Al-ARISH: Eissa Sweillem entered Egypt through the breached Gaza border – but not just to shop at stores. The 27-year-old unemployed Gaza man hopes to buy a fake Egyptian identification card so he can get through security checkpoints and across the desert to Cairo.
Egyptian officials say they have worked hard to keep Palestinians bottled up near the border since hundreds of thousands poured across after last week s breach. They are continuously stopped at checkpoints, and most make it no farther than the first two towns: the divided city of Rafah immediately at the border and El-Arish, about 60 km away.
But some Palestinians, and perhaps also some weapons from Gaza, have made it to other parts of Egypt, including Cairo.
Among them is Ali Ghalib, who told The Associated Press he dodged checkpoints to visit his 23-year-old fiancé in Cairo. Ghalib had not seen her since their engagement three years ago, when she went to Cairo on a tourist visa to find a job as a pharmacist and stayed on.
Egyptian officials have not commented on Gazans reaching deeper into Egypt. But state-owned newspapers have reported several arrests of Palestinians trying to smuggle weapons and explosives to Egyptian areas beyond Rafah.
One state paper, Al-Ahram daily, quoted unnamed officials last week as saying Egyptian security forces had rounded up several armed Palestinians across Egypt, foiling a number of terror attacks including some planned against Israel.
Such reports seem to reflect growing Egyptian concerns that Gazans, if not contained in the border area, could become a problem for the rest of the country.
Israel has warned its citizens against visiting the beach resorts of Sinai, the vast desert peninsula between the Gaza border and Cairo.
Most Palestinians trying to get farther into Egypt insist they are merely seeking work, or even just fun – any escape from Gaza. The territory has been largely cut off from the outside world since Israel and Egypt closed their borders following Hamas takeover in June.
Sweillem and some friends, staying at the house of an Egyptian Bedouin friend, want fake IDs so they can get to Cairo to find jobs. He and his friend Abu Malek said they once worked as laborers in Israel but have not been employed since Gaza s blockade.
Each was offering $50 for an ID card. But so far, their Bedouin friend, haggling over the phone late at night, had found only one with a picture that looked similar to another of Sweillem s friends.
Others say they just want to have a good time.
“We are not terrorists. We are not going to Cairo as troublemakers. We just want to enjoy our life, said Shady El-Rmelat, a 23-year-old former history student at the University of Gaza who dropped out for financial reasons.
He and two other young Gazans said they tried three times to sneak out of Al-Arish to Cairo – paying taxi drivers to take them – but had gotten caught each time by Egyptian security.
His cousin, a 22-year-old Gaza high school dropout who gave only his first name, Muwaffaq, said the young men wanted to watch belly dancers in Cairo night clubs and taste alcohol for the first time. Liquor is not allowed in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
“I will not give up. I will keep on trying until I do it, Muwaffaq said.The Egyptian security consisted mostly of checkpoints on the road from Rafah to Al-Arish, at which Egyptian police checked ID cards and only allowed legal residents through. They sent Palestinians back toward Rafah and occasionally forced drivers to open their trunks.
At one point, however, security forces could be seen chasing some Palestinian men in the desert, along a road heading away from Rafah to Al-Arish. The forces carried batons, trying to force the men to get back on the road heading to Rafah.
Other Palestinians hitchhiking along the road from Rafah to Al-Arish were stopping cars and asking the drivers to take them to Cairo and other big cities – offering to pay to hide in the trunk.
Bedouins have a reputation for being experts at navigating the desert, finding back ways to avoid checkpoints. One boy, a 15-year-old who identified himself only as Omar, claimed he had helped many Palestinians avoid checkpoints since the border was breached by taking them on foot into the desert for LE 50 ($9) apiece.
“Those are poor people and I m only helping them, he said.
Moustafa Abu Ghosheh, 30, was in a group that hired a Bedouin pickup truck driver to take them from Rafah to Al-Arish. At one point, they jumped from the truck before a checkpoint, ran into the desert to a mountain and then walked to link up with the driver farther along the road.
But just a few miles farther, they were captured at yet another checkpoint.”It s worth it, he said. “I will do anything just to see Egypt.