Gazans at Egypt border seek to escape blockade

Egyptian authorities have opened the crossing several days a week since mid-May. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2018
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Gazans at Egypt border seek to escape blockade

  • About 200 people make the trip in a day, a small number compared to the nearly two million people crammed into Gaza

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: Separated from the impatient crowd by a flimsy barrier, Palestinian policemen read out names, their voices barely audible above the din.
Those called file forward, relieved to finally be leaving the crowded and ramshackle Gaza Strip for neighboring Egypt, some for the first time.
Many have a single large suitcase or holdall as they sit on benches in the gymnasium which serves as a waiting room in the southern Gazan town of Khan Yunis.
From there, they board a bus for the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, about 20 minutes away.
Since mid-May, after five long years in which the frontier was largely closed, Egyptian authorities have opened the crossing several days a week.
About 200 people make the trip in a day, a small number compared to the nearly two million people crammed into Gaza.
Yet it represents one of only two routes out of the strip and the only one not controlled by Israel.
Since Islamists Hamas seized control of the 360 square kilometer (139 square mile) territory in 2007, Israel has maintained a crippling blockade and imposes tight restrictions on its sole people crossing.
For much of that time Egypt has opened its Rafah border only intermittently, meaning those leaving didn’t know if and when they may be able to return.
Mosleh Derby, 21, waits in the sunshine, watching the tea and cigarette pedlars calling out their wares.
A medical student in Cairo, he had not been home to Gaza for three years until June for fear of getting stuck.
Despite registering for his return journey with the Gazan authorities in advance, Derby said he has been so delayed that he has already missed the first two weeks of class.
Some students who paid extra fees traveled earlier, he claimed.
Inside the gymnasium, many travelers reluctantly admit having paid between $1,500 and $2,000 for what they call “coordination” to travel.
Hamas interior ministry spokesman Iyad Al-Bozum denied that Palestinian border officials took payments.
“But some citizens can get in touch with officials on the Egyptian side of the crossing and make it easier for them to leave,” he said.
Bozum said there is currently a list of thousands of Gazans waiting to exit the strip, who are notified online when their turn comes.
Since Islamist president Muhammad Mursi was overthrown in 2013 and his Muslim Brotherhood movement quashed, Egypt has kept its Gaza border largely closed.
Cairo accuses Hamas, which began as an offshoot of the Brotherhood, of supporting militants fighting its security forces in the largely uninhabited Sinai region bordering Gaza.
Hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed.
Egypt destroyed many tunnels for smuggling under the border, exacerbating Gaza’s isolation.
But relations between Hamas and Egypt have thawed somewhat, allowing Rafah to be opened regularly since May.
Only students, those in need of medical treatment, Muslim pilgrims or people with foreign citizenship or residence papers are allowed through.
The flow of travelers remains a trickle compared to the past, said Abdallah Shahin, 32, who has been a porter at the crossing for 15 years.
Under Mursi, he said, “every day, 30 buses crossed the border, it was about 1,800 people.”
Nowadays, he says, “those who leave do not come back, they emigrate.”
Such is the dream of an architecture student who gives his name only as Khalil.
He wants to go back to Germany, where he was born but never obtained citizenship.
“One way, no return,” he said.
“Abroad it’s different... someone creative can succeed.”
Two of his friends have already left, he said, calculating the cost for himself at more than $3,000, including at least $2,000 to get across the Rafah border.
At the departure point the bus starts its engine to a cacophony of farewells.
“On the Egyptian side, if all goes well, you wait for around six hours. Otherwise you spend the night there and sleep at the border post,” said Derby, the medical student.
The forced overnight stay is because of Sinai curfew regulations preventing travel at night, an Egyptian border official told AFP.
The remaining trip to Cairo is a long one, because of repeated stops at security checkpoints.
“Before 2007 I used to arrive in Cairo in six hours, now it takes at least 48 hours,” said Hosam Al-Ajuri, 35, heading to complete his history studies in Egypt.
Left behind in Khan Yunis is Aida Baraka, 52, who since June has been waiting for permission to visit her sick niece in Jordan.
Although her name was not once of those posted online she came to try her luck anyway.
“Where is the humanity?” she asked, her niqab revealing only her dark eyes.
She accused Egypt of not doing enough to help.
“The nearest ones to us are the Egyptians,” she said. “I want them to be human!“


Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

Updated 23 January 2019
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Erdogan and Putin vow closer cooperation on Syria at Moscow talks

  • The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict
  • Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday vowed to coordinate their actions more closely in Syria.
“Cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a touchstone for Syrian peace and stability,” Erdogan said in translated comments at a joint press conference after their talks, which lasted around three hours.
“With our Russian friends we intend to strengthen our coordination even more.”
“We agreed how we’ll coordinate our work in the near future,” Putin said, calling the talks which included the countries’ defense ministers “effective.”
At the start of their meeting in the Kremlin, Putin addressed Erdogan as “dear friend,” saying that their countries “work on issues of regional security and actively cooperate on Syria.”
Erdogan used the same term for Putin and said “our solidarity makes a weighty contribution to the security of the region.”
The two leaders are on opposite sides of the Syria conflict: Russia provides critical support to the Syrian government, while Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Despite this, they have worked closely to find a political solution to the seven-year conflict.
Russia and Turkey have agreed to coordinate ground operations in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month about pulling 2,000 American troops out of Syria.
Putin said that if carried out, the withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria “will be a positive step, it will help stabilize the situation in this restive area.”
Turkey has also welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal, but the future of US-backed Kurdish militia forces labelled terrorists by Ankara has upset ties between the NATO allies.
Erdogan had said on Monday he would discuss with Putin the creation of a Turkish-controlled “security zone” in northern Syria, suggested by Trump.
The US-allied Kurds, who control much of the north, have rejected the idea, fearing a Turkish offensive against territory under their control.
Putin said Wednesday that Russia supports “establishing dialogue between Damascus officials and representatives of the Kurds.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week said that Damascus must take control of the north.
The northwestern province of Idlib earlier this month fell under the full control of a jihadist group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Russian foreign ministry said earlier Wednesday that the situation in the province remained of “serious concern.”
Putin said that the leaders discussed the situation in Idlib “in great detail today.”
“We have a shared conviction that we must continue jointly fighting terrorists wherever they are, including in the Idlib zone,” the Russian leader said.
Erdogan said that the countries will wage a “lengthy fight” in Syria.
Nearly eight years into Syria’s deadly conflict, the planned US pullout has led to another key step in Assad’s Russian-backed drive to reassert control.
Kurdish forces who were left exposed by Trump’s pledge to withdraw have asked the Syrian regime for help to face a threatened Turkish offensive.
The Kremlin hailed the entry by Syrian forces into the key northern city of Manbij for the first time in six years after Kurds opened the gates.
Moscow plans to organize a three-way summit with Turkey and Iran early this year as part of the Astana peace process, launched by the three countries in 2017.
Putin said Wednesday the next summit would be held “in the near future” in Russia, saying the leaders still needed to agree the time and location with Iran.
The last meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani took place in Iran in September last year with the fate of rebel-held Idlib province dominating the agenda.
Ties between Russia and Turkey plunged to their lowest level in years in November 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.
But after a reconciliation deal in 2016, relations have recovered at a remarkable speed with Putin and Erdogan cooperating closely over Syria, Turkey buying Russian-made air defense systems and Russia building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.