Egypt’s Sisi calls for first bread price rise in decades

By Omar Fahmy

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said it was time to increase the price of the country’s subsidized bread, revisiting the issue for the first time since 1977 when then president Anwar Sadat reversed a price rise in the face of riots.

Sisi on Tuesday did not specify the amount of any potential increase, but any change to the food support system in the world’s largest wheat importer would be highly sensitive. Bread was the first word in the signature slogan chanted in the 2011 uprising that unseated former president Hosni Mubarak.

Bread is currently sold at 0.05 Egyptian pounds ($0.0032) per loaf to more than 60 million Egyptians, who are allocated five loaves a day under a sprawling subsidy program that also includes the likes of pasta and rice, and costs billions of dollars.

“It is time for the 5 piaster loaf to increase in price,” Sisi said at the opening of a food production plant. “Some might tell me leave this to the prime minister, to the supply minister to (raise the price); but no, I will do it in front of my country and my people.

“It’s incredible to sell 20 loaves for the price of a cigarette.”

Previous attempted changes to the subsidy program, which caused deadly bread riots in 1977, were agreed as part of former President Anwar Sadat’s loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Sisi’s government has also turned to the IMF, which granted a $12 billion loan in 2016 and a one-year $5.2 billion loan last year, but specified that food subsidies should only reach those most in need.

The loan program also required higher fuel and electricity prices.

“I’m not saying we make it significantly more expensive, to as high as it costs to make it, 65 or 60 piastres, but (increasing the price) is necessary,” Sisi said.

“Nothing stays stagnant like this for 20 or 30 years, with people saying that this number can’t be touched.”

SUBSIDY PROGRAMME

The Egyptian supply ministry will immediately begin studying raising the bread price and will present its findings to the cabinet as soon as possible following Sisi’s remarks, minister Ali Moselhy told local newspaper El-Watan.

Sisi has sought to rein in Egypt’s massive subsidy program by targeting those deemed to be sufficiently wealthy while leaving bread prices untouched.

Hussein Abu Saddam, head of the farmer’s syndicate, told Reuters: “The decision is right and comes at a very suitable time. It helps us finish with the old practices and customs, in which the president was always afraid of touching bread prices, fearing the outcry of the poor.”

A hashtag which translates as “except the loaf of bread” trended on Twitter in Egypt by Tuesday afternoon with more than 4,000 tweets.

Last year the country shrank the size of its subsidized loaf of bread by 20 grams, allowing bakers to make more fixed-price loaves from the standard 100kg sack of flour.

“I hope that this is not poorly received, as if we are planning to make a big jump in prices … we are only talking about achieving balance,” Sisi added.

In its 2021/22 budget, Egypt allocated 87.8 billion Egyptian pounds ($5.6 billion) to subsidize supply commodities and support farmers.

Of that amount, 44.8 billion pounds are allocated towards the bread subsidy.

The government set a wheat price assumption of $255.00 per tonne in fiscal year 2021/2022, from $193.90 a tonne the previous year, according to the budget. Egypt last bought wheat on Monday for $293.74 a tonne c&f.

Wheat prices globally have rallied over supply concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.

($1 = 15.7100 Egyptian pounds)

(Reporting by Omar Fahmy; Additional reporting by Malaika Tapper; Writing by Nafisa Eltahir and Nadine Awadalla; Editing by David Goodman and David Holmes)

U.S., Egypt working closely to reinforce Gaza ceasefire, Blinken says

By Aidan Lewis and Nidal al-Mughrabi

CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -Egypt and the United States said they would work together to reinforce a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo and Amman on Wednesday on a regional tour.

Egypt has longstanding relations with both sides in the conflict and played a key role in brokering the ceasefire after 11 days of violence, in coordination with the United States.

“We’ve had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly,” Blinken said in Cairo after meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

The United States and Egypt were now “working closely together build something positive,” he said. Egypt, Blinken said, is vital to shared aspirations for Palestinians and Israelis to “live in safety and security to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity.”

