CAIRO — THE headquarters of Egypt's governor-general of the Gaza Strip lies tucked in a Cairo suburb, and for Palestinians living here, the office is all too familiar.
``To do anything in Egypt, Palestinians must come here,'' says Gen. Salah al-Din Amer, whose bull-like physique seems ill-suited to his desk job. ``We act like a small governorate, extending social administrative and educational services.''
But for most Palestinians a trip to General Amer's office has had more to do with clearing Egypt's painstaking security screening than claiming social benefits, and many expect that process will get even tougher. With the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Palestinians are worried that their rocky residence in Egypt may become even more uncomfortable as Egyptians push them to leave, despite the fact that under the agreement, discussion of the return of refugees will not commence for two years.
Ninety percent of the estimated 120,000 Palestinians in Egypt are from Gaza. The Strip was the only area of Palestine that Egypt managed to hold against the Israeli Army in 1948. But unlike Jordan's treatment of the West Bank, Egypt never annexed Gaza and its people have not been eligible for Egyptian passports.
Even after Egypt lost control of Gaza during the 1967 Six-Day War, Cairo maintained a grip on the lives of Gazans, but one that has often made their lives insecure. Social benefits have been dropped. No longer are children able to attend Egyptian state schools for free, and when they get to the university level, they must pay a minimum of $1,500 a year in hard currency.
The most difficult problem for Gazans here is their dependence on Egyptian travel documents. Security clearance is rigorous for transit visas in and out of Gaza. Since the Gulf war those checks have become tighter. Indeed, many Palestinians have found it easier to get an Israeli entrance permit for Gaza.
IBRAHIM is an elderly Palestinian who first came to Cairo driving a bus load of refugees fleeing the war in 1948. He vividly recalls the ups and downs of Egypt's relations with the Palestinians, which he says deteriorated sharply in the late 1970s when the PLO opposed the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel.
``Under King Farouk we had to fake our papers so that we could work to survive. President [Gamal Abdel] Nasser loved Palestinians; he treated us equally. President [Anwar] Sadat punished us for the PLO,'' says Ibrahim, unwilling to use his last name for fear of retaliation by Egyptian authorities. ``But the Gulf crisis has made it much worse: [PLO Chairman Yasser] Arafat, when he backed that crazy Iraqi, never looked one step ahead.''
Many Palestinian families long resident in Egypt tell of family members, especially young men, being arrested, deported, or denied entry. In June the Interior Ministry deported Husam Ghattas Ayyad, who had just graduated from Ein Shans University in Cairo. Born in Kuwait, Mr. Ayyad has an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father, but under Egyptian law his mother had no right to protect him from being arrested for overstaying his student visa. He was bundled into a bus and taken to Libya.
United Nations officials who attempted to intervene on his behalf say Ayyad was totally uninvolved in politics and was merely asking for enough time in Cairo to complete his emigration formalities for Australia, where his brother and sister live.
Dozens of Palestinians in Egypt have been incarcerated without charge in grim conditions, according to the human rights organization Middle East Watch. The PLO office in Cairo has never protested the treatment of Palestinians here.
Many young Palestinians in Egypt are anxious to go to Gaza, an unknown homeland, rather than remain here. But Ibrahim finds little cause for enthusiasm. ``I remember the days after Algeria's liberation, when Egyptians would stop Algerians in the streets and tell them, `Why don't you go home. Your country is yours now.' That will happen to us even though there will not be enough room for us all in Gaza.''