In a rare act of political intervention, former US First Lady Laura Bush rebuked the Trump administration for its “zero-tolerance” policy toward illegal migrants. Writing in The Washington Post on 17 June she condemned the policy as cruel and immoral. She added: “And it breaks my heart.”
Between 5 May and 9 June more than 2,300 children were forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Most of them were fleeing violence and oppression in countries allied with America, including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Mrs Bush must be commended for her candour and decency. But, to the same degree that she and the majority of Americans – 58 per cent – have disapproved of the president’s policy, they must also speak out against the torment that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip suffer at their border crossings. What they experience at their crossings with Egypt and Israel is no less cruel and immoral. It is shocking, disgraceful and inhumane.
There are compelling reasons why the American people must stand up and be counted against the blockade and ill-treatment of Gaza’s population. The countries that perpetrate this policy, Egypt and Israel, are the largest recipients of US economic and military aid not just in the Middle East but globally. The largesse which they receive does not come from The Trump Organisation – it comes from the hard-earned taxes paid by American voters.
Unlike the crisis on the US-Mexican border which erupted under the current administration, the tragedy on Gaza’s border crossings has been festering for more than a decade.
In 2006, a group of young Palestinians attended a Youth Exchange Study programme in the US. Despite the hospitality and warmth of their hosts, they never tried to stay when the programme ended in 2007, they chose instead to return to their homeland. Unfortunately, they were delayed in Washington for two months because the Rafah Crossing through which they departed was closed. Ironically, while the State Department could not persuade the then Mubarak regime to open the Crossing, it succeeded in persuading the Israelis to open theirs.
Eleven years on, Palestinians in Gaza say the situation at the borders are infinitely worse than it used to be under Mubarak. They do not enjoy the freedom of movement as Americans do. Those who wish to travel must register their names which are then classified into four categories: patients seeking medical treatment abroad, students pursuing academic careers, residents of foreign countries and finally those who can pay a fee to the Egyptians manning the Rafah border.
Not surprisingly, the restrictions imposed on Palestinians trying to enter or transit through Egypt contrasts markedly with the courtesies afforded to Israelis travelling to the Egyptian tourist resort in Sharm Al-Sheikh. To begin with, the Taba Crossing from Israel is open 365 days, except for Yom Kippur and Eid. And while the impoverished Palestinians must pay 300 ELS to enter Egypt and return to Gaza, Israelis are not required to pay, nor are they required to have visas or security clearance.
For young Palestinian men, the freedom to travel is even more restricted. If one were to transit via Egypt, they may be cleared and then returned to Gaza for ‘security’ reasons. If they are allowed to travel, they will be placed on a ‘deportation’ bus directly to Cairo International Airport. As a result, many wait until they are on the bus to phone a relative or friend to book their flight. Even the act of making a phone call is uncertain because the SIM cards sold to Palestinian travellers very often are fake and don’t work. For the few who can afford, they book flexible tickets before leaving the besieged enclave.
Once their passports are stamped to enter Egypt, there is still a waiting period at the crossing that usually lasts for another 24 hours before they are actually put on government buses and taken to Cairo under military escort. During that waiting period they are often asked to pay several unofficial fees for which they do not receive receipts.
Very often, young Palestinians with student visas have had to forfeit their studies because their visas expired before the crossing was opened. Similarly, many simply do not risk going home for vacation or family visits for fear of been trapped in Gaza’s open-air prison.
Indeed, there is also the ridiculous situation of students who have completed their studies abroad, their visas have expired, but they can’t return home because the borders are closed.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity a young Palestinian told MEMO of her recent visit to relatives in Cairo one and a half years after she had registered her name. She was 30,000th on the waiting list. After spending the Eid Al-Fitr celebration in Cairo, the young woman set out on her return journey to Gaza. It took her three days before she finally made the crossing – this is a journey that would normally take seven hours by car with a few stops for rest.
The length of the journey across Sinai to Rafah is torturous enough in the sweltering summer heat but having to negotiate 10 checkpoints, as this young woman did, is the stuff of nightmares. Her luggage was searched on six occasions. Very often, personal effects like perfume are seized. Cameras and electronic possessions are also confiscated for ‘security’ reasons.
Young Palestinian males aged 18-40 who wish to travel to Gaza from abroad must have security clearance before arriving in Cairo. Normally, they are taken by bus from the airport to Rafah, that is if the border is open. If it is closed, they will be held in a detention room at Cairo airport until the crossing actually opens.
For those who don’t believe it’s as bad as described above, former British Prime Minister David Cameron described the enclave as an “an open-air prison”.
Most westerners exercise their right of movement without hindrance. It is, after all, guaranteed in human rights law. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
If the situation on the US-Mexico border broke the heart of Mrs Bush, she should spare a thought for the Palestinians in Gaza who have been subjected to much worse for far longer. There is absolutely no excuse or justification for this inhumanity to continue with approval of the world’s ‘greatest democracy’.
As the end to Trump’s separation policy was initiated by an act of decision-making, the blockade on Gaza can be ended if political leaders have the moral courage and decency to make a similar decision.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.