Egyptian mediation in the conflict has raised questions whether Cairo might now feel under less U.S. pressure over its crackdown on political dissent that has steadily intensified in recent years.

Asked about the matter at a press conference later in the Jordanian capital Amman, Blinken said he had a “lengthy discussion” with Sisi on Cairo’s human rights record and the issue of detained American citizens.

“I think the fact that we had a lengthy exchange on that with President Sisi is a reflection of the fact that it remains very much on the agenda with Egypt,” Blinken said.

Sisi, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, has said there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that stability and security are paramount.

Blinken said he also discussed with Sisi Egypt’s water needs and the importance of finding a diplomatic solution to the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt regards the dam as a potentially existential threat as the largely arid country relies on the Nile for as much as 90% of its fresh water.

GAZA AID

Blinken arrived in Egypt after stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Tuesday, when he pledged that the United States would provide new aid to help rebuild the Gaza Strip, including $5.5 million in disaster relief and nearly $33 million for the U.N. Palestinian aid agency there, after hundreds of devastating Israeli air strikes.

Speaking in Amman, he said Washington intended to ensure that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza and is listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, did not benefit from humanitarian aid.

“In the coming days I’ll be consulting broadly with Gulf countries and other partners to ensure we all contribute to recovery, stability and the reduction of tensions,” he said.

Yehya Al-Sinwar, the Hamas chief in Gaza, said the group welcomed Arab and international efforts to rebuild the enclave.

“We will ease and facilitate the task for everyone and we will make sure that the process will be transparent and fair and we will make sure that no penny goes to Hamas or Qassam (the Hamas armed wing),” Sinwar told a news conference.

“We have satisfactory sources of money for Hamas and Qassam. A major part of it from Iran and part in donations from Arabs, Muslims and liberals of the world who are sympathetic to our people and their rights,” he added.

Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and has security contacts with Hamas, is likely to have a role in channeling aid, a senior U.S. State Department official said earlier.

During the fighting, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and its Sinai Peninsula in order to provide medical aid and evacuate the wounded.

It also sent a security delegation to Israel and Gaza to help bolster the ceasefire after it took effect on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Brazilian drugmaker completes first batch of Russian COVID-19 vaccine

By Leonardo Benassatto

GUARULHOS, Brazil (Reuters) -Brazilian pharmaceutical company União Quimica completed production of its first batch of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine with active ingredients and technology supplied by Russia, the company said on Thursday.

The vaccine will be exported to neighboring countries in South America, since Brazil has not yet approved the Russian shot for domestic use.

Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, which developed the vaccine, said it had seen to quality control of the vaccine ingredients, which were put into vials and packaged for shipping – a process known as fill and finish – at the União Quimica plant in Guarulhos, just outside the city of São Paulo.

The factory’s first batch of 100,000 doses were packed into boxes labeled in Spanish, although the countries receiving them have not been decided yet by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), executives said.

Fernando Marques, chief executive of the family-owned firm, said Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina are interested in buying the vaccine. União Quimica will have a capacity for 8 million doses a month, when Brazil’s health regulator Anvisa approves its use in Brazil, he told Reuters.

Anvisa approval has been delayed after the agency took issue with some documents and missing trial data that the RDIF, which is marketing the shot, has been asked to provide.

Marques hopes approval will be given by June and his company will start producing the active ingredient at its biomedical lab in Brasilia instead of importing it from Russia.

RDIF said it has signed production contracts for Sputnik V with 20 manufacturing sites in India, Argentina, South Korea, China, Italy, Serbia, Egypt, Turkey, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

So far, the vaccine has already been produced in Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Egypt and Argentina, where the first test batch was produced on April 20 by Laboratorios Richmond, RDIF said.

