RAFAH – The building, inaugurated a month ago, is grandiose. On the front, topped with two geometric arches and covered with grey marble, it says: “Rafah checkpoint, Palestinian Authority,” and no one can be oblivious to the fact that the Islamic Development Bank financed this plush construction. The entrance is protected by a fence and controlled by Hamas militiamen: you have to show your credentials to cross the door into Egypt.
Travellers who have received an authorization from the Interior Ministry (a two-month wait) are gathered in a room in Khan Younis, the nearest large city, before getting onto a bus that drives straight to the Rafah terminal: you can’t just show up by yourself.
Once inside the border perimeter, the modern ambition of the building is blindingly obvious, a sign that the government in Gaza, with help from its Arab sponsors, was betting that the Egyptian revolution would lead to a complete opening of the border and the end of the Egyptian blockade of the Gaza strip.
The arrival and departure waiting rooms were luxuriously renovated: comfortable seats, efficient air conditioning, a cafeteria, marble everywhere, moving walkways and scanners for luggage, idle custom officers in gleaming booths that wouldn’t be shamed by Riyadh’s airport: nothing is missing. Not even the portrait of Ismaïl Haniyeh (the Hamas government Prime Minister), lifting a triumphal arm with the slogan “You cannot destroy our walls.”
Israel, of course, will get the message.
Ayoub Abou Shahar, the director of the Rafah checkpoint, is proud: the first phase of construction cost $1 million and the Islamic Development Bank is going to give a total of $3 to $4 million. But Mr. Shahar has to admit that so far, Egypt has only loosened its grip by…300 travellers a day.
The day after Mohamed Morsi’s presidential victory, a record number of 1,530 people from Gaza crossed into Egypt. Then the flow slowed down, though is nevertheless rising: “We went from 600 to 700 people per day to 900 to 1000,” says the Rafah terminal director.
The July 11 announcement that there would be an increase of 1,000 to 1,500 travellers per day was premature, as was the July 23 announcement that the ban on going to Egypt for 18 to 40 year old men was lifted. This ban remains, as does the “black list” of thousands of names.
These restrictions are imposed by Cairo, and “each day,” says Ayoub Abou Shahar, “we are warned of 30 new names of people banned from entry.” Will Ismaïl Haniyeh, who met with President Morsi for the first time on July 26, be able to convince the Egyptians to finance his project of an economic and commercial zone at the border?
People in Gaza are doubtful: they have already understood that their hopes of thwarting the blockade imposed by Israel by opening the southern gates weren’t going very far.
“The day after Morsi’s election, it was as though he had been elected president of Palestine!” says Wesam Afifa, editor in chief of Al-Resalah. “There was an explosion of joy, people thought: This is going to be like when there was an Egyptian government in Gaza until 1967.”
Then, day after day, the harsh reality of daily life caught up. The noisy electric generators you can hear in the streets are one sign of this absence of change. Inhabitants of Gaza are subjected to 12 to 18 hours of electricity cuts every day, which makes life virtually unbearable during this scorching month of Ramadan.
The only electric power station in Gaza has regular fuel shortages, both because of Israel’s ill will and because of financial squabbles between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government.
Needless to say that the announcement of a “gift” from Qatar, a 30 million liter tanker of fuel for Gaza, was hailed as hope for improvement. But things weren’t so simple. The Qatari oil transits through the Israeli Kerem Shalom passage point, three kilometers east of Rafah; the fuel for the electrical power center therefore arrives depending on Israel’s goodwill, as well as the Egyptian government’s.
Cairo could have trucked the fuel via Rafah, but it refused to do so, using the insecurity in the Sinai as an excuse. It is true that the gas pipeline that supplies Israel and Jordan witnessed a 15th attack in the past year and a half, on July 22.
Egyptian procrastination is disappointing and irritating Gaza; and Hamas, which is already accused of abandoning armed resistance against Israel, isn’t spared. The reality, says Omar Shaban, director of the PalThink strategic think tank, “is that the Egyptians understand that it isn’t in their interest to give Hamas everything it wants, which risks linking Gaza’s fate to Egypt’s and making inter-Palestinian reconciliation even harder.”
President Morsi, he adds, knows that by greeting Hamas with open arms, “he would provoke both the Israelis and the Americans, and there is nothing to gain there.” The solidarity between Muslim brothers is one thing (Hamas is an offshoot of the brotherhood) but there isn’t an automatic convergence of political and diplomatic interests.
“We got some beautiful words of friendship from president Morsi,” says Wesam Afifa, “But in practice, Gaza’s problems are under the control of the Egyptian intelligence services.” From this point of view, the new Egyptian power probably won’t adopt a very different attitude from ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s. Confronted with political instability and a serious economic crisis, Egypt wants to continue controlling the gates of Gaza to keep at bay both the poverty and shortages of its 1.7 million inhabitants – and Hamas’ Islamic activism.
Read more from Le Monde in French.
Photo - gloucester2gaza