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Egyptian Turmoil Brings Greater Suffering in Gaza
By Pam Bailey and Medea Benjamin
It unfortunately has become a truism that when Egypt sneezes, Gaza catches a cold. Fearful of the "terrorist elements" automatically associated with Hamas, the governing party in Gaza, neighbouring Egypt is quick to shut what amounts to "prison gates" at the first sign of turmoil either inside or outside the densely populated strip. Israel keeps its own crossings into Gaza on permanent lock-down, with permitted traffic a bare trickle, while also prohibiting travel by air and sea.
The current unrest in Egypt is no exception. As the world sits on the edge of its seat, polarised in its debate about whether the ouster of Mohammed Morsi was really a coup and what will happen next, the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are paying the price.
On July 5, just two days after forcing Morsi from his post as president, the Egyptian military closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza for six consecutive days. Thousands of Palestinians attempting to enter Gaza to be with their families, or travel out of Gaza for medical care or study, were stranded - often with no money or shelter. Some who were travelling home were detained upon arrival at the Cairo airport and then deported to the countries they had left, at their own expense.
Yousef Aljamal, for instance, was deported to Malaysia, even though that country had merely been an interim stop on his way home from a conference in New Zealand. Fortunately, Malaysia's Palestinian solidarity community has welcomed Yousef, finding him a temporary place to stay and helping to relieve his sadness of being apart from his family during the holy holiday of Ramadan.
When the numbers of Palestinians stranded at the Cairo airport became overwhelming, the Egyptian authorities instructed international authorities to prohibit individuals with Palestinian passports from boarding flights bound for Cairo. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for instance, about a thousand pilgrims have been unable to return home.
Mariam Ashour Perova, who has been studying in the United States, longed to visit her family after an absence of five years. However, when she changed flights in Belgium en route to Egypt and showed her Palestinian ID, the agent at the gate asked if she had any other passport she could show. Luckily, Perova has dual Russian citizenship, and she was able to continue her fight. The agent advised her to hide her Palestinian ID. "I didn't want to do it," Perova said from Gaza. "But I wanted to see my family so badly."
In response to a rising outcry from the affected families and their supporters, Egypt finally re-opened the Rafah crossing on July 10 on a limited basis. However, it has been far from sufficient. On July 10 , for instance, only about 400 persons needing documented medical care, holders of foreign passports and Egyptians were allowed to leave Gaza. On the other side of the border, only about 1,200 stranded Palestinians were allowed to return. Contrast that with a backlog of would-be travellers estimated to be "in the tens of thousands". Meanwhile, the ban on Palestinian air travel into Egypt remains.
Destruction of tunnels causing severe fuel shortages
Meanwhile, Palestinians are suffering in other ways as well. Even before anti-Morsi protests broke out on June 30, Egypt had intensified its destruction of the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, tunnels that Gazans rely on for a majority of their fuel and construction materials. This resulted in severe shortages as well as steep price hikes. Although fuel is available from Israel, it is too expensive for the average resident of Gaza. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights , the majority of gas stations have been forced to close. Iyad al-Qatarawi, public relations manager for the Environmental Quality Authority in Gaza, told Al-Monitor on July 8 that the fuel crisis threatens to shut down the 190 oil wells (which need electricity to pump) that serve most of the citizens of Gaza, as well as 57 stations for collecting and disposing of sewage. A spokesman for the Ministry of Health in Gaza added that only 20 per cent of its gas reserves remain.
"Ramadan is for worshipping, but in Gaza thousands are waiting in gas stations to fill their taxis, trucks and tuck-tucks [three-wheel motorcycles]," wrote journalist Mohammed Omer on Facebook. "This is also a form of worship under unbearable sun."
Egypt has not only restricted land access, but sea access as well. On July 8, the Egyptian navy for the first time reportedly opened fire at a Gazan fishing boat, warning it away from Egyptian waters. Until then, it was Israel alone that prevented Palestinians in Gaza from venturing far enough out to get a catch decent enough to make a living.
Palestinians accused of fomenting rebellion
What is the rationale for this crackdown on Gaza? Although no credible evidence has been revealed, Egyptian media are rife with rumours accusing Hamas of sending in operatives to support the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government - including several armed attacks on Egyptian soldiers and checkpoints in the Sinai. On July 13, Daily News Egypt reported that after armed assailants attacked security checkpoints in the Northern Sinai, three Palestinian suspects were apprehended, who " provided the police with important information during interrogation". Given the track record of Egyptian security, that statement conjures up images of torture. In response, the publication said, " a warplane dropped flyers over the residents of Al-Arish (a small seaside town) reading: 'To the honourable people of Sinai, this is your armed forces. Be assured… we are here to protect you, so please do not allow any person who does not belong to this pure land to attack us.'"
The people who are accused of not "belonging to this pure land," are - as usual - the Palestinians, whose families were forced from their ancestral lands to become refugees no one seems to want.
Egyptian pubic opinion has followed a predictable trajectory, shaped in large part by rhetoric such as the words of Sameh Seif Elyazal, a former Egyptian general. On the Al-Tahrir channel, Elyazal reportedly claimed that "Egyptian law will punish, with sentences that could reach 25 years in jail, the Palestinians and Syrians and Iraqis who have made calls for incitement to violence at the demonstrations at Rabaa Al-Adawiya (the site of the army's recent shooting of as many as 51 pro-Morsi demonstrators) in return for money."
The general's allegations echoed a government prosecutor's assertion that "elements from the Muslim Brotherhood" were recruiting Palestinians and Syrians to attack pro-army demonstrators. The prosecutor also accused a Palestinian leader of handing out shotguns and cash payments to fellow Palestinians in Cairo, dispatching them to pro-Morsi demonstrations to attack opponents. These claim, however, were not independently verifiable.
In some opinion polls , Egyptians are now saying Hamas - and by extension, Palestinians - "have transformed from being a 'thorn in Israel's side' into being one in Egypt's side".
The tragic irony in this case is that although they are accused of fomenting unrest in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Palestinians in Gaza didn't fare significantly better under the Mohammed Morsi administration than they did under Hosni Mubarak. Although clearly more sympathetic, Morsi was under great pressure from the United States and others to maintain Egypt's treaty with Israel and thus stability in the region. It is clear that even under Morsi, the military maintained its long-standing control of the balance of power .
For example, in May (under Morsi's watch), Egyptian police - enraged by the kidnapping of seven colleagues by unidentified militants - closed Rafah crossing for five days in response, stranding hundreds of Palestinian travellers on both sides. The closure caused the death of Ghazza al-Khawaldi from Khan Younis , who needed medical treatment abroad that she couldn't get in Gaza. Weeks later, the Egyptians' launched the tunnel destruction campaign.
According to Palestinian officials , the Rafah crossing terminal has been frequently closed over the last year, with Egyptian authorities turning back two to three busloads of travellers almost daily. No matter who is in power at the time, the collective punishment of the entire Gazan population in retaliation for the actions - or mere suspicions - of a few is an ongoing pattern, a knee-jerk reaction to turmoil.
Meanwhile, the world looks the other way, as if the suffering of 1.7 million is a mere side show to the "main stage act."
Pam Bailey is a freelance journalist and activist who has lived and worked in the Gaza Strip. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Global Exchange and Codepink: Women for Peace.