Gaza-Egypt border a critical point of conflict

Nov 20, 2012, 5:34 PM EST
A Palestinian man arrives in Rafah after crossing into Gaza Strip from Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. The $1.4 million terminal reflects a sign of Palestinian hopes that the fighting over the past week will end with a deal leading to an easier flow of people and goods into Egypt, which would transform their lives in the impoverished territory. It would also give Hamas a major victory that could help the Islamic group tighten its grip over Gaza's 1.7 million residents.
(AP Photo/Eyad Baba)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Computerized 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 Islamic 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 destabilize 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 travelers.

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 Monday. "But the Egyptians are afraid of us."

Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, 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.

Morsi also has to contend with pressure from Egypt's main ally, the U.S., 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 recognize 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 1 percent of Gaza's economy. Construction materials, badly needed to rebuild destruction, are restricted to projects coordinated by the U.N. 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.

Morsi is still trying to feel his way as he consolidates power after the fall of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011. He spoke strongly in support of Gaza as it came under Israeli airstrikes that killed more than 130 Palestinians. Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel that killed five Israelis.

So far, few restrictions on Palestinians leaving Gaza have changed, and only limited medical supplies have made it inside.

Statistics from Egyptian border crossing officials show a slight rise in the number of travelers back and forth, but there was no rush on the border from Gaza; no more than 900 Palestinians crossed during the fighting in any given day.

During a visit to Gaza, Brotherhood members played up their support for the territory and insisted they remained opposed to Israel.

"We came and saw innocent children being injured and killed by the Zionist war machine made in America," said Saad El-Katatni, a top leader of Morsi's party.

Egypt is at the heart of the mediation effort between Hamas and Israel over a truce. Israeli officials have converged on Egypt and met with security officials under Morsi, who had long refused to even use the name of Israel in public.

In a sign of the fine line the Brotherhood is treading, Amr Darag, a senior party member in charge of foreign relations, told the Foreign Policy Blog that if the offensive continued, the Egyptian government may consider opening the Rafah crossing permanently, "to facilitate support coming from any destination to Gaza."

Other officials fear such an open border would leave Egypt responsible for any future attack on Israel.

Highlighting the pressure on Morsi, ultraconservative leaders in Egypt's Sinai desert, which borders Gaza, have been pushing for him to take a more aggressive stance toward Israel. Morsi's party relies on electoral alliances with some of those leaders, who also play a role in keeping a lid on militancy inside Sinai.

"We don't care for the peace treaty (with Israel)," Sheik Marei Arar, a Salafi leader in Sinai, told The Associated Press. "We are seeking to unify the ranks of Muslims."

Hossam Sweilam, a retired army general, blamed the Brotherhood for the deteriorating security in Sinai, adding that the Egyptian military has been "paralyzed" in its efforts to chase extremists because of the Islamist alliance.


Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.


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