(Reporting by Leonardo Benassatto and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Netanyahu vows to fight on as Biden urges Gaza ‘de-escalation’

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Andrea Shalal

GAZA/JERUSALEM/ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with operations against Gaza’s ruling Hamas militants after U.S. President Joe Biden urged him to seek a “de-escalation” on Wednesday in the 10-day conflict on the path to a ceasefire.

An Egyptian security source said the two sides had agreed in principle to a ceasefire after help from mediators, although details were still being negotiated in secret amid public denials of a deal to prevent it from collapsing.

Palestinian medical officials said that since fighting began on May 10, 227 people had been killed in aerial bombardments that have destroyed roads, buildings and other infrastructure, and worsened the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Israeli authorities put the death toll at 12 in Israel, where repeated rocket attacks have caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters. Regional and U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire have intensified but so far failed.

Netanyahu has repeatedly hailed what he has described as support from the United States, Israel’s main ally, for a right to self-defense in battling rocket attacks from Gaza.

But Biden put the Israeli leader on notice in a telephone call that it was time to lower the intensity of the conflict.

“The two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

“The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”

‘QUIET AND SECURITY’

In a statement released soon after her comments, Netanyahu said: “I am determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved – to restore quiet and security to you, the citizens of Israel.”

Earlier, in remarks reported by Israeli media from a closed question-and-answer session with foreign envoys to Israel, Netanyahu was quoted as saying: “We’re not standing with a stopwatch. We want to achieve the goals of the operation. Previous operations lasted a long time so it is not possible to set a timeframe.”

In response to Biden’s de-escalation call, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassam said those who sought to restore calm must “compel Israel to end its aggression in Jerusalem and its bombardment of Gaza”.

Once that happened, Qassam said, “there can be room to talk about arrangements to restore calm”.

Hamas began firing rockets on May 10 in retaliation for what it said were Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The rocket attacks followed Israeli security police clashes with worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and a court case by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from a neighborhood in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

In a 25-minute attack overnight into Wednesday, Israel bombarded targets including what its military said were tunnels in southern Gaza used by Hamas.

Some 50 rockets were fired from the enclave, the Israeli military said, with sirens sounding in the coastal city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, and in areas closer to the Gaza border. There were no reports of injuries or damage overnight but days of rocket fire have unsettled many Israelis.

CRATERS AND RUBBLE

Nearly 450 buildings in densely populated Gaza have been destroyed or badly damaged, including six hospitals and nine primary-care health centers, and more than 52,000 Palestinians have been displaced, the U.N. humanitarian agency said.

The damage has left large craters and piles of rubble across the coastal enclave.

“Whoever wants to learn about the humanity of the (Israelis) should come to the Gaza Strip and look at the houses that got destroyed on top of those who lived in them,” said university lecturer Ahmed al-Astal, standing by the rubble of his house in Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

He said there had been no warning before his home was destroyed in an air strike before dawn.

Israel says it issues warnings to evacuate buildings that are to be fired on and that it attacks only what it regards as military targets.

The hostilities are the most serious between Hamas and Israel in years, and, in a departure from previous Gaza conflicts, have helped fuel street violence in Israeli cities between Jews and Arabs.

The conflict has also spilled over to the Israel-Lebanon frontier and stoked violence in the occupied West Bank.

Four rockets were launched towards Israel from Lebanon on Wednesday, the third such incident since the Gaza conflict began, the military said. Israeli forces responded with artillery fire towards targets in Lebanon.

There was no claim of responsibility for the rocket attack.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian woman who the military said had fired a rifle at troops and civilians at a bus stop near the city of Hebron.

At least 21 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops or other incidents in the West Bank since May 10, Palestinian health officials said.

The latest deaths in Gaza included three Palestinians killed in overnight air strikes, one of them a journalist with Hamas’s Al-Aqsa radio station, officials said.

