WORLD NEWS TOMORROW : Having lived under siege for five years, the residents of Gaza are finally getting some relief. The Rafah border crossing, the only crossing from the Palestinian Territories that is not controlled by Israel, has been partially open since May 2011. It was closed for years under the deposed President Hosni Mubarak. A maximum of 400 Palestinians per day have since been allowed to cross into Egypt’s border town of Rafah. Unexpectedly, Egypt is now easing travel restrictions on Palestinians – a major policy shift for a country that has for years made it difficult for Palestinians – particularly Gaza residents – to enter.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled last year after mass protests swept the country, had worked closely with Israel, assisting in maintaining a five-year-long blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Only students, Palestinians seeking medical treatment or those with transit documents were allowed to cross the border, albeit with difficulty. While women and children could cross relatively freely, men under 40 had to be escorted by security agents, which often meant a long wait at the border in what many Palestinian travelers described as cramped quarters and “humiliating conditions.” Gazans in particular were often barred from entering Egypt due to “national security concerns” – a common reason cited by Egyptian security officials, who in fact suspected the travelers were militants. The regular procedure was for Hamas to send a list of names of Palestinians wishing to cross the border, and after carefully reviewing the list, Egyptian security officials would allow a limited number of people through, while the majority of those on the list were turned back.
In the recent days, however, Egypt has eased these restrictions. Firstly, seven Gazans were allowed into the country through the airport last Monday without the usual harsh procedures. Officials at the border crossing, who did not wish to be named, said they had received instructions to “allow in all travelers with valid documents unimpeded.”
While there has been no formal announcement that travel restrictions on Palestinians are being eased, Egyptians have had mixed reactions to the scant information leaks on the issue. Activists expressed their views on Facebook and Twitter: some welcomed it as “a wonderful development that was long overdue” while others objected to a “possible Palestinian invasion of the country.” Egyptian media, which has been largely hostile to the newly-elected President Mohamed Morsi since his decision to reinstate the dissolved Islamist-dominated Parliament (siding with the Military Council), used the information as a pretext to take another stab at the president. Liberal politician and a former Member of Parliament Mohamed Abu Hamed has frequently appeared on TV talk-shows voicing concerns that Doctor Morsi was putting the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda ahead of national interests. In a harsh letter addressed to president Morsi, Hamed warned that “the real revolution will be against the occupation of Egypt by the International Muslim Brotherhood movement.”
“You were not elected by the people of Egypt to resolve the problems of the people of Gaza, nor to settle Palestinians in the Sinai,” Hamed told Morsi, reminding him that Hamas played a role in attacking prisons and releasing prisoners during the January 2011 mass uprising. Hamed added that he is collecting evidence of preferential treatment granted to Hamas, including allowing Palestinians to buy land in the Sinai. He expressed unwavering disagreement with what he called “the theft of Egypt’s resources for use by Gazans,” and concluded that “he who is more concerned with the problems plaguing Gaza and its children, rather than with domestic challenges, should move to Gaza.”
Abu Hamed’s strong reaction came in response to Thursday’s official visit by Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh for talks with president Morsi, and the previous week’s visits by Hamas’ Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian Presdent Mahmoud Abbas.
Haniyeh had earlier called on Egypt to permanently open the Rafah border crossing and protect Gazans against “Israeli aggression,” and the talks focused on increasing the number of Palestinians allowed to cross the border. Discussions between the two sides also concerned “lifting the siege and easing the suffering of the people of Gaza, as well as reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas,” president Mors’s spokesman reported.
While promising to implement measures that would ease the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Morsi stopped short of specifying what these measures entail, and gave no signal that the Rafah crossing would remain open indefinitely. Morsi, whose victory the Hamas-controlled Gaza celebrated, has vowed to honor international commitments, including Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Egyptian analysts expected the president to “adopt a cautious policy toward Hamas,” as any uncalculated move could easily ruffle the feathers of the Egyptian military and intelligence, which have long had the upper hand on issues related to national security.
Doctor Mostafa Kamel El Sayed, a professor of politics at Cairo University, told Reuters that he expects Morsi “to balance support for Gaza with the need to respect international commitments.” El Sayed also noted that Morsi’s powers are limited by the supplementary constitutional amendments issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces before his appointment.
Although in May 2011the military council controlling Egypt in the transitional period brokered a somewhat fragile reconciliation pact between Fatah and Hamas, the two former rival factions, the military generals are careful not to upset Fatah because the latter sees the permanent opening of the border as a potential threat that could eventually lead to “Gaza’s annexation to Egypt.”
Many Egyptians share these concerns, having inherited a legacy of fear and deep suspicion of Hamas militants from the Mubarak era, when such prejudices were encouraged. In the meantime, Morsi has been treading carefully, realizing that he is operating on dangerous territory. In his traditional middle-of-the-road style remarks, he stressed the importance of Egypt’s support for the Palestinians’ struggle for their legitimate rights, uniting Hamas and Fatah, supplying Gaza with fuel and electricity and easing the restrictions on the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. But many skeptics in Egypt view these promises as “a deal with the devil” that could very well undermine Morsi’s popularity at home.