Egypt allowing Palestinians easier entry

2012-07-23 21:16
Palestinians wave green Islamic flags that represent Hamas and the Egyptian national flag as they celebrate in Gaza City.  (Hatem Moussa, AP/File)

Palestinians wave green Islamic flags that represent Hamas and the Egyptian national flag as they celebrate in Gaza City. (Hatem Moussa, AP/File) (Hatem Moussa)

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Cairo - Egypt is allowing freer entry for Palestinians into the country in an unprecedented move that eases long-imposed travel restrictions, particularly on Gazans, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said on Monday.

The decision has caused confusion among the security agencies here - and appeared to bring some resistance. Some officers at the airport refused to implement the measures, an airport official said, a sign of how deeply some in the security forces view the Palestinians as a potential threat.

Even as some officials initially denied any easing, airport officials said seven Gazans were allowed into Egypt by dawn on Monday without the usual restrictions.

The changes appeared to be a gesture to the Palestinians after separate meetings last week between Egypt's new President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, whose group controls Gaza.

Egypt's powerful security agencies have monopolised policy-making toward the Palestinians for years, generally working closely with Israel and taking a tough line for fear of Hamas and the spread of militancy. But security forces have been shaken since the fall last year of Hosni Mubarak - and now particularly with the election of an Islamist as his successor.

The initial reaction from some officials could reflect fear the president was moving into their usual spheres of power.

The new measures ease the situation for those living in Gaza, which has been subject to a 5-year-old Israeli blockade keeping them penned into the tiny, Mediterranean coastal territory. The only non-Israeli outlet from the strip is through Egypt, and for years the Cairo government assisted the blockade.

Even after it officially opened the border crossing it imposed heavy restrictions.

Humiliating

Until now, any Palestinian under 40 entering or leaving Gaza was "deported" upon arriving in Egypt - taken in security escorts from the airport directly to the Gaza border and vice versa to ensure they spent no time in Egyptian territory.

Palestinians saw the deportation as a humiliation, especially since it often meant detention at the border or airport for up to three days, often in small rooms alongside criminals, as they waited for an escort.

The new measures end the procedure and allow Palestinians to cross through Egypt on their own arrangements, allowing them to stay in the country for up to 72 hours to do so. The measures came into effect early on Monday, and took many security agencies by surprise because it came before a formal announcement was made.

An unidentified Egyptian official at the Rafah crossing separating Egypt and Gaza confirmed to the official news agency MENA that the "deportation" policy had been "abolished" at the crossing.

The official also said an existing black list for Palestinians barred from entering Egypt or traveling abroad is currently under review. Some on those list date back to the 1970s, following Egypt's peace deal with Israel.

Egypt's ambassador to the West Bank Yasser Othman said transiting Palestinians must have Palestinian national Identification and passports, along with proof of residency in a third country.

"We are planning for more procedures to facilitate the movement of the Palestinians but there are no plans to cancel the visa requirement if Palestians want to enter Egypt," Othman said.

A Palestinian official in Cairo said more easing of restrictions are being negotiated. He and airport officials in Cairo spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Palestinians have generally been subjected to strict Egyptian travel requirements that have kept many of them, particularly after the 2000 uprising, from entering the country. The situation became more complicated as Egypt under Mubarak closely co-ordinated its security plans with Israel, and observed the blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip.

After a partial easing of the blockade Egypt allowed a limited number of Gazans out of the territory on humanitarian grounds. Most were subjected to the "deportation" unless they had visas to stay in Egypt.

The director of the border crossing in Gaza, Maher Abu Sabha, said more than 20 000 Gazans are on a two-month waiting list to exit the territory.

- AP
Read more on:    hamas  |  mohammed morsi  |  egypt  |  gaza  |  north africa
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