Gaza medical officials say the Palestinian death toll includes 64 children, and that more than 1,600 people have been wounded since the fighting began. Israeli authorities say the death toll in Israel includes two children.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Cooney, Michael Perry, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean and Gareth Jones)

Israel pounds Gaza to curb Palestinian militants but rockets still fly

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel pummeled Gaza with artillery fire and air strikes on Friday as it targeted Palestinian militant tunnels to try to stop persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The 40-minute, pre-dawn offensive killed 13 Palestinians, including a mother and her three children whose bodies were pulled from the rubble of their home, health officials in Gaza said.

The Israeli operation included 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

Palestinian rocket barrages against southern Israel swiftly followed on the fifth day of the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

Egypt was leading international efforts to secure a ceasefire and ensure the conflict does not spread. Security sources said neither side appeared amenable so far but a Palestinian official said negotiations intensified on Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, urging a return to peace in the region.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the rocket attacks on Monday, in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, in East Jerusalem.

Violence has since spread to cities where Jews and Israel’s minority Arab community live side by side. There have also been clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where health officials said seven Palestinians were killed on Friday.

At least 122 people have been killed since Monday in Gaza, including 31 children and 20 women, and 900 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.

Among eight dead in Israel were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including two children, an elderly woman and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

SYSTEM OF TUNNELS

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were reports of more than 200 housing units destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza and hundreds of people seeking shelter in schools in the north of the coastal enclave.

Israel says it makes every effort to preserve civilian life, including warning in advance of attacks.

“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters, adding that the network was known as “the Metro”.

Israeli warplanes bombed the houses of three senior Hamas military commanders in central Gaza on Friday that had already been evacuated, local residents said.

An Israeli plane also bombed the building that housed the National Production Bank in Gaza City, with bricks and debris sent flying and windows shattered in some nearby buildings, witnesses said.

Dozens of mourners took part in the funeral of six people – members of two families whose houses were hit by Israeli air strikes on Thursday – in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

Holding the cloth-bound body of his 19-month-old nephew in his arms, Khamees al-Rantissi said their house was bombed without prior warning. “What was this child doing? What threat did he pose for the state of Israel?” Rantissi asked.

Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.

The Israeli military’s build-up of forces on the Gaza border has raised speculation about a possible repeat of ground invasions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009, but Israel is loath to risk a sharp increase in military casualties.

FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY

Egypt was pushing for both sides to cease fire from midnight on Friday pending further negotiations, two Egyptian security sources said, with Cairo leaning on Hamas and others, including the United States, trying to reach an agreement with Israel.

“The talks have taken a real and serious path on Friday,” a Palestinian official said. “The mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are stepping up their contacts with all sides in a bid to restore calm, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.”

The hostilities have fueled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence continued in mixed communities overnight after street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, who led Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque, decried the treatment of the mosque by Israeli forces. He said its “sanctity has been violated several times during the holy month of Ramadan” in what he called violations “unprecedented” since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel’s military said a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.

Major airlines have suspended flights to Israel and at least two owners of tankers delivering crude oil asked to divert from Ashkelon to the port of Haifa, farther north of Gaza, because of the conflict, shipping sources said on Friday.

There were pro-Palestinian protests in Jordan and Lebanon, on the borders of the West Bank and Israel, and in Bangladesh, where thousands marched from Dhaka’s national mosque.

But the broader picture across the Middle East and the Islamic world, where Muslims are marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday and where restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 are in place in some countries, was noticeably muted.

The U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States had objected to a meeting on Friday.

The Israeli military has put the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Israel; Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID spikes during Ramadan

By Rami Ayyub and Mohammed Salem

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The sick and dying are rapidly pushing Gaza’s hospitals close to capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the impoverished Palestinian territory, health officials said.

Palestinians fear a combination of poverty, medical shortages, vaccine skepticism, poor COVID-19 data and mass gatherings during Ramadan could accelerate the increase, which began before the start of the Muslim holy month on April 13.

