|Rafah border crossing – British aid convoy entering Gaza Strip from Egypt|
Rafah (Arabic: رفح), also known as Rafiah, is a Palestinian city in the southern Gaza Strip. Located 30 kilometers (19 mi) south of Gaza, Rafah’s population of 71,003 is overwhelmingly made up of Palestinian refugees. Rafah camp and Tall as-Sultan form separate localities. Rafah is the district capital of the Rafah Governorate. Yasser Arafat International Airport, Gaza’s only airport, is located just south of the city; the airport operated from 1998 to 2001, when it was bombed and bulldozed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after the killing of Israeli soldiers by members of Hamas. Rafah is the site of the Rafah Border Crossing, the only crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Over the ages it has been known as “Robihwa” by the ancient Egyptians, “Rafihu” by the Assyrians, “Ῥαφία, Rhaphia” by the Greeks, “Raphia” by Romans, “Raphiaḥ” [pronounced Rafiach] by the Israelites, “Rafh” by the Arab Caliphate.
Rafah has a history stretching back thousands of years. It was first recorded in an inscription of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I, from 1303 BCE as Rph, and as the first stop on Pharaoh Shoshenq I‘s campaign to the Levant in 925 BC. In 720 BCE it was the site of the Assyrian king Sargon II‘s victory over the Egyptians, and in 217 BC the Battle of Raphia was fought between the victorious Ptolemy IV and Antiochus III. (It is said to be one of the largest battles ever fought in the Levant, with over a hundred thousand soldiers and hundreds of elephants).
The town was conquered by Alexander Yannai and held by the Hasmoneans until it was rebuilt in the time of Pompey and Gabinius; the latter seems to have done the actual work of restoration for the era of the town dates from 57 BCE. Rafah is mentioned in Strabo (16, 2, 31), the Antonine Itinerary, and is depicted on the Map of Madaba.
A Jewish community settled in the city in the 9th and 10th centuries and again in the 12th, although in the 11th century it suffered a decline and in 1080 they migrated to Ashkelon. A Samaritan community also lived there during this period. Like most cities of southern Palestine, ancient Rafah had a landing place on the coast (now Tell Rafah), while the main city was inland. During the Byzantine period, it was a diocese.
Arab and Mamluk rule
Rafah was an important trading city during the early Arab period, and one of the towns captured by the Rashidun army under general ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 635 CE. Under the Umayyads and Abbasids, Rafah was the southernmost border of Jund Filastin (“District of Palestine”). According to Arab geographer al‑Ya’qubi, it was the last town in the Province of Syria and on the road from Ramla to Egypt.
In 1226, Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi writes of Rafah’s former importance in the early Arab period, saying it was “of old a flourishing town, with a market, and a mosque, and hostelries”. However, he goes on to say that in its current state, Rafah was in ruins, but was an Ayyubid postal station on the road to Egypt after nearby Deir al‑Balah.
Ottoman and Egyptian period
Ottoman records in the 16th century show a small village of 16 taxpayers.
In 1799, the Revolutionary Army of France commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte passed through Rafah during the invasion of Egypt and Syria.
Rafah was the boundary between the provinces of Egypt and Syria. In 1832, the area came under Egyptian occupation of Muhammad Ali, which lasted until 1840.
In 1881, Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria wrote
Fragments of gray granite pillars, still standing, are here to be met with about the road, the fields, and the sand, and we saw one lying on the ground half buried… The pillars are the remains of an ancient temple, Raphia, and are of special importance in the eyes of the Arabs, who call them Rafah, as they mark the boundary between Egypt and Syria.—Ludwig Salvator, The Caravan Route between Egypt and Syria
In 1917, the British army captured Rafah, and used it as a base for their attack on Gaza. The presence of the army bases was an economic draw that brought people back to the city, and in 1922 it had a population of 600. By 1948, the population had risen to 2,500.
After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the refugee camps were established. In the 1956 war involving Israel, Britain, France, and Egypt, 111 people, including 103 refugees, were killed by the Israeli army in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah. The United Nations was unable to determine the circumstances surrounding the deaths.Demographics
In 1922, Rafah’s population was 599, which increased to 2,220 in 1945. In 1982, the total population was approximately 10,800.
In the 1997 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) census, Rafah and its adjacent camp had a combined population of 91,181, Tall as-Sultan was listed with a further 17,141. Refugees made up 80.3% of the entire population. In the 1997 census, Rafah’s (together with Rafah camp) gender distribution was 50.5% male and 49.5% female.
In the 2006 PCBS estimate, Rafah city had a population of 71,003, Rafah camp and Tall as-Sultan form separate localities for census purposes, having populations of 59,983 and 24,418, respectively.
Rafah Border Crossing
Rafah is the site of the Rafah Border Crossing, the only crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Formerly operated by Israeli military forces, control of the crossing was transferred to the Palestinian Authority in September 2005 as part of the larger Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. A European Union commission began monitoring the crossing in November 2005 amid Israeli security concerns, and in April 2006, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas‘s Presidential Guard assumed responsibility for the site on the Palestinian Authority side. On the Egyptian side, the responsibility is assumed by the 750 Border Guards allowed by an agreement of Egypt with Israel. The agreement was signed in November 2005 forced by US pressure, and specifies that it is under security requirements demanded by Israel.
On January 23, 2008, at 2 am, the border crossing was breached after gunmen set off an explosion nearby, destroying part of the Israeli Gaza Strip barrier. Over the next four days, approximately 700,000 Palestinians crossed into Egypt, most planning to buy supplies and return to Gaza. A smaller number of Egyptians crossed into Gaza.
On June 1, 2010, in the midst of international uproar following Israel’s attack on a relief boat, Egypt announced it was opening the border crossing.
On May 28, 2011, Egypt opened the Gaza Strip Border Crossing, and thousands of Palestinian refugees entered into Egypt.
However in mid-June 2011 the crossing was closed for several days and after that only a few hundred were allowed to cross each day compared with ‘thousands’ who applied to cross each day. Egypt reportedly agreed to allow a minimum of 500 people to cross each day.