Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 July 2008
Issue No. 905
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Misery without borders

According to Cairo, factional reconciliation can end the agonies of Palestinians caught on the border at Rafah, Dina Ezzat reports

Click to view caption
Palestinians are greeted by relatives after crossing the Rafah border and a huge Palestinian flag is painted on the crossing's gates

It appears the time to launch a Palestinian reconciliation dialogue is not fully ripe yet, but contact is ongoing between all concerned parties, especially main rivals Fatah and Hamas, to conceptualise its tentative agenda. This, according to concerned Egyptian officials close to mediation efforts.

Storms may lie ahead, however. Hamas has informed Egypt, along with other Arab parties, of its apprehensions relative not only to dialogue with Fatah but also about the fate of its less than three-week old fragile ceasefire with Israel. Egypt is at odds with the political reasoning of Hamas regarding both the truce and reconciliation with Fatah. However, according to official sources, Egypt is aware of the difficulties attendant to both.

According to the assessment of the most optimistic Egyptian official, even if the Hamas-Israel truce is maintained there will inevitably be moments of military confrontation between the two. Moreover, the same officials argue that even if Hamas and Fatah meet -- with or without other Palestinian factions -- it is unlikely to result in anything more than a cosmetic rapprochement.

The only breakthrough that could realistically be achieved in the coming weeks, officials argue, is a deal between Hamas and Israel, brokered by Egypt and guaranteed by the European Union, to exchange Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured two years ago by an Islamist group loyal to Hamas, for dozens of imprisoned Hamas and Jihad activists. Nonetheless, were this deal struck, major changes could follow.

The most obvious outcome of a prisoner swap would be to bolster the fragile truce. Another possible outcome is the full reopening of the Rafah crossing point that links Gaza to Egypt.

The truce concluded between Hamas and Israel last month failed to grant Hamas its stated demand: that Egypt would unilaterally operate Rafah regardless of the expired 2005 agreement entailing the trilateral cooperation of Egypt, the Palestinian Authority -- now exiled from Gaza -- and European Union observers in coordination with Israel.

"I really don't care who would talk to who. And I don't care who is at odds with whom. All I care about is being able to reunite with my husband who was prevented from entering Egypt, following a moment of chaos at the crossing point, shortly after I entered," said Sarah, a Palestinian woman.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on the Egyptian side of Rafah in between attempts to secure the sympathy of Egyptian security officers, Sarah was in tears.

Sarah entered Egypt Wednesday, the second day of a short three-day period when crossing was permitted by Egyptian authorities. Tuesday and Wednesday were reserved for the passage of either the seriously ill or students and officials with residence and work permits in Egypt or other Arab countries. Palestinians in Egypt were to cross back into Gaza Thursday.

However, as hundreds of Palestinians attempted to break through the crossing point Wednesday afternoon, Egyptian authorities immediately imposed "firm" measures and prevented all passage.

According to one Rafah official who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, it became "impossible in the middle of the havoc to let anyone in".

As such, Sarah ended up on the Egyptian side while her husband was still on the Palestinian side with all her luggage, including her important documents and "all the cash".

"I don't have any money. I cannot go back because my daughter is in Egypt... And I don't know when my husband will be allowed in," she said.

Sarah is one of many examples of Palestinians left waiting on the Egyptian side of Rafah in anticipation of the crossing reopening. No one knows when and if this might occur.

Unlike Sarah who continued to believe that her husband would make it through, Ibrahim was losing hope that his 80-year-old mother would be permitted through so he can take her to Jordan where he lives.

"She entered [Gaza] during the January opening because she had wanted to see my sister whom she hadn't seen for close to 10 years. But ever since she has been unable to come out, and I have been coming to Egypt over and over again in the hope of getting her back with me," Ibrahim said.

Beset with worry over the deteriorating health of a frail mother with no access to healthcare in the much impoverished and siege-beaten Gaza Strip, Ibrahim was also in tears as he recalled the moment when his mother called him Wednesday to tell him that she was at the crossing "only minutes before havoc broke out".

"If the world, the entire world, wishes to punish the Palestinians for electing Hamas, then Egypt should not be party to this and it should allow the border to operate freely so that people can move freely," he said in anger. "Egyptian authorities can demand as many security clearances as they wish, but they should not block the crossing for Palestinians, no matter what."

Egyptian officials argue that the unilateral operation of Rafah would burden Cairo with impossible security concerns with regards to single-handedly screening a large number of Palestinian visitors and securing the border -- especially to prevent the smuggling of arms from and to Gaza.

Moreover, Egypt would not agree to the unilateral operation of the Rafah crossing as this would be seen as a blow to the Palestinian Authority and the little influence it has over Gaza, namely its nominal authority to be present on Gaza's borders. "To do this is to acknowledge that the control of Hamas over Gaza is permanent, and we are not going to do this," said an Egyptian official who asked for his name to be withheld.

According to this same official, if Egypt were to unilaterally operate Rafah Israel might do what it has been contemplating: announce the permanent separation of Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian territories and take no responsibility for providing Gaza with fuel or electricity. "This would mean that Egypt would be in charge of Gaza and this is not something that Egypt would do, not just for strict pragmatic national purposes but also because such a separation would deal a serious blow to any possibility -- even if remote -- of a Palestinian state in Gaza and most of the West Bank," the official said.

Egyptian officials say that the most obvious solution to the misery of Palestinians at Rafah is reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. "Hamas could be a part of the political administration in many ways, but it does not have to be part of the administration of borders. It has to leave this to the legitimate authority," the same official added.

For most of Palestinians stranded on the Egyptian side of Rafah, this Egyptian reasoning does not count for much. "The lives and destiny of citizens cannot be manipulated to punish Hamas," said one.

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