Gaza health officials said around 70% of intensive care unit beds were occupied, up from 37% at the end of March. There were 86 deaths over the past six days, an increase of 43% over the week before.

“The hospitals are almost at full capacity. They’re not quite there yet, but severe and critical cases have increased significantly in the last three weeks, which is a concern,” said Dr Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Team in the Palestinian Territories.

Gaza’s daily positivity rate reached as high as 43% this week, although Saparbekov said that number could be inflated because a shortage of tests meant they were mostly given to people already showing symptoms.

Saparbekov also said Gaza does not have the capacity to identify highly infectious COVID-19 variants when testing, meaning there is little data on them.

‘NO TRUCE’

Graveyards are also feeling the strain. In Gaza City, gravedigger Mohammad al-Haresh told Reuters he had been burying up to 10 COVID-19 victims per day, up from one or two a month ago.

“Wartime was difficult, but the coronavirus has been much harder for us,” said Haresh, who dug graves throughout the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

“In war, we would dig graves or bury the dead during a truce or ceasefire. With the coronavirus, there is no truce.”

Densely populated and home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt.

Both countries cite security concerns over Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, saying they want to stop money and weapons entering.

Palestinians say the blockade amounts to collective punishment and that it has crippled Gaza’s economy and medical infrastructure, with shortages of critical supplies and equipment hampering their ability to tackle the pandemic.

The situation in Gaza is a stark contrast to Israel, where a world-beating vaccination rollout has led to more than 53% of Israelis being fully vaccinated.

RAMADAN LOCKDOWN

Amid growing concern, Hamas will on Thursday begin a week of nightly curfews, shutting down mosques that host hundreds of worshippers for Ramadan evening prayers.

But with around 49% of Gazans unemployed and parliamentary elections slated for May 22, Hamas has held back from more drastic measures that could further damage the economy.

“We may impose additional measures, but we do not expect at this phase to go into a full lockdown,” Hamas spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom said.

Health officials say the factors that led to the current spike include the flouting of guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing and the opening in February of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which may have allowed in new variants.

Suspicion of vaccines also runs deep. A majority of Gazans – 54.2% – said they would not take the vaccine, against 30.5% who said they would and 15.3% who were undecided, according to an April 21 survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Just 34,287 people have been vaccinated, even though the enclave has received 109,600 doses since February donated by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the global COVAX program.

“(The) reluctance of many, including medical staff, to be vaccinated remains a key concern,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an April 12 report.

One Palestinian eligible for Gaza’s initial round of vaccines, Qasem Abdul Ghafoor, said he decided to get the jab to protect himself and his family.

“The situation here is horrific. We took it lightly before, but I assure you, it should not be taken lightly,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mike Collett-White)

Egypt’s Sisi says response will be felt if water supply affected by dam

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Tuesday that there would be severe regional consequences if Egypt’s water supply was impacted by a giant hydropower dam being built by Ethiopia.

“I’m not threatening anyone here, our dialogue is always reasonable and rational,” Sisi said in a response to a question about any risk to Egypt.

“I say once again no one can take a drop from Egypt’s water and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alison Williams)

Egypt train crash kills 32 people, injures scores

CAIRO (Reuters) – At least 32 people were killed and 165 injured when two trains collided in central Egypt on Friday, health ministry officials said, as the prime minister admitted the country’s rail network urgently needed modernizing.

“Unknown individuals” triggered the emergency brakes on one of the trains causing it to stop, the rail authority said. The second train, which was travelling in the same direction, crashed into the first from behind, it added.

Pictures showed train carriages derailed, several of them badly damaged, above a channel of water, as crowds looked on.

Some of the injured would need to be airlifted to the capital Cairo for treatment, officials said.

The public prosecutor’s office said it had ordered an investigation into the crash, which took place close to the Nile-side town of Tahta, about 365 km (230 miles) south of Cairo.

