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Students stranded in Gaza protest against Rafah closure
Courtesy: Al-Resalah News Portal

Following Egypt and Israel’s ongoing closure of their borders with the Gaza Strip, Palestinian university students staged a protest rally in Gaza City on Wednesday calling on Egyptian authorities to open its Rafah border crossing so that they can resume their studies abroad.

Egypt’s Rafah border with Gaza – the only border point not under Israel’s control – has remained closed for most days of the year.

Many of the protesting Palestinian students expressed feelings of frustration, helplessness, and fear that their visas and/or academic scholarships might be cancelled. Their protest rally on Wednesday was dubbed “No to the Besieging of Students.”

In an interview with Palestinian news website Al-Resalah on Wednesday, student protest leader Bassam Jadallah said: “Our interests and our academic futures are being threatened by the constant closure of the Rafah border, and by our inability to travel.”

Some of the angry students held up signs announcing that they would start on an open-ended sit-in protest until Palestinian authorities managed to convince their counterparts in Egypt to open up the Rafah border.

Estimates suggest that between 3,000 to 5,000 study-abroad Palestinians are unable to travel beyond the Gaza Strip due to the closure of its borders by Egyptian and Israeli authorities.

Frustrated by their inability to leave via the Rafah border crossing this month, tens of Palestinians are reported have had better luck with Israeli border authorities. According to university student Khaled Ahmed, 42 of Gaza’s study-abroad students sought to travel via Israeli-controlled border crossings.

According to Ahmed, this month Israeli border authorities allowed 36 of the 42 students to travel through the northern Eretz border crossing (one of four controlled by Israel) by the Gazan town of Beit Hanoun, after Egyptian authorities refused to offer them passage.

“We understand the turbulent situation that Egypt is going through, yet we hope they also understand our plight,” said Ahmed.

Palestinian news website Doniya Al-Watan reported on Wednesday that student protest leaders filed petitions to ruling authorities in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to facilitate the opening of Egypt’s Rafah border – through negotiations with Cairo.

Following the July-August bombardment of the Gaza Strip this year – which left over 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis dead – both Egypt and Israel had pledged to open the borders to Gaza, and to facilitate transportation and travel to and from the coastal strip.

However, Egyptian and Israeli controlled border crossings largely remain closed.

Under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian security forces have moved to destroy the vast majority of smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, while simultaneously keeping the Rafah border crossing shut.

Following the fatal attacks targeting security forces in North Sinai on October 24 – which resulted in the deaths of over 30 Egyptian troops – Cairo moved to indefinitely close the border with Gaza. Some Egyptian authorities blamed militants coming from Gaza for supporting or facilitating the attack on the Egyptian armed forces.

Very rarely since then have Egyptian border authorities opened the border with Gaza – to either incoming or outgoing traffic.

Following more than a month-long closure, Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah border for two days on Sunday, September 30 and Monday, December 1.

According to Egypt’s state-owned MENA news agency, a total of 537 individuals were allowed into the Gaza Strip during the two-day spell. However, nobody was allowed out of Gaza into Egypt.

According to Palestinian media, the closure of the Rafah border crossing has not only kept thousands of Gazan students from attending their classes abroad, but has also negatively affected reconstruction efforts, business and trade, while preventing medical patients and pilgrims from travelling.  

Palestinian news website Assabeel reported on Wednesday that Rafah’s closure is delaying Gazans’ pilgrimages (Umra) to Mecca and Medina, while also having a negative effect on tour-bus operators and transport companies. The website indicated that pilgrimages from the West Bank (through the Israeli-controlled Al-Karama border crossing) are taking place as scheduled, though.