Egypt limits Gaza passage after PA quits border crossing

Palestinian security forces stand guard the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Monday, January 7. (AFP)
Updated 08 January 2019
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Egypt limits Gaza passage after PA quits border crossing

  • Cairo allowing Palestinians into Gaza, but not out; dispute stems from internal Palestinian rift
  • On Sunday PA announced its pullout from Rafah, accusing Hamas of undermining its operations

RAFAH: Egypt blocked Palestinians from entering the country from Gaza on Tuesday after Palestinian Authority (PA) personnel pulled out of the Rafah border crossing and Hamas officers took their place.

The dispute over the border stems from a rift between the Western-backed PA and Hamas who took control of Gaza more than a decade ago in a brief civil war.

Human rights groups say Rafah has been the sole exit point from Gaza for an estimated 95 percent of its population of 2 million. Citing security concerns, Israel maintains tight restrictions on Palestinian movement at its border crossings.

PA employees were deployed to Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt in 2017, a move that largely opened up Rafah for two-way traffic, after Egyptian mediation led to a Palestinian reconciliation deal, which has since faltered.

Blame game

On Sunday, the PA announced its pullout from Rafah, accusing Hamas of undermining its operations and detaining some of its workers. Since May, the crossing has been operating daily after sporadic openings for many years.

Upon arriving in Gaza, Hani Abu Sharekh told Reuters he hoped Egypt would soon resume full operation of the facility to allow passengers out of the coastal enclave.

“There is no alternative to Rafah crossing, it is the only window for most of our people to travel and to seek treatment and education,” Abu Sharekh, 48, said after returning from a trip to Cairo where his wife had received medical treatment.

Hamas said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the PA and has imposed a series of economic sanctions on Gaza to press the group to cede power, was destroying prospects for unity.

Passage

A Palestinian official who maintains close contacts with Egypt said Cairo had decided to open Rafah crossing only to Palestinians returning to Gaza, after the PA personnel withdrew.

Egypt’s restriction, the official said, showed its “disappointment at the faltering of the 2017 reconciliation agreement.” But a Egyptian official in Cairo said he did not expect Rafah to be shut completely.

“Egypt recognizes the importance of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the Rafah crossing is an important access point for Palestinians,” the official said, adding that his country would abandon its mediation efforts.

Brig.-Gen. Yehya Hammad, the Hamas-appointed director of the crossing, told Reuters his men completed their deployment and were ready to operate the passage.

After they took up their posts, the body of a Palestinian who had died in Cairo and two women accompanying the coffin were allowed to enter Gaza. The women’s passports were stamped by Hamas officers. A bus with passengers from Egypt then arrived, with more expected later in the day.

“We hope the Egyptian side will open the crossing permanently as it did in the past to allow stranded patients, students, residents of third countries and humanitarian cases to travel,” said Hammad, standing in the passport hall.

Separately, the situation in Gaza remained tense on Monday as the Israeli army carried out air raids against Hamas positions in response to a rocket being fired over its border.

The Israeli air defense system intercepted the rocket which was fired overnight from the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave, the army said.

Planes and a helicopter gunship then raided “terror targets within the organization’s military camp in the northern Gaza Strip,” the statement said.

A Hamas security official in Gaza said that Israeli aircraft carried out three raids, targeting a position of the armed wing of the movement near Beit Lahia in the north of the Palestinian enclave without causing any casualties.

The latest raids follow strikes by the Israeli army on two Hamas posts on Sunday, after balloons carried an explosive device over the border fence.


Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

Updated 20 April 2019
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Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

  • El-Sisi cast his ballot at a polling station in the eastern suburb of Heliopolis in the Egyptian capital
  • Supporters argue that El-Sisi has stabilized Egypt and needs more time to complete crucial economic reforms.

CAIRO: Egyptians were voting on Saturday in a referendum that aims to cement the rule of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former coup leader who presents himself as a rock of stability in a turbulent region.

Voters were being asked to back amendments to the constitution to allow El-Sisi, 64, to run for another six-year term while boosting his control over the judiciary and giving the military even greater influence in political life.

At a polling station in Manyal, a Cairo suburb overlooking the Nile, Mohamed Abdel Salam, 45, told AFP he was voting enthusiastically in support of the changes.

"I don't care about the presidential terms," he said.

"Sisi could stay forever as long as he's doing his job... and he has already done a lot"

The three-day referendum bucks the trend of North Africa's renewed uprisings, in which mass pro-democracy protests this month swept away veteran presidents in Algeria and Sudan.

Sisi himself was among the first to vote when polls opened, casting his ballot in the upmarket Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

In Shubra, a working-class neighbourhood of the capital, dozens of voters, mostly women carrying their children, queued outside a polling station in the local high school.

In Cairo, troops and police were deployed in numbers although the interior ministry declined to give any nationwide figures.

Egypt is still battling a hardened Islamic insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has seen attacks in Cairo and other cities.

Sisi has argued that he needs longer to complete the job of restoring security and stability after the turmoil that followed the overthrow of veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011.

Out on the streets, Sisi's supporters waved flags bearing their campaign motto: "Do the Right" thing, as they pressed passers-by to turn out and vote 'Yes'.

The Egyptian leader won his first term as president in 2014, a year after he led the army in overthrowing elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his single turbulent year in power.

Standing virtually unopposed after the disqualification or withdrawal of all realistic challengers, he was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent.

Both elections drew heavy criticism from human rights groups as they were accompanied by swingeing crackdowns on dissent -- both Islamist and secular.

Human Rights Watch also took issue with the referendum on extending Sisi's rule, saying the "constitutional amendments" would "entrench repression".

In a statement Saturday, the New York-based watchdog criticised the "grossly unfree, rights-abusive environment" of the vote.

For the past few weeks, Egypt's streets have been awash with banners and billboards urging citizens to vote for Sisi, while popular folk singers have exhorted voters to go to the polls.

Pro-Sisi campaign volunteers handed out boxed meals at four different polling stations in Cairo to voters after they had cast their ballots, AFP reporters said.

A parliamentarian greeted voters and volunteers gave out vouchers for the meals in the Shubra district.

In Manyal, a DJ blared loud patriotic songs extolling the virtues of Egypt under Sisi's leadership, including a new song by iconic Lebanese diva Nancy Ajram dedicated to Egypt and called "Ragel ibn Ragel" (What a fine man).

But not everyone is upbeat about the changes.

Sporting casual attire, a voter in his mid-30s told AFP in Cairo: "We are all staff in the same company and we were instructed by management to go vote.

"I want to say 'No'... on extending the presidential terms and the amendments related to the judiciary," he said declining to give his name for fear of repercussions.

He pointed to his bosses nearby who were making sure employees were voting.

"Even if I say 'No', they (the authorities) are still going to do what they want in the end," he added despondently.

Earlier in the week, parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the consitutional changes, which also include the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and a quota ensuring at least 25 percent of lawmakers are women.

Think tank the Soufan Center said the main effect of the referendum would be to "solidify Sisi's grip on the Egyptian political regime" in a country that "has become even more autocratic than it was under Mubarak".