Political feuds hinder Palestinian travel
Gaza City - Egypt reopened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip for the first time in two months, allowing in 1,560 Palestinians, including students, patients and others in need to travel abroad.
The crossing was opened December 3rd and 4th under a deal between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA), according to a PA statement. The PA is the recognised leadership of the Palestinians in charge of the West Bank and had ruled Gaza until Hamas violently took it over in 2007.
Feuds between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party in the West Bank and Gaza’s Hamas rulers over who would operate Rafah delayed reopening the key outpost for several months.
Egypt closed Rafah in 2007 after Hamas took over Gaza. Egypt and the PA had jointly controlled Rafah, with the European Union monitoring Palestinian compliance on the Gaza side.
Azzam el-Ahmad, a senior Fatah leader and an aide to Abbas, said the PA suggested that Egypt and the PA jointly operate the crossing as before but through a new mechanism.
“An agreement between the PA and Egypt on operating Rafah is on its way to be finalised soon,” Ahmad said.
After the border closed December 4th, the Hamas-run organisation for crossings and borders said in addition to those who crossed, there were 25,000 people who want to leave the Gaza Strip. It said the group included patients, students, Gaza Palestinians with foreign nationalities and merchants.
Hamas said 1,560 Gaza Palestinians crossed into Egypt and about 1,000 people returned to Gaza during the two-day crossing opening.
The Hamas-run Interior Ministry said the Rafah crossing worked in two directions in 2015 for a total of 21 days, including the two in early December. It said the border reopened the last time in mid-October, allowing Gazans returning from pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri thanked Egypt for temporarily reopening Rafah. He said Egypt previously told Hamas that once stability is restored to militant-held areas of the Sinai, Rafah could reopen permanently.
Ahmad said when Egypt and the PA conclude an agreement on permanently reopening Rafah, “We will certainly notify Hamas and get it involved in operating the crossing.” But he declined to say what role Hamas would have and whether Israel would agree.
Hamas flatly rejected the plan, saying it opposed any deal that would preclude its presence at the border post.
Abu Zuhri said Hamas “is keen to operate Rafah crossing to ensure a free movement for our people in Gaza”. He accused the PA of lacking the interest to reconcile with Hamas but had sought to have the crossing reopened.
“The PA is trying to sidestep a reconciliation agreement with Hamas,” Abu Zuhri said. “Any deal that evades ending the discord is far from reality and will be very hard to implement.”
Senior Gaza-based Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad warned that any “unilateral moves by the PA and Egypt on Gaza without involving Hamas are null and void”.
An official close to the PA leadership, who insisted on anonymity, said the new arrangements on operating Rafah crossing would be completely different from previous ones. In the past, Gazans were able to travel without security or official coordination with the Egyptian side. Now, an exit permit is required because there are some Palestinians who are banned from travelling for security reasons.
“When the crossing point reopens, those who want to travel must apply for a departure permit from the Egyptian authorities in advance,” the official said.
Observers cautioned that if the stalemate persists, a “big explosion” will follow.
“The endless disputes between Fatah and Hamas over the past eight years are turning the daily life of the population in Gaza into misery and hell,” said Talal Oukal, a Gaza-based political analyst.
“The two sides should put their differences aside and think about their people’s interest.”
Oukal said it was evident that Egypt was hesitant to reopen the border post, “fearing that militants would disturb its national security”.
By the same token, Hamas “wants to maintain its control of the border, while the PA and Fatah are unable to redeem Gaza,” he said.
Majed Abu Houli, a 22-year-old engineering student studying in Ankara, said he has been waiting to depart for Turkey since February. He said he contacted the university seeking to postpone his studies several times.
“Gaza Strip has turned into a big Guantanamo prison,” Oukal said, referring to the US detention camp in Cuba.
“As long as wrangle between Palestinian rivals remains unresolved, any crisis whether over Rafah or other matters won’t be resolved. Therefore, they should put their disputes aside and think about their people.”