Egypt eases Gaza pres­sure

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

For most of the past decade, Egypt has been a quiet partner with Is­rael in a block­ade on the Ha­mas-ruled Gaza Strip that has sti­fled the econ­omy and largely blocked its 2 mil­lion peo­ple from mov­ing in and out of the ter­ri­tory. But af­ter a three-year crack­down, there are signs that Egypt is eas­ing the pres­sure in a step to re­pair its shat­tered ties with the Is­lamic mil­i­tant group. In re­cent months, Cairo has in­creased the num­ber of peo­ple al­lowed to exit through the Rafah bor­der cross­ing, Gaza’s main gate­way to the out­side world. It also has be­gun to al­low Gaza to im­port com­mer­cial goods through Rafah for the first time since 2013 and sent pub­lic sig­nals that it is in­ter­ested in im­prov­ing re­la­tions.

“There is a ball of hope that was thrown by Egypt,” said Ashraf Jo­maa, a Gaza com­mu­nity leader who has taken part in re­cent meet­ings with Egyp­tian of­fi­cials to dis­cuss the chang­ing ties. “The ques­tion is how we, the Pales­tini­ans, shall catch that ball and de­velop the hope.” The changes, while still in their in­fancy, mark a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from what has been a tough Egyp­tian crack­down since the mil­i­tary ousted its then-pres­i­dent, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013. Ha­mas, an off­shoot of Morsi’s Muslim Broth­er­hood, en­joyed close re­la­tions with him and quickly fell into dis­fa­vor with the new gov­ern­ment.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Abdel-Fat­tah AlSisi, the for­mer mil­i­tary chief who ousted Morsi, Egypt all but de­stroyed a once-thriv­ing net­work of cross-bor­der smug­gling tun­nels used by Ha­mas rob­bing the group of its main eco­nomic lifeline and a key source of weapons. Tar­get­ing Is­lamic mil­i­tant groups in Egypt’s north­ern Si­nai Desert, it also de­stroyed hun­dreds of homes in the volatile bor­der area to cre­ate a “ster­ile zone.” Egypt’s state-run media have re­peat­edly ac­cused Ha­mas of col­lab­o­rat­ing with mil­i­tants in Egypt, a charge the group de­nies.

The crack­down has had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on both sides of the bor­der.

The olive and palm trees that once lined the 40-km road from Rafah to El-Ar­ish, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of North Si­nai, have been razed and even small bushes have with­ered. The road is lit­tered with check­points, tanks and mo­bile ar­tillery units, manned by anx­ious young sol­diers.

In the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, where trav­el­ers used to stop to buy Egyp­tian mo­bile phone cards and snacks, stores were gut­ted, their doors bombed out. The bul­letrid­dled houses above them were turned into mil­i­tary po­si­tions, with sand­bags cov­er­ing the win­dows and snipers sta­tioned on the roofs. The US-based Hu­man Rights Watch es­ti­mates that thou­sands of peo­ple have been dis­placed - most of whom moved ei­ther else­where in town or to El-Ar­ish.

In Gaza, years of Egyp­tian re­stric­tions, cou­pled with an Is­raeli block­ade and three wars be­tween Ha­mas and Is­rael, have dev­as­tated the econ­omy and weak­ened Ha­mas. The UN and other in­ter­na­tional bod­ies es­ti­mate un­em­ploy­ment to be 43 per­cent, and Ha­mas has strug­gled to pay the salaries of the 40,000 po­lice and civil ser­vants it hired af­ter seiz­ing Gaza in 2007. An Is­raeli naval block­ade, which Is­rael says is needed to pre­vent arms smug­gling, means that most goods en­ter Gaza through Is­raeli-con­trolled cargo cross­ings. While most con­sumer goods are freely avail­able, prices of fuel, cig­a­rettes and other items have spiked be­cause of lim­ited sup­plies. Con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als, badly needed to re­build dam­age from a 2014 war, re­main in short sup­ply.

But Egypt’s re­cent turn­around has be­gun to bring some re­lief. In the past six months alone, Rafah cross­ing has been opened more than 40 days, com­pared to just 26 in all of 2015, al­low­ing thou­sands of peo­ple to leave for jobs, med­i­cal care, fam­ily vis­its and stud­ies abroad. Last month, it al­lowed a top Ha­mas leader, Is­mail Haniya, to travel abroad for the first time since Morsi was top­pled. In ad­di­tion, it al­lowed a Malaysian of­fi­cial to en­ter Gaza to meet with Ha­mas of­fi­cials. In an­other first, it al­lowed cargo to be shipped into Gaza through Rafah, in­clud­ing 40 new cars, paint­ing ma­te­ri­als and tar.

In re­cent months, Egypt has in­vited three del­e­ga­tions of busi­ness­men, aca­demics, com­mu­nity lead­ers and jour­nal­ists from Gaza for semiof­fi­cial con­fer­ences in Cairo. Par­tic­i­pants said the is­sue of cre­at­ing a trade zone be­tween Gaza and Egypt was raised. Ha­mas has be­gun paving a patch of land on the Pales­tinian side of the cross­ing for what lo­cal media say will be an area to con­tain more im­ports from Egypt.

At a re­cent meet­ing, Egyp­tian of­fi­cials said they were in­ter­ested in “open­ing a new chap­ter” with Gaza, said one of­fi­cial, who was not al­lowed to be iden­ti­fied un­der the brief­ing guide­lines. “We are still eval­u­at­ing the sit­u­a­tion, and this is a long di­a­logue un­til we reach better re­la­tions.” Ha­mas has wel­comed the moves, say­ing it is ready to shut­ter the tun­nels if com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties in­crease above-ground. Se­nior Ha­mas of­fi­cial Mah­moud Za­har said, “If the (Rafah) cross­ing opened com­mer­cially, what’s the need for the tun­nels?”

But Ha­mas, an armed group sworn to Is­rael’s de­struc­tion, has re­peat­edly seen its hopes dashed as it tries to emerge from iso­la­tion. It re­mains un­clear how far Egypt is will­ing to help the group, es­pe­cially if it con­tin­ues us­ing tun­nels to bring in arms. “If the tun­nels are used by the Pales­tinian re­sis­tance, then this is some­thing else that doesn’t harm the Egyp­tian se­cu­rity,” Za­har said.

Bev­erly Mil­ton-Ed­wards, a vis­it­ing fel­low at the Brook­ings Doha Cen­ter, said any Egyp­tian moves to­ward Gaza are to pro­mote its own na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests. With Egypt still locked in bat­tle against ex­trem­ists in Si­nai, any change will likely be slow and cau­tious, and could de­pend greatly on Ha­mas’ own ac­tions. Egypt still fears Si­nai mil­i­tants will use the tun­nels to es­cape or to bring in ex­plo­sives from hard­lin­ers within Ha­mas’ armed wing. “The sig­nal­ing of in­tent is care­fully cal­i­brated to re­mind the Gaza gov­ern­ment of the lev­els of con­trol and power that Egypt can ex­ert pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively,” Mil­ton-Ed­wards said. “If there is not enough ev­i­dence of com­pli­ance by the Ha­mas gov­ern­ment then Cairo will not hes­i­tate to halt all al­le­vi­at­ing mea­sures.” — AP

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