Archive for August 18th, 2011

Egypt permanently opens Gaza border crossing

By IBRAHIM BARZAK – Associated Press
Sat, May 28, 2011

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Egypt lifted a four-year-old blockade on the Gaza Strip’s main link to the outside world Saturday, bringing relief to the crowded territory’s 1.5 million Palestinians but deepening a rift with Israel since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

The Egyptian move will allow thousands of Gazans to move freely in and out of the area — heightening Israeli fears that militants and weapons could easily reach its doorstep.

Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007. The closure, which also included tight Israeli restrictions at its cargo crossings with Gaza and a naval blockade, was meant to weaken Hamas, but it also fueled an economic crisis in the densely populated territory.

Hundreds of Gazans gathered early Saturday as the first bus load of passengers crossed the border at 9 a.m. Two Egyptian officers stood guard next to a large Egyptian flag atop the border gate as the vehicle rumbled through.

Rami Arafat, 52, was among the earliest arrivals. He said he hoped to catch a flight out of Cairo on Sunday to Algeria for his daughter’s wedding.

“All we need is to travel like humans, be treated with dignity, and feel like any other citizens of the world who can travel in and out freely,” Arafat said. He said he believed the relaxing of travel restrictions “will guarantee more support from all Arabs and Palestinians for the new Egyptian regime.”

Nearby, 28-year-old Khaled Halaweh said he was headed to Egypt to study for a master’s degree in engineering at Alexandria University.

“The closure did not affect only the travel of passengers or the flowing of goods. Our brains and our thoughts were under blockade,” said Halaweh, who said he hadn’t been out of Gaza for seven years.

Until Saturday, the Rafah border terminal had functioned at a limited capacity. Only certain classes of people, such as students, businessmen or medical patients, were eligible to travel and the crossing was often subject to closures, leading to huge backlogs that forced people to wait for months.

Under the new system, most restrictions are being lifted, and a much larger number of Palestinians are expected to be able to cross each day.

Inside the border terminal Saturday, the atmosphere was orderly, as Hamas police called up passengers one by one to register their travel documents.

After 5½ hours of operation, terminal officials said 340 people had crossed from Gaza into Egypt. None were forced to return, a departure from the past when Egypt had rejected passengers found to be on “blacklists.” Another 150 people crossed from Egypt into Gaza.

“Today is a cornerstone for a new era that we hope will pave the road to ending the siege and blockade on Gaza,” said Hatem Awideh, director general of the Hamas border authority in Gaza. “We hope this facilitation by our Egyptian brothers will improve travel and will allow everyone to leave Gaza.”

One after another buses crossed Rafah, pulling blue carts behind them with luggage piled high. Inside the terminal, many waited with high hopes.

One woman, who gave her name as Aisha, said she was headed for a long overdue medical checkup in Cairo. She underwent surgery for blocked arteries at a Cairo hospital in October, but Egyptian authorities had prevented her from returning for checkups because a distant relative was caught — and killed — operating a smuggling tunnel on the Gaza-Egypt border. During the four-year blockade, a thriving smuggling business has grown along the border.

Salama Baraka, head of police at the Rafah terminal on the Gaza side, said travel has been limited to about 300 passengers a day under the old system. He said it was unclear how many people would pass through Saturday, but that officials hoped to get about three days’ worth of people, or roughly 900, across.

About 100 Hamas supporters marched with Palestinian and Egyptian flags outside the border terminal in a gesture of gratitude to Egypt.

“This courageous step by Egypt reflects the deep historic relations between the Palestinian and Egyptian nations,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zahri. “We hope this will be a step in the long process to end the blockade imposed on Gaza.”

The new system will not resolve Gazans’ travel woes completely.

While Egypt has dropped its restrictions on who can travel, bureaucratic obstacles remain. Men between the ages of 18 and 40 will have to apply for Egyptian visas, a process that can take weeks. Women, children and older men need easier-to-obtain travel permits, which can be obtained in several days.

Israel, which controls Gaza’s cargo crossings, allows most consumer goods into Gaza, but it still restricts exports as well as the entry of much-needed construction materials, saying they could be used by militants. Israel also enforces a naval blockade aimed at weapons smuggling.

Israeli and American officials have expressed concerns that Hamas will exploit the opening to bring weapons and fighters into Gaza. In January 2008, masked militants blew open the Rafah border wall, allowing thousands of people to pour in and out of Egypt.

Egyptian officials say they have security measures in place to keep weapons from crossing through Rafah.

Hamas has long used tunnels to get arms into Gaza. Gaza militants now have military-grade rockets that have hit cities in southern Israel.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, told Channel 2 TV Friday that Israel’s primary concern is that military training personnel could cross to instruct Hamas fighters.

“One trainer who tells them how to set up the rockets and how to use them is equal to a large quantity of weapons,” Gilad said.

Egypt’s decision to open the border is also meant to boost an Egyptian-mediated unity deal between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. Hamas has governed Gaza since routing Fatah forces in 2007, leaving the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in control only of the West Bank.

