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Gaza's border with Egypt is closed. Why won't Egypt let Palestinians in?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

One million people have been displaced in Gaza since war broke out between Hamas and Israel just over a week ago, according to the U.N. Many of them are heading to Gaza's border with Egypt, the only way out not controlled by Israel. But the border crossing at Rafah has been closed since the Hamas attack that sparked this round of fighting. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters before flying out of Cairo yesterday, believes that will change, at least for humanitarian aid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: Rafah will be open. We're putting in place with the United Nations, with Egypt, with Israel, with others, the mechanism by which to get the assistance in and to get it to the people who need it.

MARTÍNEZ: But why won't Egypt let fleeing Gazans in? For answers, we turn now to Abderahman Salaheldin, a former Egyptian diplomat who's now a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations. Ambassador, welcome. Why doesn't Egypt want to allow Palestinian refugees in?

ABDERAHMAN SALAHELDIN: Because actually, emptying Gaza of its population is not going to solve the problem. The problem of military - Israeli military occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank would remain until there is a Palestinian state, according to the same model that Egypt followed in its relations with Israel. Look at our relations with Israel today. Our borders are secured. There are - we are cooperating in many fields. We would like Palestinians and Israelis to have the same situation. And it's only because we didn't have that.

MARTÍNEZ: It wouldn't maybe solve the problem, but wouldn't it save lives?

SALAHELDIN: It would save lives to keep those 2.3 million Palestinians in their land. Moving them is against humanitarian international law. This is a population transfer that would remind us all of what happened in 1948 and 1967, where millions of Palestinians moved across the borders. And when we talked about their right of return, no one is listening and Israel is objecting. So, yes, we would like in Egypt - actually, this is the sixth war between Gaza and Israel. And in each war, Egypt has been intervening to try to save lives, provide humanitarian assistance across its borders, exchange prisoners of war and save the civilians from being starved out.

What is happening today - that 2.3 million Palestinians are cut off water, food, electricity and medical supplies - is a war crime, actually, and the world should not be just watching in silence. I think we have reached an agreement with the secretary of state - U.S. secretary of state - yesterday. And you broadcasted his statement that Rafah will be opened. We are still waiting for a signal from the Israeli government that that is the case so we can...

MARTÍNEZ: For humanitarian aid. I think that's what Blinken was talking about, open for humanitarian aid. Is that something...

SALAHELDIN: Exactly.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So is that something that Egypt is ready to do right away?

SALAHELDIN: Yes, right away, as it was the case in the last five wars. And Rafah, as you might know, is only for passengers. But in these exceptional circumstances, we allow also humanitarian supplies, medical supplies, food supplies, water for those starving people and for those hospitals that are lacking basic supplies. Usually, the supplies are run through the Kiryat Shalom or Karm Abu Salem crossing across from the Negev desert. But because Israel is closing all its crossings, the crossings that it controls, we make up for this by allowing the humanitarian supplies through Rafah under the United Nations' supervision. We would like this crisis to be over in order to look for the day after...

MARTÍNEZ: OK.

SALAHELDIN: ...Because it is not enough to stop the war, actually. Otherwise, we would have another war. Even if the Israelis finish off Hamas, there will be another Hamas.

MARTÍNEZ: Ambassador, is there concern on Egypt's part that doing anything at this point might spill Hamas violence into Egypt?

SALAHELDIN: As long as military occupation is in existence and Palestinians under military occupation, there will be a new Hamas. And as long as there is no horizon for a political settlement, there will be another resistance in violence. And this is very important. Our silence for the last 40 years and our stalled - the stalled peace process, and with no answer from the international community, is inflicting harm on all of us. Look at the possibility that this conflict might escalate.

MARTÍNEZ: What answer would you like to hear, Ambassador? What answer would you like to hear?

SALAHELDIN: I would like to hear one answer, that we will try to save as much civilians as possible on both sides. And this war? Stop the war immediately. And move onto a peace process that would produce two states and give hope to the Palestinians. This is our only way to stop the escalation. The escalation of this conflict could really threaten even U.S. soldiers who are in the region. We have 25,000 U.S. soldiers in the region.

MARTÍNEZ: But Ambassador, at this point - in the few seconds we have left, at this point, how likely or even how hopeful would a two-state solution be now?

SALAHELDIN: I think we should follow the model of the October War 50 years ago between Egypt and Israel. In Egypt, and with the help of the United States, we converted this war to be a launchpad for peace. I think this war, and because of the magnitude of the damage it's inflicting, we can turn it into an opportunity of peace.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Egyptian diplomat Abderahman Salaheldin. He's Egypt's former ambassador to Turkey and the Czech Republic. Ambassador, thank you very much for talking with us.

SALAHELDIN: Thank you, sir.

MARTÍNEZ: And for more and differing views on the Mid-East conflict, please, visit npr.org/mideastupdates.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKTANE, NESSEN, SOIBOI AND KAIROS' "SAILING THROUGH SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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