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Egypt Joins Israel as Gaza's Jailer

A Hamas policeman (R) standing in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, on July 5, 2013, talks to an Egyptian soldier standing in the Egyptian side of the border.There was a time when activist groups that focused on helping the Palestinians in Gaza reserved their harshest language and protests for Israel, which long has prohibited both air and sea traffic in and out of Gaza; tightly limited exchanges through its Erez terminal; and banned exports altogether.

While movement in and out of Gaza via the Egyptian terminal at Rafah was restricted as well, it nonetheless was a critical lifeline for Palestinians needing to travel, and for humanitarian aid. Likewise, members of the Egyptian government often played a constructive role in facilitating negotiations between the various Palestinian factions, as well as with international parties.

However, in the two months since the Egyptian military took control, it has made clear it will no longer serve as that “bridge”. In fact, as the military and other opponents of ousted President Mohamed Morsi increasingly blame Palestinian “elements” for growing unrest and violence, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, the interim government of Egypt has increasingly allied itself with Israel in strategy and actions – becoming just as much Gazans’ jailer as its neighbor to the east. As The Washington Post reported, “with Egypt’s military-backed interim government shutting down the tunnels and largely closing its own pedestrian crossing at Rafah, Gaza is increasingly shut off from the world”.

In response, organizations ranging from the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza to Gaza’s Ark (an international coalition focused on ending the Israeli ban on exports) are directly including Egypt in their messaging. And a petition launched by a grassroots coalition calling itself the International Campaign to #OpenRafahBorder  attracted more than 1,000 signatures from around the world in just the first 24 hours. The coalition’s goal is to collect 25,000 signatures and deliver them to Egyptian ambassadors, the United Nations and human rights organizations.

Stranded students and patients

Before Egypt’s military ousted Morsi on July 3, an estimated 1,200 people-a-day used to cross through Rafah, which was Gaza’s main window to the world. Since then, the average number of permitted travelers has only been 250 each day, if Rafah is open at all. At this article’s writing, Rafah had been closed for six consecutive days. The EuroMid Observer for Human Rights estimates that at least 10,000 Palestinians are currently on the waiting list to cross on the Gaza side alone.

Many of the individuals left stranded are students trying to get to universities after months of effort to apply for scarce scholarships. Malaka Mohammed, a 23-year-old refugee, is set to begin studying global politics and law at the UK’s Sheffield University on Sept. 30, after working hard to obtain a partial scholarship and fundraising through an online campaign. With about half of the needed donations already in, Mohammed took a risk and made arrangements to travel to the UK on September 18. Now she is wondering if all that work was for naught.

“Gaza really is the world’s biggest prison and it’s become more so every day. We thought the Rafah crossing was our exit to freedom and happiness. But it has become a place where people lose their hopes,” she posted on Facebook.

Other stranded travelers include persons needing medical care. Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry, told Reuters that 1,000 individuals a month require medical care in Egypt or other countries due to the shortages and other difficulties in the Strip. While foreign physicians often travel to Gaza to bring vital supplies and provide care, these days they aren’t being allowed in. “Until June, we had received 60 delegations of doctors who performed surgery on 1,000 patients. No delegation has arrived since then,” Qidra told Reuters.

Gazans face fuel shortage

Although word came on September 16, that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had interceded with the Egyptian interim government to open up a few hours for students and sick people, Gazans were unimpressed. Shahd Abusalama, who is trying to leave to study in Istanbul, posted this comment: “Thanks a lot, Abbas, for finding some time to think about us and deciding to take action. We, the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, appreciate that you finally have some sympathy for us. The crisis cannot be solved by opening up for just two days, four working hours each. This is not a solution. If they manage to let 500 people cross, what will happen to the rest? F**k him!”

No more pipeline of supplies

Currently, the only way for goods and supplies to enter Gaza is Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing (Rafah was not constructed to handle freight traffic). However, the volume allowed is far below the population’s needs (179 trucks a day, compared to nearly 600 before Israel imposed the siege in 2007). Thus, underground smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza have played the role of a crucial “safety valve”. According to the EuroMid Observer for Human Rights, Gaza’s businesses have relied on the tunnels for more than 45 percent of their raw materials – including about 7,500 tons of construction materials per day.

However, the Egyptian military now has launched a massive campaign to destroy the tunnels, without a plan for allowing goods in via another route. The operation seems to be part of an effort to cripple Hamas – an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – which governs the coastal enclave.

Local sources say 90 percent of the tunnels have been forced out of operation; fewer than 10 are still open, compared to an estimated 300 before the crackdown. As a result of the tunnel destruction and other restrictions, says the Euro-Mid Observer, 60 percent of industrial businesses are closed and the rest are operating at partial capacity, putting more than 19,500 people out of work.

A related challenge is that Gazans have come to rely on the cheap, state-subsidised fuel and gas smuggled from Egypt (Israeli gas is twice as expensive and thus not affordable). Long lines at gas stations, as well as a dramatic reduction in cars available for transportation, are now increasingly the reality in Gaza.

Yousef Aljamal, a young Gazan employee of a local NGO, posted on Facebook, “the transportation crisis in Gaza is deepening. I waited half-an-hour this morning to get a ride to my office, to no avail. I had to change the route I take every day, increasing the fees I have to pay. It also took me half-an-hour to get a ride to get home. Exhausted!”

With the irrepressible Gazan “graveyard” humor, another friend commented, “I heard that our electricity company is gonna run their generators on donkeys –  sounds like good news: green energy!”

On September 5, the Palestinian Energy Authority warned that the Gaza Power Plant is in danger of shutting down completely due to lack of fuel. If the plant shuts down, the result would be power outages of 12 to 16 hours-a-day, up from the current 8 to 12 hours, disabling water and waste-disposal systems as well as crippling many businesses.

Even more alarming, warns the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, is the fact that Gaza’s 14 hospitals and 60 health centres have long relied on 250,000 litres of the less-expensive Egyptian fuel each month (likewise, 30 percent of their medicines and other supplies had come through Rafah).

Militarization of the Gaza-Egypt border

Indicative of just how much – and how permanently – the situation on the ground is changing is the news that the Egyptian army has begun bulldozing and blowing up houses on its side of the border near Rafah. The action is step one towards clearing the way for a “buffer zone” hundreds of yards wide between the two sides, replicating the barren no-man’s-land that Israel enforces inside Gaza to keep Palestinians from approaching the Israeli border.  Hamas officials told The Washington Post that the Egyptian military plans to dig a moat along the border and fill it with water.

Meanwhile, this month two Egyptian army tanks crossed into the Gaza side of the border for the first time; although they didn’t go far, it created a precedent.

Gaza fishermen are being attacked as well. On September 14, news reports confirmed that Egyptian naval forces had opened fire at and arrested two fishermen in waters off Rafah. That was the second time in recent weeks that Egyptian forces opened fire at Gaza fishermen.

As if taking their cue from the new bellicosity of Egypt, the Israeli military has begun to abrogate the concessions brokered by Morsi’s government in November 2012, as part of a ceasefire that ended eight days of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip and retaliatory fire from groups in the territory.

As part of the agreement, Israel had reduced the “buffer zone” along its border with Gaza, from 300 metres to 100. However, after Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian military, farmers reported being shot at as far as 500 metres out. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented during July and August that Israel was responsible for one shelling, 12 shootings and seven incursions in the buffer zone – resulting in one death and seven injuries, including two children.

It seems clear that as the world remains focused on Syria and Iran, Israel and Egypt are working in concert to “re-write” the facts on the ground for Gaza. It’s time for the international activist community to mobilize.