Last month, the Egyptian regime brokered a reconciliation deal. With details still being worked out, Hamas will be in charge of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, but Egypt coordinated the opening with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, said Yaser Afnan, Egypt’s ambassador in the West Bank.

Jordanians protest, demanding government change

AFP, Friday 27 May 2011

Friday protests in Jordan draw thousands to the streets as demonstrators call for the fall of the government and an end to corruption.

More than 1,000 Jordanians demonstrated in the southern town of Tafileh Friday, demanding the fall of the government and urging an end to corruption, protesters said.

Rallied by a group calling itself “The Youth of Tafileh”, protesters chanted slogans such as “People want the government to fall”, “We will not be silent and continue to expose corruption”, and “Destiny will help the people who want to survive.”

The Friday protests come as King Abdullah II urged the government Wednesday to “protect the innocent victims of slander and hatred”, including members of his family.

Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit said Thursday that “the government will take the necessary legal measures against all those who accuse officials of corruption without proof.”

Since January, Jordan has been facing a protest movement demanding political and economic reforms, and an end to corruption.

In response, King Abdullah on April 26 created a commission to propose constitutional reform.

Source: Ahram.
Link: http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/13079.aspx.

Turkey: Israel should avoid flotilla face-off

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
May 27, 2011

ANKARA: Turkey’s foreign minister says he hopes Israel will avoid confrontation as a new aid flotilla prepares to depart for the Gaza Strip.

Ahmet Davutoglu said in an interview aired on Ulke TV late Thursday that he believes Israel “has gained sufficient experience” after last year’s Israeli raid on a flotilla that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American and sparked international outrage. Each side accused the other of starting the violence.

A coalition of pro-Palestinian groups say a flotilla will set sail in the third week of June. Israel has vowed to stop any attempt to breach its sea blockade of Gaza.

A Turkish Islamic aid group said it expects the convoy to be at least twice as big as the one that attempted to reach Gaza last year.

Source: Arab News.
Link: http://arabnews.com/middleeast/article434744.ece.

As toll mounts, Syrians opt for nighttime protests

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
May 27, 2011

BEIRUT: Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrations Friday, killing at least eight people as thousands took to the streets, human rights activists and witnesses said.

The casualties included three people in Qatana, a suburb of the capital, and four in the southern village of Dael, according to local coordination committees in Syria, which helped organize the protests. One person was also reported killed near the border with Lebanon.

The 10-week protests have evolved from a disparate movement demanding reforms to a resilient uprising that is now seeking President Bashar Assad’s ouster. On Friday, protests erupted in the capital, Damascus, and the coastal city of Banias, the central city of Homs and elsewhere.

Human rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in mid-March.

Many activists have been opting for nighttime demonstrations and candlelight vigils in recent days, aiming for a time when the security presence has thinned out. “We refuse to let them sleep,” a 28-year-old Dael resident said of the security forces. “We drive them crazy, as soon as they come to the neighborhood we go quiet and they get lost. And then we start again when they leave,” he told The Associated Press.

Source: Arab News.
Link: http://arabnews.com/middleeast/article434912.ece.

Jordan premier under fresh pressure to resign

By ABDUL JALIL MUSTAFA | ARAB NEWS
May 27, 2011

AMMAN: Hundreds of Jordanians demonstrated in Tafileh, 180 km south of Amman, on Friday demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit’s government, eyewitnesses said.

The protesters also urged the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament and severing diplomatic ties with Israel.

“The people want the resignation of Bakhit,” one of the slogans chanted said. Another read “You should step down, Bakhit, because you have no intention of conducting reforms”.

The demonstrators celebrated the resignation on Thursday of the Justice Minister Hussein Megalli and Health Minister Yassin Hosban.

Bakhit told a press conference on Thursday the two ministers resigned in connection with the illegal departure from the country on Feb. 25 of the convicted businessman Khalid Shahin.

However, the two ministers indicated in remarks to the local media that their quitting from the Cabinet had nothing today with Shahin’s affair which dominated local politics over the past three month.

Shahin, who is currently in London, was serving a three-year jail term when the authorities caught the public opinion with surprise by declaring that he was allowed to travel abroad to receive medical treatment which he lacked locally.

Bakhit apparently had ordered the two ministers to submit their resignation after King Abdallah sent him a strongly-worded letter ordering him to take “transparent legal steps” to punish those were involved in corruption cases that surfaced recently, political sources said.

In his resignation letter to Bakhit, Megalli said he had decided to step down “after he found the government’s priorities in disarray and the path of reform deadlocked”.

The demonstrators in Tafileh also burned an Israeli flag and urged the abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel.

They said that they were responding to a move by the extremist member of the Israeli Knesset, Arieh Eldad, who on Monday approached the Jordanian Embassy in Israel with a petition calling on King Abdallah to set up a Palestinian state in Jordan instead of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Jordanian diplomatic mission refused to receive the document and called Israeli police who removed Eldad, a member of the National Union Party, from the area.

A similar demonstration was also staged after Friday prayers in the city of Maan, 210 km south of Amman.

Source: Arab News.
Link: http://arabnews.com/middleeast/article434739.ece.