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The Mideast

Gaza: Egypt opening border ahead of Muslim holiday

Mideast Gaza Egypt_Bake.jpg

A bus makes its way from the Palestinian side of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, into Egypt, through an Egyptian-guarded border crossing, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. Egypt on Tuesday opened its border with Hamas-ruled Gaza for a three-day period ahead of a major Muslim holiday, but imposed tight restrictions on who can travel and did not say whether it would resume normal border operations. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Egypt on Tuesday opened its border with Hamas-ruled Gaza for a three-day period ahead of a major Muslim holiday this weekend, but imposed tight restrictions on who can travel and did not say whether it would resume normal border operations.

The government in Cairo closed the border Aug. 5, shutting down the Rafah passenger terminal and -- according to Egyptian security officials -- sealing more than 100 cross-border smuggling tunnels. The move came after Islamic militants in Egypt's Sinai desert near Gaza killed 16 Egyptian troops at a border post.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's government suggested the assailants had help from Gaza, a claim Hamas denies. The Egyptian restrictions raised tensions between Morsi and Hamas, both members of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood and presumably sympathetic to each other.

The Hamas interior minister, Fathi Hamad, has demanded that Morsi reopen the Rafah crossing quickly and suggested the new Egyptian president was acting like his predecessor, the staunchly anti-Hamas Hosni Mubarak who had backed Israel's tight blockade of Gaza's borders.

"We suffered from the unjust regime of Mubarak that participated in the Israeli blockade of Gaza," Hamad wrote in comments posted on his ministry's website. "Why should we suffer now, in the era of Egypt's revolution and democracy?"

Addressing Egyptian leaders, Hamad called for a different policy. "Palestine should be considered a priority," he wrote. "If you are not doing that, you have to correct your course."

Last week, Egypt began allowing stranded travelers to return to Gaza, and some 4,500 have so far made the trip, according to Gaza border officials. On Tuesday, Egypt for the first time allowed some border traffic from Gaza, but only for a select few -- Gaza students registered at foreign universities, those with residency abroad and medical patients.

Gaza border official Maher Abu Sabha said two-way traffic will continue for three days, in the run-up to the weekend's Eid el-Fitr holiday, which caps the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The limited opening is meant to relieve some of the pressure on Gaza, but also suggested there is no imminent decision by Egypt to resume normal border traffic. Gaza officials say thousands of travelers are on a waiting list, hoping to leave the territory.

Amani Salman, 34, and her four sons were waiting on the Gaza side of the border, hoping to cross into Egypt en route to their home in Qatar. Salman said she had been scheduled to travel on the day after the Sinai attack and was forced to cancel her plane tickets, at a cost of $1,800.

She said she had hesitated for years to visit her family in Gaza because of the precarious border situation, but decided to risk the trip after the change of government in Egypt.

"This year, I thought it will be better, but it was the same," she said. "We love Egypt and we were very happy for their new president. We are not asking for much, just to be treated as humans ... It's a mistake to punish Gaza."

After Morsi became president earlier this summer, Hamas had high hopes that the new Egyptian leader would significantly ease the Gaza border blockade, imposed by Israel and Mubarak after Hamas seized the coastal area by force in 2007.

Rafah is key for Gaza, providing the only gate to the outside world for the territory's 1.7 million people. Israel controls the other land crossings, allowing movement for only small numbers of humanitarian cases, as well as access by air and sea.

In a first step, Morsi's government eased passenger traffic in and out of Gaza, but failed to respond to Hamas' most pressing demand, to turn Rafah into a trade corridor. For now, Gaza imports most consumer goods through an Israeli crossing and through hundreds of smuggling tunnels that are also used as a conduit for people and weapons.

Reda Fahmi, who heads the Palestine Committee in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said that following last week's attack, Egypt's national security supersedes any concerns for Gaza, and that security forces will focus on dismantling the smugglers' network on both sides of the border.

"This is a headache that we should get rid of," he said of the illicit trade route, one of Gaza's main lifelines. But setting up a legal trade route "requires extensive studies and research," he said.

After the attack, Egypt closed its border with Gaza and sent more than 3,000 troops to the lawless peninsula in a crackdown on militants, some with loose links to al-Qaida, according to Sinai security officials. On Sunday, Egyptian security forces killed seven suspected militants during raids on hideouts in two villages in northern Sinai, security officials said. They say Egyptian forces have also sealed more than 100 smuggling tunnels, but that a limited tunnel trade resumed over the weekend.

From its side, Hamas also temporarily prevented access to the illegal underground tunnels in a show of goodwill toward Egypt.

On Tuesday, the area where the tunnels emerge on the Gaza side was uncharacteristically quiet. Normally, it is abuzz with activity, including the honking of trucks picking up merchandise and the humming of generators powering machinery to pull up the contraband from below.

Hamas security officials were sitting in tents near makeshift gates to the tunnel area. Just a few hundred meters (yards) away, Egyptian soldiers guarded their side of the frontier, some sitting in watchtowers.