Egyptian exports to Gaza signal better ties with Hamas

ByREUTERS
February 8, 2017 18:31

Egypt had insisted for years that the Rafah crossing - which it opens for a three-to-five day period about once every 40 days - would handle the passage of only people, not goods.

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Egypt begins allowing goods through its border to Gaza on February 8, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)

Egypt begins allowing goods through its border to Gaza on February 8, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)

Egypt has eased restrictions at a tightly-controlled border with the Gaza trip in a sign of improved relations with the Palestinian territory's Islamist rulers.

Truckloads of goods ranging from steel to fish have rolled into the enclave in the past several weeks.

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Egypt had insisted for years that the Rafah crossing - which it opens for a three-to-five day period about once every 40 days - would handle the passage of only people, not goods.

Long at at odds with Gaza's governing Hamas group, Egypt had destroyed nearly 2,000 smuggling tunnels that provided its two million people with a steady flow of consumer products.

That left Israel's Kerem Shalom border crossing as the only conduit for Gaza imports, although some items are banned and the Israeli navy maintains a maritime blockade.

Last month, however, commercial material moved through the crossing along with travelers on the few days it was operational. Officials and economists listed some 20,000 tons of products include cement, wheat, steel, lumber, paint, tar and fish, as having moved from Egypt into Gaza.

"The (Rafah) border crossing opens once every month, month and a half, or even two months, and they allow limited supply (of goods) to pass. We have here the equivalent of two and a half to three trucks of goods, and we got two trucks of metal which is barley enough to be distributed by three to four merchants," metal merchant, Abu Jehad Klab, told Reuters.

The bulk of Egyptian imports for Gaza continues to enter through Israel, where the goods are inspected, and then sent to the territory via Kerem Shalom.

Last year, Cairo began allowing cement into Gaza via Rafah to help rebuild homes damaged or destroyed in four wars between Israel and Palestinian militants since 2006. Cement shipments for projects sponsored by the United Nations already move through the Israeli crossing.

Ashraf Abouelhoul, an Egyptian expert on Palestinian affairs, said recent talks in Cairo between Egyptian officials and a Hamas delegation may have led to the decision to move goods through Rafah.

Mohammad Abu Jayyab, an economist from Gaza, said Egypt might have been motivated by hopes that in return for more imports, Hamas would further bolster security along the border with the Sinai peninsula, where Cairo is battling Islamist militants.

"This political development brings humanitarian and economic relief which is a result of Egypt taking steps and opening the crossing with Gaza, allowing the imports of many goods. We are witnessing an improvement, not only in quantity but also in quality and variety of goods, which is noticeable and important and reflects the political and security progress between Egypt and Gaza," he said.

Egypt's military-run government has accused Hamas of aiding the Islamic State-linked militant groups in the Sinai and of intervening on behalf of Islamist allies in Egyptian politics. Hamas denies those allegations.

Egyptian officials had no immediate comment on commercial ties with Gaza. Israeli authorities also declined to speak about goods moving through Rafah.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, acknowledged a "crisis of trust" between the group and Egypt in the past.

"This is an important phase in the history of relations between Egypt and Hamas and the arrangements with the Gaza Strip. Also, there has been serious talks about the internal Palestinian status and the Palestinian reconciliation (Between Fatah and Hamas), and the arrangements of opening Rafah crossing and facilitating the channeling of goods and the crossing of people," he said, citing what he termed a heavier deployment of security forces on the Egyptian frontier by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry.

Palestinian economist Maher al-Tabbaa said the flow of goods would benefit Sinai-based suppliers and improve economic conditions in the Gaza Strip, in a political boost for Hamas.

Citing security concerns, Israel maintains a naval blockade of Gaza. It has eased restrictions on overland passage of goods in recent years but it continues to ban items - such as some building materials and fertilizer - that it says could be used by militants for fortifications and explosives.

Tabbaa estimated material coming into Gaza from Israel meets only 70 percent of people's needs.

"If the goods keep on being delivered from Egypt through Rafah's Crossing and if it gets easier to import those goods, especially construction materials that is needed in the Gaza Strip, then we expect the import rate from Egypt to exceed $1 billion dollar in 2017," he said.

Fishmonger Hasan Al-Juju welcomed the move to import fish from Egypt.

"This fish comes from Egypt because we don't have enough fish in the (Gaza) sea. There are not many fish in our waters, because the fishermen here are under attack. If if they go a bit deeper (into the sea) the Israelis (forces) attack them, so we brought all kind of fish from Egypt," he told Reuters.

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