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The road from Cairo to the Rafah border crossing is less than 350km, but aid convoys leaving the Egyptian capital headed for the border with Gaza face an arduous journey of at least 12 hours, with security forces on high alert.
Movement on the road is severely slowed by military checkpoints put up to control the entry of goods and people into Egypt’s North Sinai province.
Sinai has long been a securitised region and includes several restricted military zones, established by the Egyptian military as it battles an ISIS insurgency. But security has increased since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war on October 7.
Rafah, the only border crossing into the besieged Gaza strip that is not in Israel, is the destination of aid convoys from around the world.
Convoys leaving Cairo face delays at checkpoints, but must also navigate camera crews and equipment set up by local and international television stations who are filming the aid making its way to Gaza.
Many of the vehicles in the convoys bear large banners, expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people, that have become symbols of the war.
Egyptian opposition convoy reaches Rafah
A small aid convoy organised by several Egyptian political parties – Al Dostour, Bread and Freedom and Al Karama – made the long journey from Cairo to North Sinai and arrived at the Rafah border crossing on Sunday night.
At the helm of the convoy was Gameela Ismail, a prominent figure of the January 25 revolution who last month withdrew her bid for Egypt’s December presidential election.
“What is happening in Gaza is nothing short of barbarism at the hands of an oppressive occupier and I think every political entity in the Arab world should be doing its utmost to call for a ceasefire,” Ms Ismail told The National from the Rafah crossing on Sunday night.
“We brought a small convoy, what we could gather through our donations, but the more important part of this visit is to call for a ceasefire because no amount of aid is enough to alleviate the horrors of living under such a violent occupation.”
Ms Ismail led a short protest on Sunday night, chanting that Palestine was stronger with Egyptian support and condemning Israel's killing of women and children.
“I have been following this war on the news and on social media since it started and it has been heartbreaking, but being here and getting a small glimpse of what Gazans are experiencing every day burns me up inside. It’s so cruel to subject innocents to this,” said Noura Mohamed, a volunteer on Ms Ismail’s aid convoy.
Tension and memories of ISIS in Sinai
The protest took place against a backdrop of chaos and tension at the border. The sound of sirens pierced the night as air strikes across the border shook the ground.
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers regularly moved through the crossing as aid workers unloaded their vehicles for inspection.
A military officer at the crossing told The National it has been difficult to be stationed at the border since the start of the war because it reminded him of the Egyptian military’s struggle against ISIS in the area, known as the Total Operation.
“It feels that this area is cursed or something,” said the officer, who wished to remain anonymous. “I served here as a lower-ranking officer during the Total Operation when the terrorists had turned this area into a war zone. It feels like that again to many of us.
“The operation was really terrifying for many Egyptian soldiers in North Sinai and many regularly inflicted injuries on themselves so they could be sent to hospital and escape the fear of being stationed out in the middle of nowhere and constantly under threat of attack.
“We were so happy when it was over.”
Evacuees remain in Al Arish
The military operation has displaced tens of thousands of local Bedouin in North Sinai and also wreaked havoc on the region's economy, which relies heavily on tourism.
The beach city of Al Arish, 45km west of Rafah, has suffered from a lack of tourists since 2014 but is now a hub of activity as journalists, humanitarian workers and politicians flock to the region.
Egyptian authorities designated Al Arish as the centre for Gaza-bound aid after Israel's war on Gaza began in response to Hamas's attack on October 7.
Many foreign citizens who managed to leave Gaza since limited evacuations began as well as some wounded Palestinians have also stayed in Al Arish, a local hotel manager told The National.
“A lot of them have family members who are still inside the strip who they were separated from. We have two guests who haven’t heard from their families since they evacuated,” he said.
On Monday, a large ship carrying medical supplies to erect a field hospital in Al Arish arrived at the city’s port in a further sign that the impact of the Israel-Gaza war on the region is far from over.