* Disappointment at lags in opening Rafah border crossing
* Cairo-sponsored Hamas-Fatah reconciliation on hold
* Egyptians urge Palestinian patience, responsibility
By Nidal Almughrabi
GAZA, July 26 They had hoped this Ramadan would
But many Palestinians who find themselves again penned into
Gaza for the holiday are blaming Egypt, the neighbouring Arab
power which, after toppling President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11,
had pledged to free up travel across the shared border.
The dismay reflects the misgivings of many Egyptians about
the prospects for reform under Cairo's caretaker military
rulers, who appear beholden to U.S. largesse and in no rush to
reverse Mubarak's unpopular Palestinian policies.
Mubarak had buttressed Israel's embargo on Gaza, which is
controlled by Hamas, an Islamist faction hostile to the Jewish
state and ideologically linked to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood,
dissidents under the old regime and now political contenders.
To great fanfare, Egypt declared the Rafah crossing to Gaza
"open" to passengers in May. But Gazans soon found their dreams
of unfettered travel dashed. Strict quotas and criteria for
those allowed to cross remain, and many Palestinians say they
are still regarded as potential security threats by Egypt.
"Nothing in the Egyptian treatment of Gaza Strip residents
has changed," wrote Palestinian columnist Mustafa Al-Lidawi.
Those Gazans who transit Egypt for third countries are
subject to especially heavy scrutiny, he said, an observation
recalling Mubarak-era efforts to help Israel prevent
Iranian-trained agents reach Gaza.
"They are still being held in a narrow dark and dirty
basement at Cairo International Airport that lacks the minimal
conditions for the detention for humans," said Lidawi, decrying
Egypt's "military mentality".
Under Egypt's new admission guidelines, women, minors and
men over 40 do not need a visa to enter from Gaza.
But the Egyptians continue to blacklist some Palestinians as
"security threats" and the attendant backlog makes it almost
impossible to plan travel in advance -- for example, for next
month's Ramadan. Often, a Gazan's departure day arrives after
visas issued for other countries have already expired.
Following complaints by Hamas officials including Ismail
Haniyeh, the head of the Gaza government, a leading Egyptian
journalist counseled patience.
"Time is needed to filter the list of banned people from
entry. Security conditions in north Sinai are still bad and the
roads the Palestinians use in their journey to Cairo through
Sinai are not stable yet," said Ashraf Aboulhoul, chief
correspondent of Egypt's mass-circulation Al-Ahram daily.
Rafah was short-staffed because of the disappearance or
killing of Egyptian security men during anti-regime protests
that erupted in Cairo in January, Aboulhoul said.
"There is a sense of bitterness among Egyptian authorities
because Hamas has not appreciated the internal conditions our
country is experiencing," Aboulhoul said by telephone from
Mubarak had offset Egypt's status as the first -- and still
among the few -- Arab states to make peace with Israel by trying
to broker reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the formerly
dominant secular faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In what many Egyptians saw as a sign that Cairo, after
Mubarak's fall, was easing terms for Hamas, the factions signed
a unity accord in May. That Israel responded angrily to the pact
underscored the sense Palestinian interests were being served.
Yet implementation of the deal has mired in disputes between
Hamas and Fatah on the format of their proposed power-share.
"The impasse is an internal Palestinian matter and Egypt has
decided not to intervene to press either side to accept
anything," Aboulhoul said.
"Cairo took a big step in the issue of reconciliation. It
revived hopes among all Palestinians and Arabs and now it's
Fatah and Hamas who should decide how things should proceed."
Hamas official Mustafa Al-Sawaf said he was optimistic that
Palestinians would eventually be satisfied by Egypt's policies.
"Hopes remain," he said. "The revolution is still at its
(Editing by Dan Williams)
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