With Attacks In Sinai, Gaza Border Shuts Even Tighter

There is one land crossing out of Gaza, Rafah on Egypt's border, and it is usually shut, confounding the life and travel plans of thousands of Palestinians.

At the Rafah crossing on Nov. 20
At the Rafah crossing on Nov. 20

RAFAH Here in southern Gaza, the Rafah crossing is the only exit point for Palestinians from the narrow strip of land sandwiched between Israel and Egypt. The possibility of actually passing through into Egypt, in order to travel to any foreign destination, has become an almost mythical prospect. More than 25,000 Palestinians registered and waiting to leave can testify to this reality.

Alaf al-Saafini is one of them. Several times since graduating in medicine in 2015 from Gaza's Islamic University, this sharply-dressed young woman thought her lucky day had arrived. First there was a surprise grant to pursue her studies at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, which she had to forego since she could not leave Gaza. Then, last spring, she was offered work and a visa in Dubai. She packed her bags, paid the $1,700 to certify her degree and registered on the long list of people trying to cross the Rafah terminal into Egypt. Again, the veritable siege of Gaza thwarted her plans.

After several months of waiting, "they called me on October 14 to say I could go through tomorrow," she recalls. "As I entered a shop, people around me started talking about an armed attack that had just happened in Sinai. We then found out Egypt had decided to postpone opening the crossing. I'll be 30 soon, and that day, I saw my dreams melt away."

Trapped in Gaza by a decade-long blockade, some 26,000 Palestinian travelers are registered with the authorities and waiting for Rafah to reopen. Most have lost hope. The Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas recently retook control of the crossing as part of its reconciliation pact with Hamas, the Islamist party that's been running Gaza for the past decade. Abbas has promised a swift restoration of normality at the border, and Palestinian civil servants are back at the crossing. Initially it was to reopen on Nov. 1, then on Nov. 15, though that date was also postponed within hours of its announcement.

The government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fighting a Salafist insurgency in Sinai that last week attacked a mosque in the deadliest attack in modern history. Sisi's government said Rafah will reopen only when security conditions there allow it. Egypt certainly does not want to see the frontier become a porous crossing point for Islamic State terrorists, nor is it ready for now to relinquish control of a gateway that constitutes an effective lever for pressuring both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

He doesn't want me to step foot in here again.

Since early 2017, Rafah has been open just 14 days, and only 2,624 travelers have been permitted to leave Gaza. Politicians "keep dangling promises before our eyes," says Mona el-Banna, 23. "We are finding it more and more difficult to believe them." She has been trying to leave since January, to travel to Turkey where her husband is studying. Like the vast majority of Palestinians, she will find it virtually impossible to get permission to go through Israel, which makes Egypt the only exit gate.

Another medical graduate, 26-year-old Wala Faez, says "if I had known for a moment that I would be blocked like this, I would never have decided to return to do my internship at the Shifa Hospital." She studied medicine in Cairo, and has been trying for five months to return and start her specialization in gynecology.

There is nothing exceptional about this situation, says Abeer Aarouk, 47. She has found herself stuck in Gaza twice before. The first time was about 10 years ago, shortly after Hamas took power. She had to wait 19 months before illegally crossing what used to be a fluid frontier. Then, in 2014, she was stuck again for seven months. "My husband has refused to return since 2005, and says he doesn't want me to step foot in here again. But in spite of all these hardships, I simply don't feel I can burn all the bridges with my family and the place where I grew up," she says, sadly.

Briefly, during Mohammed Morsi's presidency in Egypt, more than 200,000 Palestinians managed to use the crossing, but it does not seem as if it will reopen permanently before the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt agree on a system to control people coming and going. The Authority's "pretty promises' should be taken with caution, says Raneen Ziara, a young woman sitting a little restlessly on her sofa at home. A cheerful expression and a touch of lip gloss can barely hide the way she nervously plays with the bejeweled ring on her right-hand ring finger. "I was engaged on September 3, 2015 and have waited since then to join the man who must, as tradition holds, pass the ring from one hand to the other."

Like so many other Palestinians confined to Gaza, Ziara hovers between giving up and the fierce urge to build herself a normal life in spite of adversity. One day, she says smiling, "out of despair, I called my fiancé to encourage him to end it all and start afresh with another woman. But he said he would never give up."

Her mother looks at her with benevolence, and has also encouraged her not to give up, though she herself makes an effort to suppress her fears about the future. She speaks as her daughter leaves for a minute to adjust her beige headscarf. On the one hand, she says, "I pray my daughter can finally fulfill her dream, but on the other, I tremble when I think we might never see each other again."

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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