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Gaza incursion halts aid convoy, commerce at Egypt border crossing

With jets streaking overhead and explosions thundering in the distance, the Greek surgeon stood Sunday beside a stalled convoy carrying blood bags and syringes, hoping to slip through the black gate at the Egyptian border to reach the wounded in the Gaza Strip.

It was the second straight day that Mouzala Ioannis, five other physicians and a nurse from Doctors of Peace waited at the locked Rafah crossing amid eerie silence. Ioannis blamed the Egyptian government for holding up more than 25 trucks and SUVs filled with medical supplies donated by Greece, Turkey, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“They lied to us,” said Ioannis, leaning on a car as a border guard shuffled near the metal gate. “The Egyptians first told us the Palestinians didn’t want our help, but that wasn’t true because we were talking to the Palestinians. Then they told us it was a matter of national security. But this humanitarian aid needs to get in there now.

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“These people need help. When you’re dead, I can’t help you as a doctor.”

The city of Rafah has become a sand-blown choke point of frustration for doctors, tunnel diggers, merchants, drivers, egg sellers and gunrunners. With Israel’s offensive against Hamas in its second week, Rafah, which had long provided Gaza’s 1.5 million people with everything from diapers to rocket-propelled grenades, has been largely cut off from the Palestinian enclave. Humanitarian aid is trickling in, but Rafah symbolizes Egypt’s political and emotional conflict in helping Palestinians while opposing their militant Hamas leaders.

Many Egyptians are angry at President Hosni Mubarak’s government for keeping the Rafah crossing closed to all but wounded Palestinians. Israel’s ground offensive has increased pressure on Mubarak, but Cairo has long opposed Hamas, fearing the group wants to reignite Islamic extremism in Egypt. Trade, medical aid, diplomacy and smuggling are now caught between Israeli tanks and Egyptian politics.

“I used to earn about $50,000 a month smuggling food, clothing and gasoline through the tunnels into Gaza,” said a slight bearded man using the alias Abu Mohammed. “Since the Israeli airstrikes began, I’ve lost about $25,000. But Israel can’t destroy the tunnels,” which he said were 39 to 49 feet deep. Israeli missiles, he said, penetrate about 25 feet. “We can repair every one they damage within a month.”

Abu Mohammed estimated that as many as 6,000 Egyptians, many of them Bedouins from the poverty-stricken Sinai region of Rafah, benefit from the smuggling trade. Israel’s bombing runs -- which it says have targeted tunnels to stop weapons from reaching Hamas -- have slowed subterranean dealings. But sitting in his three-story stone house with mirrored bay windows overlooking a peach orchard, Mohammed was more annoyed than angry.

“We’re now smuggling blood bags and medical aid through the tunnels,” he said. “We’re not even charging. . . . And, you know, between 2000 and 2005 we sold enough weapons to Gaza to last 10 years.”

Mohammed Khalil is less sanguine. A week before the Israeli assault began, he bought a small shop in downtown Rafah. Like many merchants here, he was relying on Palestinians, thousands of whom have relatives in the Sinai. He and other store owners sold goods that were ferried through the tunnels.

“My business is down 75%,” said Khalil. “With these airstrikes, nobody comes. The customers of this city are Palestinian. No Egyptians buy here.”

A few doors down, past troop trucks and mounds of sand and mortar for unfinished buildings, Salem Ibrahim has had his shop for five years, but if the fighting to the north of him doesn’t calm soon, he may not be in business much longer.

“If business stays like this, we’ll close down in two months’ time,” he said. “Rafah can’t survive without the Palestinians.”

Sandaled boys on motorcycles, scarves flowing, whined past donkey carts as farmers knelt in the furrows of sandy fields. Explosions cracked the air; one shook close by, beyond the border gate, where a guard peered through bars, reporters camped in the breeze and nothing stirred on the Gaza side of the divide.

Ioannis stood along the road near the medical convoy. He wanted to get into a place many would rather escape.

“We’re not politicians. We’re medical doctors,” he said. “We’ll wait here. Rafah could be an open door to humanitarian aid. I’ve worked in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq. Even in Iraq, they let humanitarian aid through. This is the first time I’ve seen they haven’t. We’re sad. No, we’re not sad; we’re angry.”

His face was sunburned, his hair scraggly. He waited as another truck lumbered up and stopped at the end of the convoy line.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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