Unsung heroes: Egyptian lorry drivers endure long waits to deliver Gaza aid

Lengthy checks have created bottlenecks, leaving them patiently facing plummeting temperatures and days of boredom

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Mohammed Khaled has been anxiously mixing fava beans into another stew while brewing piping hot Turkish coffee in the makeshift kitchenette he has set up on his lorry that is carrying at least 20 tonnes of humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates, bound for Gaza.

It is the 22-year-old’s first transport mission into Gaza via the Rafah border crossing, the vital and only entry point for aid going into Gaza, where hundreds of Egyptian drivers from Cairo and other cities have been camping out since Israel’s war first began.

“I’m really nervous as it’s my first time driving this much aid into a war zone. I’ve been camping with my lorry for the past eight days, four days in Al Arish city and four nights here in this exact same spot, just metres away from Gaza,” Mr Khaled, who is from Zagazig city in Al Sharqia province, tells The National.

“The good thing is I’ve made some friends with the other veteran lorry drivers here who are crossing for the fourth or fifth transport mission into Gaza, and they’ve been giving me some good advice,” he added.

The Rafah border crossing has been the only entry point for aid going into the Gaza Strip since Israel began besieging and bombarding the coastal territory in retaliation for a lethal October 7 attack and the capture of hostages by the Palestinian group Hamas.

International flights have been landing at Al Arish airport in Sinai, some 40km from the border, to deliver cargoes of aid ever since. Convoys of lorries have also been bringing aid from the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

Under a system in place since October 21, aid lorries had to drive for inspection to the Al Awja and Nitzana crossing on Egypt’s border with Israel, before returning to Rafah to deliver their cargo – a round trip of more than 80km that aid workers and Egyptian officials say has been causing bottlenecks.

“Once we return from the Israeli inspections, it’s another waiting game for all of us as we’re told that we’ll cross into Gaza with only several hours of notice the night before,” Mohammed Fawzy, 51, tells The National.

The lengthy checks on the Palestinian and Israeli sides have created jams while the lorry drivers patiently endure plummeting temperatures and boredom for days on end as they wait for the green light from the authorities to cross over.

In the narrow lanes that have formed between the lines of lorries at the border crossing itself, up to 20km from the last checkpoint, hundreds of drivers are preparing to go at a moment’s notice.

Some are praying on mats on the ground, some are chatting, and most of them are clad in multiple layers of clothing to keep warm. Others readjust their makeshift beds made of thin mattresses and heavy wool blankets ready for another day of camping and waiting.

To keep warm during the cold, windy nights, Mr Fawzy says he made sure to pack his favourite shisha water pipe and upgraded his phone's internet data so he could watch his favourite Egyptian films by comedian Ismail Yasin.

Temperatures in the northern coast of Egypt that borders Gaza have dipped as low as 10 degrees Celsius in recent days, and the lorry drivers have to pack and plan for the week in advance as they cannot leave their lorries packed with humanitarian aid unattended.

“I’ve crossed the border now four times. It has not been easy. The last time I went, some Palestinians were impatient and began throwing rocks at my lorry and damaged my windshield and the side cart where I keep my kitchenette and water tanks,” Mr Fawzy said, as he showed the damage, now masked with black tape.

“But I understand their situation. I also come from a very poor family from the outskirts of Cairo and I’ve experienced bouts of hunger when work was slow and we didn’t have any money for food. What the Palestinians are going through is unimaginable,” he says.

Ahmed Ghourry, 53, has been driving lorries since he was 14 years old, when he used to help his own father wash, load, unload and maintain the 12-wheeler lorries that have ensured his family have a decent wage.

“I’ve been doing this job for nearly 30 years now and it’s a job that was passed down from my father to myself. My story is similar to the many other drivers here today. We learn from our fathers and then we pass this job to our own sons,” Mr Ghourry says.

“I wished for my son to work in another profession, to be honest, but this is the reality for many of us poor working men. This is a type of job that will never go out of business.

“Goods, supplies, everything needs to be moved from Cairo to the different parts of the country and we’re here to make sure they not only get transported but also delivered in the condition we received them,” he adds.

Since October 21, when the first aid lorries entered Gaza through the Rafah border, the number has increased from 20 to an average of 60 lorries on days when the border is fully operational.

That amount still falls short of the bare minimum of 100 lorryloads of goods needed daily, according to Egyptian authorities and the United Nations. Before the war, around 500 lorries would pass per day.

The United Nations had lobbied for Israel to open the Kerem Shalom crossing near Rafah, which handled large quantities of goods before the war, since it is on the triple Gaza Strip-Israel-Egypt border.

But Israel, which fears aid could be used by Hamas, refused until it allowed a trickle of lorries from Egypt to finally cross it.

Over the past few weeks, a small group of Israeli settlers has begun massing at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, throwing themselves in front of the lorries to block aid from entering Gaza.

At 7am, the Egyptian Red Crescent finally gives the 11 drivers the green light to begin moving into Gaza, eight days after they first loaded the aid on to their lorries.

Mohammed Khaled, the 22-year-old from Al Sharqia province, will have his passport stamped for the first time in his life.

“I’ve never been on an aeroplane and the Rafah border is the furthest place I’ve been from home in my life.

“It’s a shame that my first time leaving Egypt is by carrying aid into Palestine but I’m proud of myself nonetheless. I hope today’s mission goes smoothly so that we return for the next round of aid,” he tells The National, before revving his engine and crossing into Gaza.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 6:06 PM