Health Minister Hala Zayed said 32 people had died, 165 people were injured and dozens of ambulances had taken casualties to local hospitals.

Egypt has one of the oldest and largest rail networks in the region and accidents involving casualties are common. Egyptians have long complained that successive governments failed to enforce basic safeguards.

In the country’s worst train disaster, a fire tore through seven carriages of an overcrowded passenger train in 2002, killing at least 360 people.

“(The rail network) has witnessed decades of neglect and no development or maintenance to a very dangerous extent,” Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said after heading to the site of the crash with several ministers.

“We have thousands of kilometers of rail lines, control and management systems dependent on manual labor and cars that are very old and past their period of service by many years.”

The government was investing billions in modernizing the rail network but still had much work to do, he added.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said those responsible would be punished, asked the government to double the normal financial compensation for casualties in public transport accidents.

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, Ahmed Tolba, Momen Saeed Atallah, Lilian Wagdy, Omar Fahmy and Ahmed Mohamed Hassan; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet)

Gaza is open again, to the south. But for how long?

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – A fleet of yellow Mercedes taxis lines up outside Gaza’s newly reopened Rafah crossing into Egypt, polished again and ready to roll, but with no idea for how long.

Uncertainty is a fact of life in the Palestinian border town, where 4,500 people have crossed into Egypt in the two weeks since one of Gaza’s few lifelines to the outside world swung open on Feb. 9.

The opening eased the years-long blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on the coastal strip, compounded by measures imposed by all sides to halt the spread of COVID-19.

It arose from political maneuvering: Egyptian-brokered mediation talks between rival Palestinian factions to smooth the way for possible elections.

But the travelers have no idea how long the gate will stay open.

“To me, Rafah crossing is my source of living. If it opens, I live, and I eat and buy clothes,” said Saif Rusrus, 21, who left school to sell pastries there. “As long as there are disputes, the crossing will continue to open and close.”

Israel and Egypt cite security concerns for the restrictions, pointing to the fact that Gaza is controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

The two countries allow passage for thousands of workers and humanitarian cases each year, but most of Gaza’s two million Palestinians cannot leave.

“Gaza turns into a big prison when Rafah crossing is closed,” said hepatitis patient Uday Zaanin, 38, as he waited to board the bus.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Rafah; Writing by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Qatar FM: Normalization with Israel undermines Palestinian statehood efforts

DUBAI (Reuters) – Qatar’s foreign minister said on Monday Arab states that establish ties with Israel undermine efforts for Palestinian statehood, but it was in their own sovereign right to do so.

Three Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – set aside hostilities with Israel in recent months to agree to formal relations in deals brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Palestinian leaders have accused them of betrayal, while U.S. and Israeli officials have said more Arab states could soon follow.

“I think it’s better to have a united (Arab) front to put the interests of the Palestinians (first) to end the (Israeli) occupation,” Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the online Global Security Forum.

He said division was not in the interest of concerted Arab efforts to get the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians and resolve the decades-long conflict between the sides.

However, for the states who established ties, “it is up to them at the end of the day to decide what is best for their countries”, he said.

The UAE, Bahrain and Sudan broke with decades of Arab policy that had demanded Israel first cede land to the Palestinians to form their own state before establishing relations.

UAE officials have said the Gulf state remains committed to Palestinian statehood, and that its deal with Israel had stopped further annexation of lands Palestinians seek for a state.

Until this year, Israel had only current formal relations with just two Arab states – its neighbors Egypt and Jordan – established under peace deals reached decades ago.

Qatar has been tipped by Israeli officials as among Arab and other Muslim-majority countries that could establish formal ties with Israel.

Sheikh Mohammed said Doha maintains some relations with Israel, though only on matters concerning the Palestinians such as humanitarian needs or development projects.

Qatar, which also has relations with two of Israel’s bitter enemies, Iran and Palestinian militant group Hamas, supports a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, a stance the foreign minister reiterated.

(Writing by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)