Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Egypt border town agonises as Gaza blockade drags on

AFP , RAFAH, EGYPT

As Gaza Strip Palestinians remain trapped in their tiny war-battered territory by an Israeli blockade, the Egyptian side of the border town of Rafah slowly sinks into economic depression.

"For the people on the other side, I was the first shop in Egypt. Now I am the last and I have no customers," says Ibrahim Qeshta, standing dejectedly outside his diminutive shop facing the closed border crossing.

On Salaheddin Street -- which like the rest of Rafah is sliced in two by the border -- most shopkeepers have long since pulled the shutters down, more than two months after Israel sealed off the Gaza Strip.

The bank is empty, the chemist spends lonely days in his shop ranting against Israel, and the entire town has gone almost silent as it awaits an elusive reopening of the border crossing.

When Israel completed its landmark withdrawal from the Gaza Strip a year ago -- forcibly removing settlers and pulling out its troops -- Rafah became the Palestinian gateway to the rest of the world, and a thriving mercantile hub.

Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority had agreed on a one-year deal making Rafah the crossing point and establishing a contingent of European monitors to supervise the process.

At least 150 vehicles carrying around 1,000 people crossed the border every day until the terminal was closed after a June 25 attack on the border during which Gaza militants captured an Israeli soldier.

The border briefly reopened a few times, mainly to allow through Palestinians requiring medical treatment as well as those working or studying abroad.

When the terminal was open, the Egyptian side of Rafah became a large last-stop shop where Palestinians could stock up on cheap goods before returning to the Gaza Strip.

Mahmud Abu Qeshta raked in profits by selling cartons of American cigarettes for US$13 -- they cost at least double that in the Palestinian territories.

The trade worked both ways. Nur Hassen had opened a mobile phone shop, not to sell any but to buy them from incoming Gaza residents.

"They are half the price on their side, so I would buy their old mobile phones and sell them again in Cairo, sometimes doubling my monthly income as a teacher in one day," says Hassen, whose salary from the education ministry is just US$60 a month.

But everyone's priority in this dusty town more than 400km from Cairo is the reopening of the border crossing.

Qeshta the shopkeeper believes that "everything will remain blocked until the Israeli soldier is freed."

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