Egypt-Gaza border opening turns out to be less than billed

McClatchy NewspapersMay 28, 2011 

Palestinians wait inside of the Egyptian passport control at the Rafah crossing port, Saturday, May 28, 2011. Egypt lifted a four-year-old blockade on the Gaza Strip's main link to the outside world on Saturday. (Shawn Baldwin/MCT)

SHAWN BALDWIN / MCT

RAFAH, Egypt — Mufid al Masry, 46, was so excited about his first trip to Egypt that he couldn't sleep the night before he set out for the Rafah border crossing, which Egypt's ruling military council ordered opened Saturday under new hours and fewer restrictions for Palestinian travelers.

So when Egyptian border guards rejected him, citing security concerns, Masry grew belligerent as other Palestinians at the terminal watched in sympathetic silence. An officer ordered him to stop shouting, which only made Masry angrier.

"I've been locked in Gaza for the past seven years and just wanted a breath of fresh air!" he said. "If you were locked up for seven years, wouldn't you be yelling like me?"

The Egyptian government's decision to permanently open its border with Hamas-controlled territory was heralded — or feared — as a sign of a new Egypt, one willing to risk U.S. and Israeli rebukes to provide a lifeline to Gaza's 1.5 million residents and to break from the policies of toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

But Saturday's landmark opening of the Rafah crossing ended with a fizzle.

By dusk, just 400 Palestinians had crossed into Egypt, and another 30 were turned back because their names appeared on a security "blacklist," according to a senior Egyptian border officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make public statements. About 150 Palestinians returned to Gaza from Egypt.

The numbers weren't much different from a normal day when the crossing was open, sporadically, under Mubarak's rule. And despite the council's announcement that the border would receive travelers from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., local officers said they didn't have the manpower to keep the station open past 5 o'clock.

To many Palestinians familiar with the crossing, it was business as usual: long waits, uncertain chances of passage, and condescending Egyptian guards. They dismissed the military council's announcement as little more than propaganda to convince detractors that the Mubarak era was over.

"It's no honor to enter Egypt!" a Palestinian man at the border taunted the officer who turned him back. The officer grew enraged, and started shouting at other Palestinian travelers.

Dr. Said Batran, 48, a Palestinian-Danish surgeon, has flown to Egypt from Denmark six times in the past two months, all to no avail because he wasn't able to pass through the Rafah crossing.

This time, he brought his sister, Latifa, 58, who lives in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, and they said their reason for travel was urgent. They needed to check on their mother, whose leg was amputated because of a blood clot, and their sister, who's struggling to raise her 11 children since their father was killed in recent fighting in Gaza.

"Our sister cries day and night, but we can't do anything for her. She can't come here and we can't go there," Latifa said.

They sat under a shade tree, waiting for their names to be called for entry.

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6..." Batran counted, flipping through his passport to show how many Egyptian visas he had. There were 19 in all, since 2006. "I never succeeded."

Among the lucky 400 who passed with little complication was a political activist who gave his name as Abu Nader. Unlike the desperate travelers who cited medical and business reasons they should be allowed into Egypt, Abu Nader said he just wanted the thrill of new environs.

"I want to cross into Egypt to shave and have dinner. Why not, if the border's open?" Abu Nader, 42, said.

Mohamed Zorob, his wife and young daughter were among those who crossed in the other direction: from Egypt to Gaza. They're all Palestinian residents, but Zorob has business in Egypt and holds an Egyptian passport, so even before Saturday he didn't face the same obstacles as others.

Still, he recalled, in the old days there was a mad scramble to Rafah when it opened every few months. The tight border control led to a proliferation of black-market visas that could help Palestinians' chance of crossing.

"Before, if you didn't have a permit, you'd look for someone to bribe," Zorob said. "They could get you a Malaysian visa for up to $1,000 or $2,000 and you could pass that way."

With the new rules in place, his family faces no restrictions and he has the proper permits to travel back and forth, a luxury he acknowledged that few other Palestinians enjoy.

"Now I can go to Egypt for a weekend," Zorob said.

Under the new rules, which are basically the same as those Egypt followed before 2007, Palestinians without a visa can stay for a month if they meet certain criteria. Women and children face no restrictions, but Palestinian men between the ages of 18 and 40 must get a permit saying they need to cross into Egypt for education or medical reasons.

Men over 40 are exempt from the restrictions, unless their names are flagged as security risks. Some Palestinians complained that the list was compiled by the old regime, and shouldn't be heeded.

Egyptians are still banned from crossing, except by special government permission and generally only if the applicant has family ties to Gaza. Foreigners such as American or European aid workers also require special permission to cross, including a letter from the embassy of their home country.

Majdi Abu Dakka, 43, a lawyer from Gaza, expected no problem crossing Saturday. He's above the age restriction and had an Egyptian visa, which shouldn't even have been necessary under the new rules. But, once again, he was held up at the crossing, his temper rising as each hour ticked by.

Just as Abu Dakka was about to despair, an Egyptian border officer approached him with a smile.

"You're OK," the officer told him, gesturing for him to join the arrivals line.

Abu Dakka didn't budge.

"You can go, you can go," the officer repeated, nudging him.

Abu Dakka nodded and stood firm, clearly enjoying the chance to move on his own time.

(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this report.)

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