A convoy of aid for Gaza from the Algerian Muslim Scholars' Association has been held up at the Rafah Border Crossing by the Egyptian authorities. The Egyptians have refused to allow the convoy into the Gaza Strip. The head of the relief committee, Sheikh Yahya Sari, believes that this is "irrational". All he and his team can do now is return to Algeria and hand back the medicine and humanitarian aid before its condition deteriorates.
Echorouk spoke to Sheikh Yahya, who is now in Port Said to complete the return procedures. I asked him what the members of the Committee for the Gaza Relief Convoy had experienced whilst in Egypt, especially at the Rafah crossing, which is located in a very dangerous part of the country.
What is the latest development with the Gaza Relief Convoy after the Egyptian authorities prevented it from going through the Rafah Border Crossing?
We worked hard to get the convoy into the Gaza Strip. We waited for three days at the border crossing in a "high risk" security spot but the Egyptian authorities would not let us enter Gaza. The Algerian ambassador in Egypt explained to us the reasons behind the ban and provided us with the information we needed. In order to preserve the contents of the convoy with which we have been entrusted, we decided to get back to Algeria before the use-by dates expired and the goods deteriorated due to the extreme heat and humidity. The goods had already spent four days in the open at Port Said.
How did the Egyptian authorities justify preventing the convoy from entering Gaza, even though you obtained prior approval and facilitated security procedures?
We were only told about this when we reached Rafah. It was a surprise for us to hear the officials telling us that they were not completely convinced about letting the convoy in for a number of reasons. First, they said that the convoy is supposed to be purely medical and not all-inclusive aid. We were carrying aid other than medicine. We told them that we will take the medical goods and hold back the rest of the aid until we get approval, but they said that they would either let everything in or return everything. After that, they told us about the serious security situation the area is experiencing. On Friday, after the prayer, an Egyptian intelligence officer told us that we had to leave. Then he left the crossing zone and all of the staff left after him, telling us that the situation was serious and no one could guarantee our safety.
What was going on at the Rafah crossing?
We saw dozens of trucks entering and leaving the Gaza Strip loaded with various goods, which makes the justifications given by the Egyptian side to refuse our entry all the more unconvincing.
What did you do after you were prevented from crossing and after the staff left?
We found ourselves alone at the crossing. Before the officer left, he said that he would mention us to the security services. It was, very clearly, an insecure situation, so we left the crossing and headed back across Sinai to Port Said, where we have been waiting since 3am last Friday to return the convoy to Algeria after the completion of the necessary paperwork.
The Egyptian authorities claim that you did not inform them about the contents of the convoy other than medical aid. Is that true?
We respected all the legal procedures necessary for the entry of the convoy into Egypt, and told the authorities about everything that we were carrying. If they had any doubt about what we were carrying, they would have searched the convoy, but they have not inspected it since we entered the country. Our convoy left Port Said for the Rafah crossing and no one provoked us in spite of the curfew in North Sinai. In fact, we were surprised by the unprecedented security provision; we did not even have to stop at all of the security barriers located in Sinai where nobody approached us, because they had received orders [to let us through].
Didn't the unprecedented Egyptian security provision for the convoy trigger any doubts that there could be something plotted against you, especially as North Sinai is a seriously risky place?
We were aware that the area was dangerous, especially at night with the security barriers, but we were surprised when the way was opened to us with ease. They did not even ask for documents or speak with us. We asked ourselves how the convoy could cross to Rafah so easily. Only Allah knows if this flexibility was meant for something else.
What will happen to the aid convoy now?
The convoy is still in Port Said. We are taking the necessary measures to return it to Algeria, and I do not know what will happen next.
The Egyptian Embassy in Algeria has confirmed that the convoy was not allowed into the Gaza Strip "because its contents did not conform to what was approved and in order to preserve our national security."
The Information Bureau of the Egyptian Embassy in Algeria explained that the aid shipment provided by the Association of Muslim Scholars in Algeria to the Gaza Strip was approved by the relevant authorities of the Arab Republic of Egypt. A statement of the contents of the shipment was confirmed, and "when the aid convoy made it to Rafah crossing, it has been revealed that it contained unauthorised items which were not included in the table of contents approved by the Egyptian authorities."
The statement added that the return of the shipment to Cairo was because of non-compliance with the approval granted. "The issue is now being resolved to allow the entry of specific items, without conceding what was agreed in advance for this shipment, or the requirements of Egyptian national security."
This was first published on echoroukonline.com.