Agence France-Presse RAFAH: As Gaza Strip Palestinians remain trapped in their tiny war-battered territory by an Israeli blockade, the Egyptian side of the border town of Rafah slowly sinks into economic depression. For the people on the other side, I was the first shop in Egypt. Now I am the last and I have no customers, says Ibrahim Qeshta, standing dejectedly outside his diminutive shop facing the closed border crossing. On Salaheddin Street, which like the rest of Rafah is sliced in two by the border, most shopkeepers have long since pulled the shutters down, more than two months after Israel sealed off the Gaza Strip. The bank is empty, the chemist spends lonely days in his shop ranting against Israel, and the entire town has gone almost silent as it awaits an elusive reopening of the border crossing. When Israel completed its landmark withdrawal from the Gaza Strip a year ago, forcibly removing settlers and pulling out its troops, Rafah became the Palestinian gateway to the rest of the world, and a thriving mercantile hub. Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority had agreed on a one-year deal making Rafah the crossing point and establishing a contingent of European monitors to supervise the process. At least 150 vehicles carrying around 1,000 people crossed the border every day until the terminal was closed after a June 25 attack on the border during which Gaza militants captured an Israeli soldier. The border briefly reopened a few times, mainly to allow through Palestinians requiring medical treatment as well as those working or studying abroad. When the terminal was open, the Egyptian side of Rafah became a large last-stop shop where Palestinians could stock up on cheap goods before returning to the Gaza Strip. Mahmoud Abu Qeshta raked in profits by selling cartons of American cigarettes for $13 – they cost at least double that in the Palestinian territories. The trade worked both ways. Nour Hassen had opened a mobile phone shop, not to sell any but to buy them from incoming Gaza residents. They are half the price on their side, so I would buy their old mobile phones and sell them again in Cairo, sometimes doubling my monthly income as a teacher in one day, says Hassen, whose salary from the education ministry is just $60 a month. At the end of the street, an Egyptian patrol bursts into the sleepy town from the Salaheddin gate, through which, legend has it, the Kurdish conqueror passed en route to recapture Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the 12th century. A high concrete wall lined with barbed wire hides the Palestinian side of Rafah from sight from within Egypt. Only the top of a pockmarked building flying the Palestinian flag can be seen. Three shots shatter the eerie silence of the buffer zone. It s them again – they re firing at our people over there and choking us here, says Massud Barhum, a dentist of Palestinian origin, referring to the Israelis. Like many Rafah residents living on the Egyptian side, last year s reopening of the border allowed him to see the members of his family who had stayed on the other side. A year after Israel officially pulled out of the Gaza Strip and transferred security responsibility to an Egyptian paramilitary force, the Jewish state s stranglehold on the territory is as strong as ever. Posters of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia that defied the might of the Israeli military for 34 days this summer, can be seen in every Rafah street. He showed us the way. We are the victims of a collective punishment: the only language Israel understands is force, says Barhum. But everyone s priority in this dusty town more than 400 km from Cairo is the reopening of the border crossing. Qeshta the shopkeeper believes that everything will remain blocked until the Israeli soldier is freed. A member of the Egyptian security services in Rafah, speaking on condition of anonymity, said without elaborating that regulations governing the crossing point would change sometime this month.