Crossing the Egypt hurdle
RAFAH (GAZA STRIP) — Computerised passport control points, shiny marble floors and framed photos of beaches greet arrivals at Gaza’s Rafah terminal along the Egyptian frontier.
The $1.4 million terminal reflects a sign of Palestinian hopes that the fighting of the past week between militants in Gaza and Israel will end with a deal leading to an easier flow of people and goods into Egypt.
That would transform the lives of the 1.7 million people in the impoverished territory and give a major victory to Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza.
A major obstacle to an open crossing at Gaza’s primary link to the outside world could be Egypt, which fears that easing the restrictions might destabilise the border region and anger its Western allies.
In a sign of Egypt’s ambivalence over the crossing, the country’s terminal is a rundown, antiquated hall with broken chairs and a single computer to register travellers.
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ Prime Minister in Gaza, earlier this week urged Egypt to fling open the border crossing. “I call on Egypt to open the border crossing completely to goods and people and aid,” Haniyeh said in a televised speech. “We want this moment to restore the credibility of Egypt’s leadership, its revolution and its spirit, to end the blockade once and for all.”
A few days before the fighting began, Tamer Abu Luli said he spent two hours pleading with Egyptian officials at the border to let him accompany his aging, wheelchair-bound mother on a medical trip to Cairo.
Even though the 28-year-old had the necessary travel documents from Gaza officials, Abu Luli was considered a security risk by Egypt because he was under 40. He was forced to undergo extensive checks before eventually being allowed to cross.
Abu Luli said he didn’t believe the difficulties would abate. “I wish it would remain open for all. It would be an achievement,” he said as he returned to Gaza with his mother on Monday. “But the Egyptians are afraid of us.”
Egypt’s new Islamist President, Mohammed Mursi, is sympathetic to Hamas as a fellow member of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood. But he is trying to balance his Islamist loyalties with a public that is divided between those who want to offer unconditional support for Gazans and those fearful of Palestinians flooding into Egypt.
Mursi also has to contend with pressure from Egypt’s main ally, the US, not to go too far in supporting Hamas.
He is working to maintain his country’s peace treaty with Israel even though his party refuses to recognise the Jewish state.
Israel has tightly controlled the flow of goods to and from Gaza since Hamas violently overran the tiny seaside territory in June 2007. It imposed a sweeping land and sea blockade immediately after the takeover in an attempt to put pressure on Hamas.
But that tactic only deepened Gazan resentment against Israel, and the Israeli government relaxed the land blockade in 2010 after a deadly raid on a blockade-busting flotilla brought an international outcry and focused international attention on the embargo.
While the embargo crippled the Gaza economy, Hamas deepened its control, in part by smuggling goods and weapons through hundreds of tunnels under the border with Egypt. Exports still make up only about one per cent of Gaza’s economy. Construction materials, badly needed to rebuild destruction, are restricted to projects coordinated by the UN and other international bodies.
Israel says it fears a wide-open Rafah would allow foreign fighters and arms to flow into Gaza. As it is, many weapons and even Iranian-made missiles have been smuggled in through the tunnels.
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