In gaza, border opening brings relief and anxiety gas meter reading

Israel permits only a small number of medical patients, business people and aid workers to exit each month. Egypt opens Rafah sporadically, and those trying to leave Gaza must sign up with Hamas, which gives priority to patients, students at foreign universities, dual nationals and those with residency in third countries.

Egypt promised to reassess its closure policy after Ramadan, raising the possibility of letting goods into Gaza as part of any U.N.-led projects, the Hamas officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss back-channel contacts.

Israel, which along with its Western allies considers Hamas a terrorist group, says the blockade is needed to prevent the group from arming. Hamas has refused to disarm or renounce violence, rejecting a key condition by Israel and Egypt for ending the blockade.

Al-Shaer comes from a typical Gaza family where those who are able to leave seek their fortunes abroad. Three of his brothers work in Saudi Arabia and one in Bahrain. He left Gaza in 2005, before the blockade, settling in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. For the past year, he has worked as the personal chauffeur of a corporate executive.

When al-Shaer first registered on the Gaza Interior Ministry’s waiting list in November, he was told that it would take more than a year to leave Gaza. Rafah has been closed for 110 days this year, while the waiting list has about 25,000 names, though not all may still be planning to travel.

For those with money, there’s also the option of what Gaza residents sarcastically call "Egyptian coordination." This refers to payments, reportedly up to $3,000 per traveler, to Palestinian middlemen who claim to have connections on the Egyptian side. Both Egypt and Hamas deny bribe-taking, though some travelers have witnessed people being moved to the front of the line for "coordination."

Al-Shaer said he was finally able to persuade Hamas officials that he deserved to be moved up the waiting list. On Saturday, he was told he was cleared for travel and should report the next day to a converted gym that serves as a departure hall.

On Sunday, al-Shaer was at the departure hall, waiting his turn. He kept checking his phone and pacing up and down as Hamas officials — sitting behind a counter and separated from the crowd by a fence — called out names. Some travelers waved papers, hoping to get the officials’ attention.

On Wednesday morning, he left his parents’ house in the town of Khan Younis at about 6:40 a.m. Four hours later, he had reached the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and got his passport stamped. By noon, the bus arrived at the Egyptian side of the border.

Al-Shaer and the other passengers ended up spending the night there, ahead of a trip by bus Thursday through the turbulent Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian security forces have been battling an insurgency by Islamic militants. Gaza passengers can only travel by bus during daylight hours from Rafah to Egypt’s capital of Cairo and the city’s airport.

RAFAH BORDER CROSSING, Gaza Strip — Just after daybreak, Hamed al-Shaer came down the narrow stairway of his family’s home in southern Gaza pulling a black suitcase and said goodbye to his mother. They hugged at the gate and he kissed her hands in a show of devotion as she struggled to control her emotions.

Egypt has opened Rafah for the duration of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, temporarily easing a border blockade of Gaza that it has enforced, along with Israel, for the past 11 years. But thousands of people hoping to travel are on a waiting list, a backlog created by long periods of closures, and Egyptian border officials are processing them at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Israel permits only a small number of medical patients, business people and aid workers to exit each month. Egypt opens Rafah sporadically, and those trying to leave Gaza must sign up with Hamas, which gives priority to patients, students at foreign universities, dual nationals and those with residency in third countries.

Egypt promised to reassess its closure policy after Ramadan, raising the possibility of letting goods into Gaza as part of any U.N.-led projects, the Hamas officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss back-channel contacts.

Israel, which along with its Western allies considers Hamas a terrorist group, says the blockade is needed to prevent the group from arming. Hamas has refused to disarm or renounce violence, rejecting a key condition by Israel and Egypt for ending the blockade.

Al-Shaer comes from a typical Gaza family where those who are able to leave seek their fortunes abroad. Three of his brothers work in Saudi Arabia and one in Bahrain. He left Gaza in 2005, before the blockade, settling in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. For the past year, he has worked as the personal chauffeur of a corporate executive.

When al-Shaer first registered on the Gaza Interior Ministry’s waiting list in November, he was told that it would take more than a year to leave Gaza. Rafah has been closed for 110 days this year, while the waiting list has about 25,000 names, though not all may still be planning to travel.

For those with money, there’s also the option of what Gaza residents sarcastically call “Egyptian coordination.” This refers to payments, reportedly up to $3,000 per traveler, to Palestinian middlemen who claim to have connections on the Egyptian side. Both Egypt and Hamas deny bribe-taking, though some travelers have witnessed people being moved to the front of the line for “coordination.”

Al-Shaer said he was finally able to persuade Hamas officials that he deserved to be moved up the waiting list. On Saturday, he was told he was cleared for travel and should report the next day to a converted gym that serves as a departure hall.

On Sunday, al-Shaer was at the departure hall, waiting his turn. He kept checking his phone and pacing up and down as Hamas officials — sitting behind a counter and separated from the crowd by a fence — called out names. Some travelers waved papers, hoping to get the officials’ attention.

On Wednesday morning, he left his parents’ house in the town of Khan Younis at about 6:40 a.m. Four hours later, he had reached the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and got his passport stamped. By noon, the bus arrived at the Egyptian side of the border.

Al-Shaer and the other passengers ended up spending the night there, ahead of a trip by bus Thursday through the turbulent Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian security forces have been battling an insurgency by Islamic militants. Gaza passengers can only travel by bus during daylight hours from Rafah to Egypt’s capital of Cairo and the city’s airport.