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In Gaza, border opening brings little relief

By Ibrahim Barzak

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, June 21 2011 5:01 a.m. MDT

TO GO WITH STORY SLUG TRAVEL WOES- In this photo taken on Monday, June 20, 2011, Palestinians sit near their luggage while waiting to cross the border into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, southern Gaza Strip. The reopening of the Gaza Strip's main border crossing last month raised hopes that after a four-year blockade, a new era had arrived for the 1.5 million residents confined to this crowded territory. But a month after the eagerly awaited move, travel remains heavily restricted and the sense of despair is growing.

Adel Hana, Associated Press

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The reopening of the Gaza Strip's main border crossing with Egypt brought widespread relief to Palestinians suffering from a four-year blocakade. But one month later, some 20,000 people are on a wait list and despair is growing in this crowded territory.

Residents still must apply for travel permits, and the first available dates to cross are in late August. Frustrated travelers gather at the crossing each day, clutching medical reports, foreign residency permits and university registration documents in hopes of persuading the authorities to let them through.

And after a brief period of goodwill, many are openly asking whether Egypt's new government is truly committed to improving relations with the Palestinians.

"It seems nothing has changed and we are still locked in this big jail," said Ghassan al-Jaabri, a 35-year-old man who originally had been scheduled to visit his in-laws in Ukraine on June 11.

The Rafah terminal has traditionally been Gaza's main gateway to the outside world, used by residents who need to travel abroad for medical care, business purposes, studies or family visits. In an area with an estimated 45 percent unemployment rate, many want to leave in search of work elsewhere in the Arab world.

Movement through the terminal was greatly restricted after the Hamas militant group seized power in Gaza in June 2007. Following the takeover, Egypt and Israel imposed a strict blockade on the territory, arguing the closure was needed to prevent weapons and militants from moving in and out of the area.

Under the closure, Egypt allowed no more than 300 or so people to exit each day, primarily those traveling abroad for university studies, medical procedures unavailable in Gaza or religious pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.

Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, allowed just a few dozen through its crossing at the other end of Gaza on any given day, mostly medical patients and a select group of businessmen who trade with Israel. Both borders were frequently closed on security grounds.

The situation was expected to change after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last February. The caretaker military government promised to improve relations with Hamas, and in its first tangible gesture to the Palestinians, announced in May that it was permanently opening Rafah.

Egypt promised longer operating hours and said it was dropping most travel restrictions, meaning that virtually anyone could leave Gaza within days. Most critically, it promised to more than triple the number of people allowed to leave each day, with the aim of reducing the lengthy wait that Gazans face.

Even on the May 28 reopening of Gaza, there were early signs of trouble. As scores of jubilant travelers lined up at the border, fewer than 400 were allowed to cross. Since then, residents say, there has been little improvement.

Even those who do have permits are often refused entry by Egypt without explanation.

"The Palestinians can no longer bear the humiliation of the Rafah border crossing," said Yousef Rezqa, a top adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in an op-ed article. "We want free and dignified travel."

Hamas has becoming increasingly vocal in its criticism of Egypt. The militant group shut the border for several days earlier this month to protest the repeated delays.

"We have about 20,000 people on our waiting list," said Salma Barka, director of the Palestinian side of the Rafah terminal. With only 300 people crossing each day, it will be impossible to clear the backlog anytime soon, he said.

"The solution should come from the Egyptian side. They should speed up the process and keep the promises they made a few weeks ago," he said.

A senior Egyptian intelligence official said that Egypt is working with the Palestinians to try to improve movement across the border. But he said Egypt believes it is "legitimate" to maintain a blacklist of people banned from crossing, and made clear that Egypt is not happy with Hamas' pressure tactics.

"Hamas is exercising pressure on us through demonstrations at the other side to give the impression that Egypt was on the negative side," said the official, who, spoke on condition of anonymity because of Egyptian security rules.

Al-Jaabri was among hundreds of people, including women and children, gathered at Rafah on Monday in hopes of being allowed to pass. Hamas border police slowly called out the names of a lucky few who were allowed to board a pair of buses and cross into Egypt.

Al-Jaabri's name was not called, and around 3 p.m., he picked up his handbag and waved down a taxi to take him home. He said authorities told him to try again Wednesday, but he was skeptical.

"If you are a citizen who wishes to leave Gaza, you are forced to wait for many hours, sometimes even days, with no clear explanation," he said. "I don't know who to blame anymore. I blame my luck that I am a resident of Gaza."

Associated Press writer Ashraf Sweilam in Rafah, Egypt contributed to this report.

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