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What is Gaza's Rafah crossing and why is it important?

Palestinians with foreign passports at Rafah Border Gate wait to cross into Egypt, Nov. 1.
Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images
Palestinians with foreign passports at Rafah Border Gate wait to cross into Egypt, Nov. 1.

LONDON — Sometimes called the Gaza Strip's "lifeline," the Rafah border crossing with Egypt has come under extreme focus as the latest war between Israel and Hamas grinds into its second month.

It is controlled and operated by Egyptian authorities, with Hamas also exercising control over who can pass through — the only Gaza crossing not controlled by Israel.

Although Egypt has frequently closed the crossing, adding to Gaza's isolation, the crossing has nevertheless served as a vital link between the besieged territory — which has been under an Israeli-imposed land, sea and air blockade since 2007 — and the rest of the world.

The blockade was tightened after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which Hamas-led militants forced their way into the country and killed 1,400 people, returning to Gaza with more than 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.

Israel's heavy military response has killed more than 10,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, mostly women and children, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. Humanitarian groups say Israeli bombings and complete siege of the territory have now made the need even more critical to transport aid through Rafah to Gaza's more than 2 million people.

The crossing opened last weekfor the limited evacuation of foreign passport holders and some critically injured Palestinians. The White Housesaid Sunday that 300 Americans and their families have been able to get out of Gaza in recent days, though other U.S. citizens remain in the territory.

On Monday, the Rafah crossing reopened once more for foreign passport holders whose names were included on an approval list, according to a statement by the General Authority for Crossings and Borders, run by the Hamas government in Gaza. On Tuesday, it opened once more for those on a new list of people approved to cross into Egypt.

In normal times, Rafah is primarily a civilian crossing for Palestinians needing to go to Egypt for medical care and personal reasons. But with all other borders closed since the conflict began, it has now become the only entry point for what little humanitarian aid has been allowed into the enclave.

Who controls Rafah and how was it used before the war?

Citizens with foreign passports wait to travel through the Rafah crossing on Nov. 2 in Rafah, Gaza.
Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images
Getty Images
Citizens with foreign passports wait to travel through the Rafah crossing on Nov. 2 in Rafah, Gaza.

The Rafah crossing, located on Gaza's 7.5-mile border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, is one of three Gaza Strip border crossings, and the only one that doesn't communicate with Israel.

The two other Gaza Strip border crossings are Erez, where people cross into Israel from northern Gaza, and Kerem Shalom, a commercial goods junction with Israel in southern Gaza.

Kerem Shalom was the primary crossing for humanitarian aid before the war. Both it and Erez are now closed, leaving Rafah the only way in and out of Gaza.

It has never been easy for Palestinians to leave Gaza via Rafah. Any Palestinian wishing to use the crossing must register with local Palestinian authorities two to four weeks in advance,and can be rejected by either Palestinian or Egyptian authorities with little warning or explanation.

In the past 10 years, the Rafah crossing has been closed for more days than it has been open.

History of the Rafah crossing

Gaza was part of historic Palestine prior to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, when more than 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what Palestinians call al-Nakba, or "Catastrophe."

Egypt captured Gaza during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and consequently there was no border in Rafah.

Egypt's Sinai Peninsula — where Rafah is located — was invaded by Israel in the 1967Six-Day War. Sinai was later returned to Egypt following the Camp David Accords and a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The last Israeli soldiers withdrew from the peninsula in 1982.

Israel opened the Rafah crossing following the 1979 peace treaty, and the movement of people from Gaza into Egypt remained in Israel's control from 1982 until 2005. From November 2005, the Rafah crossing came under Egyptian, Palestinian Authority and European Union control — the first time Palestinians had gained partial control of one of their international borders.

After Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, the European Union withdrew control of the border. Israel and Egypt's subsequent joint blockade and their decision to shut down the Rafah crossing following the Hamas takeover effectively sealed off the Gaza Strip on all sides. Since then, the crossing has only been intermittently open to Palestinians.

To get around the Israeli-imposed economic blockade, smugglers dug hundreds of tunnels beneath the Rafah border, allowing all sorts of goods into the Gaza Strip. Once the secret work of criminals, smuggling became a lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza following the 2007 blockade. Rafah soon became a smuggling hub.

Anythingfrom cigarettes to clothing has been smuggled into Gaza via tunnels connecting the Egyptian and Palestinian sides. In 2015, Egypt floodedthe tunnels, with the aim of putting an end to the smuggling. Egypt's campaign to destroy the tunnels was largely successful and badly hit Gaza's economy. There have been reports in recent years of Palestinians in Rafah attempting to restore the tunnels.

How is Rafah being used now?

People reload fallen boxes onto a truck carrying humanitarian aid that entered the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing on Nov. 2, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement continue.
MOHAMMED ABED / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
People reload fallen boxes onto a truck carrying humanitarian aid that entered the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing on Nov. 2, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement continue.

As Israel's pounding of Gaza intensifies and the humanitarian situation worsens, the crossing has become the focal point both for relief efforts and for those hoping to leave the Gaza Strip.

Getting aid in and people out has been difficult. As a civilian crossing before the war, Rafah was ill-equipped for a large-scale aid operation.

Juliette Touma, director of communications at UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency that aids Palestinians, tells NPR by phone from Amman, Jordan, that organizing aid efforts from the Rafah crossing in response to the conflict has been "like setting up a humanitarian operation from zero."

While some aid is now coming into the strip — an average of 30 trucks a day are now getting in since the first aid trucks entered Gaza on Oct. 21 — humanitarian groups say it is nowhere near enough to meet needs.

According to Israeli authorities, more than 525 humanitarian aid trucks have entered Gaza since Oct. 21, bringing water, food and medical supplies.

"When you look at the bigger picture, it's absolutely nothing," Touma says. "Before the war started, 100 trucks would deliver aid into the strip every day, and this was before Gaza was under constant bombardment, before more than half the population was displaced."

No fuel has entered the enclave at all in the last month, says Touma.

Most of the aid that came into Gaza before the war was via the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel.

Touma says that with no proper logistics operation set up on the Egyptian side of Rafah, the makeshift aid operation from Rafah is "geared to fail," with trucks having to take a lengthy and cumbersome route through the Sinai Peninsula to reach the crossing point.

"We spend so long getting the trucks to the crossing point, then they go through inspection for hours, then they have to reroute and when they eventually enter Gaza, it's often late at night," Touma says. "Then our [UNRWA teams in Gaza] pick the aid up, often at night, often under a sky full of bombardment."

Before the crossing partially opened to some aid trucks on Oct. 21, Egypt's foreign minister told CNN the crossing was inoperable due to damage inflicted by Israeli airstrikes on roads linking the Palestinian and Egyptian sides.

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Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]