By Nidal Almughrabi / Reuters
GAZA: They had hoped this Ramadan would be different.
But many Palestinians who find themselves again penned into Gaza for the holy month are blaming Egypt, the neighboring Arab power which, after toppling President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, had pledged to free up travel across the shared border.
The dismay reflects the misgivings of many Egyptians about the prospects for reform under Cairo’s caretaker military rulers, who appear beholden to US largesse and in no rush to reverse Mubarak’s unpopular Palestinian policies.
Mubarak had buttressed Israel’s embargo on Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, an Islamist faction hostile to the Jewish state and ideologically linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, dissidents under the old regime and now political contenders.
To great fanfare, Egypt declared the Rafah crossing to Gaza “open” to passengers in May. But Gazans soon found their dreams of unfettered travel dashed. Strict quotas and criteria for those allowed to cross remain, and many Palestinians say they are still regarded as potential security threats by Egypt.
“Nothing in the Egyptian treatment of Gaza Strip residents has changed,” wrote Palestinian columnist Mustafa Al-Lidawi.
Those Gazans who transit Egypt for third countries are subject to especially heavy scrutiny, he said, an observation recalling Mubarak-era efforts to help Israel prevent Iranian-trained agents reach Gaza.
“They are still being held in a narrow dark and dirty basement at Cairo International Airport that lacks the minimal conditions for the detention for humans,” said Lidawi, decrying Egypt’s “military mentality.”
Under Egypt’s new admission guidelines, women, minors and men over 40 do not need a visa to enter from Gaza.
But the Egyptians continue to blacklist some Palestinians as “security threats” and the attendant backlog makes it almost impossible to plan travel in advance – for example, for next month’s Ramadan. Often, a Gazan’s departure day arrives after visas issued for other countries have already expired.
Following complaints by Hamas officials including Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Gaza government, a leading Egyptian journalist counseled patience.
“Time is needed to filter the list of banned people from entry. Security conditions in north Sinai are still bad and the roads the Palestinians use in their journey to Cairo through Sinai are not stable yet,” said Ashraf Aboulhoul, chief correspondent of Egypt’s mass-circulation Al-Ahram daily.
Rafah was short-staffed because of the disappearance or killing of Egyptian security men during anti-regime protests that erupted in Cairo in January, Aboulhoul said.
“There is a sense of bitterness among Egyptian authorities because Hamas has not appreciated the internal conditions our country is experiencing,” Aboulhoul said by telephone from Cairo.
Mubarak had offset Egypt’s status as the first – and still among the few – Arab states to make peace with Israel by trying to broker reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the formerly dominant secular faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In what many Egyptians saw as a sign that Cairo, after Mubarak’s fall, was easing terms for Hamas, the factions signed a unity accord in May. That Israel responded angrily to the pact underscored the sense Palestinian interests were being served.
Yet implementation of the deal has mired in disputes between Hamas and Fatah on the format of their proposed power-share.
“The impasse is an internal Palestinian matter and Egypt has decided not to intervene to press either side to accept anything,” Aboulhoul said.
“Cairo took a big step in the issue of reconciliation. It revived hopes among all Palestinians and Arabs and now it’s Fatah and Hamas who should decide how things should proceed.”
Hamas official Mustafa Al-Sawaf said he was optimistic that Palestinians would eventually be satisfied by Egypt’s policies.
“Hopes remain,” he said. “The revolution is still at its outset.”