Pilgrims’ progress breaks Gaza siege

Palestinian pilgrims return from the Hajj pilgrimage through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, 2 January 2008, after five days of being stranded in Egypt. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

CAIRO, 9 January (IPS) - More than 2,000 pilgrims have finally returned to the Gaza Strip via Egypt’s Rafah crossing after being stuck on the border for five days. The repatriation followed their staunch refusal to return home via alternate, Israeli-controlled border crossings.

“The pilgrims’ insistence to cross via Rafah forced the Egyptian government to bring a quick resolution to the problem,” Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt’s frozen Socialist Labour Party and leader of the unofficial Committee to Break the Gaza Siege, told IPS.

Early last month, Cairo unexpectedly granted permission to approximately 2,200 Gazans to exit the Gaza Strip into Egypt on their way to Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage. On 3 December, they crossed into Egyptian territory by way of the Rafah border crossing, the sole transit point along Egypt’s 14 kilometer border with the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has kept the Rafah crossing sealed since June, when the territory was taken over by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas. According to Cairo, the closure was precipitated by the departure of European Union observers mandated to monitor Egypt-Gaza border traffic under the terms of a 2005 trilateral security arrangement between Israel, Egypt and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA).

The closure effectively eliminated the Gaza Strip’s only sovereign route to the outside world. Virtually all other crossings in or out of the territory — which also remains subject to a crippling economic embargo backed by Israel and the US — are under the strict control of the Israeli authorities.

In hopes of maintaining the geographic isolation of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel and the PA have consistently urged Egypt to maintain the closure of Rafah. Cairo has for the most part complied with the request, despite frequent calls by Hamas to reopen the terminal.

Egypt’s decision to open the border to pilgrim traffic, therefore, was received angrily by both Tel Aviv and Ramallah. According to reports in the local press, Israeli officials lodged a complaint with the Egyptian embassy in Israel claiming that some of those en route to Saudi Arabia were actually militants seeking military training abroad.

Hamas, for its part, praised the move. Head of the Hamas-led government in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh called Egypt’s decision “a first step towards breaking the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.”

The story did not, however, end there.

Three weeks later, while on their way back from Saudi Arabia, the pilgrims were informed by Egyptian authorities that they would not be allowed to re-enter Gaza through the same route by which they had come. Rather, they were expected to return by way of the Egypt-Israel border crossing at Kerem Abu Salim, located roughly 10 kilometers south of Rafah.

Unlike Rafah, however, Kerem Abu Salim is tightly controlled by the Israeli authorities.

Fearing possible arrest by Israel, the pilgrims — many of them high-ranking Hamas members — collectively rejected the request.

“We refused this condition,” Khalil Heya, one of the pilgrims and a leading Hamas member, was quoted as saying 28 December. “We will not resort to using another [Israeli-controlled] crossing instead of Rafah.”

After arriving by ferry to the Egyptian port of Nuweiba, pilgrims were then bussed to the city of al-Arish in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. There, they joined several hundred other Palestinian travelers stuck at the border since the initial closure of Rafah almost seven months ago.

In al-Arish, they were provided makeshift shelters and told by the Egyptian authorities to wait for the border to open. Despite repeated appeals to make the crossing via Kerem Abu Salim, the pilgrims remained adamant in their refusal to use an Israeli-controlled transit point.

The plight of the pilgrims, many of whom were old and infirm, met widespread condemnation in Egypt and the Palestinian territories. In both Cairo and Gaza, a number of angry protests were held in which demonstrators demanded the immediate opening of Rafah.

At a 30 December press conference, President Hosni Mubarak noted Egypt’s “deep embarrassment” over the situation. But he added that, under the terms of the 2005 Egypt-Israel-PA security arrangement, Rafah could not be opened in the absence of an envoy from the European Union.

“The Rafah crossing can’t be opened without the presence of three representatives, one Egyptian, one Palestinian and the third European,” Mubarak said. “And the European representative is absent.”

This excuse did not pacify most critics of the government’s position, who were quick to blame Cairo for the pilgrims’ precarious circumstances.

“The Egyptian regime brought this dilemma upon itself,” said Hussein. “No respectable country can allow pilgrims to pass through a crossing and then close it again on their return.”

In the face of rising criticism, both domestic and foreign, Cairo suddenly opened the Rafah crossing to the weary travelers 2 January. After at least two of their number had died while stuck in al-Arish, the pilgrims finally returned — via Rafah — to the Gaza Strip.

According to foreign ministry officials, the decision was taken unilaterally with the aim of preventing a looming humanitarian crisis on the border.

“Ultimately, Egypt allowed the Palestinian pilgrims to return via Rafah,” Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and head of the Shura (upper) Council’s committee for Arab affairs, told IPS. “Egypt is a Muslim country and behaved accordingly.”

In a televised statement from Gaza, Haniyeh described the episode as a “victory” for Hamas. He went on to express gratitude for Egypt’s role in allowing the pilgrims’ “honorable” return home.

The implications of the affair for the future of Egypt-Israel relations have yet to be seen. But for some observers, the crisis reaffirmed Egypt’s strategic advantage in relation to the Gaza Strip.

“The incident proved Egypt still has some cards to play,” Saad al-Husseini, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement and head of the group’s foreign relations division, told IPS. “Egypt can still make use of the Rafah crossing to achieve certain policy goals.”

Husseini added: “Given its position vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip, Egypt remains the only country with the capacity to break the ongoing siege.”

According to the Labour Party’s Hussein, the crisis also served to highlight the growing disparity between the policies of most Arab capitals and the popular will.

“The pilgrim crisis reflected the conflict between the US, Israel and the Arab governments on one side and Hamas and the Arab public — and all that stand for resistance against occupation — on the other,” he said.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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