began). But Sunday was not one of those days.

The Egyptian border police said they couldn’t let the trucks through because the Palestinian border guards had fled during the night. Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships, I guess, can be expected to have that effect on employees of Gaza’s Hamas government.

The Egyptians also warned it was dangerous and they couldn’t guarantee anybody’s safety. War does tend to be a risky business.

The Egyptian government, meanwhile, has said it can’t fully normalize the border between Egypt and Gaza because that needs an agreement between Hamas and its rivals in the Fatah movement, as well as the presence of European Union monitors.

And as the apologies and public hand-wringing go on, the aid is blocked and the wounded are getting sicker; the dying expiring.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is no friend of Hamas. He did very strongly condemn the Israeli ground assault in a statement Sunday. But on the Egyptian street, especially here close to the border, many Egyptians see that as little more than public bravado.

They criticize him for not sending aid through and for not letting Palestinian refugees come across, at least temporarily. They also point to the fact that two days before Israeli airstrikes began, Mubarak was hosting Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and permitting her to issue threats against Hamas from his couch.

Now clearly I’m not a Middle Eastern expert, but as I mull the chain on the gate at the Rafah crossing, the scale of human need in Gaza seems crystal clear while political red tape is keeping the medicine from the wounded and dying.

CNN Correspondent, Karl Penhaul