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March 25, 2014
The Egyptian government’s blockaded the Gaza Strip over a month ago in response to attacks by Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula. While the closing of the border crossing has received some scattered support in the region, it has for the most part been condemned for worsening the humanitarian and economic crises in the Strip. How the Egyptian government will respond to such criticism remains to be seen, but it does not appear to be planning to open the border any time soon.
Reports of the destruction of tunnels along the Gaza/Egypt border have been on the rise since the ousting of Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood leadership. The motivation for such actions, according to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Roi Kais, has been to create a “buffer zone” to shield Egyptian forces from militant Islamist incursions: “Egyptian border forces destroyed tunnels leading into Gaza from Sinai as part of new campaign to create a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip....The report highlights the rising tensions between Islamist active in Sinai and the Egyptian regime working to root them out. The tensions have been on the rise since Egypt ousted Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas ' sister group....Since the Morsi's July ouster, Egypt has strictly enforced its side of the blockade, specifically targeting the illegal tunnels.”
Egypt’s blockade on Gaza, whatever the motivation, has had a deleterious effect on the economy and population of Gaza, which, according to Al Ahram’s Ahmed Al-Sayed, is virtually in a state of siege: “It is not in our interests to keep Gaza simmering like a pressure cooker as it may explode in Israel’s face, Sami Turgeman, commander of the South Command in the Israeli army, said recently....After taking up his post in September last year, Turgeman told Israeli television that ‘there is no substitute for the rule of Hamas in Gaza. Anyone who rules Gaza must be strong enough to impose his will on the large number of military groups.’ He added that it was not in Israel’s favor to ‘weaken’ anyone who rules Gaza....According to Palestinians statistics, nearly 9,000 patients leave Gaza annually for treatment in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. When Rafah was closed, many of these were able either to go to Israel or be treated in Gaza by visiting medical missions. But Gaza’s recurring power outages have caused damage to medical equipment, including dialysis and cardiology machines, the minister said.”
Judging from Egyptian government officials’ recent statements, that situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future: “Maher Abu Sabha, Head of Border Crossings General Administration, said to ALRAY that Egypt has not informed of an opening to occur in the near future. The number of patients, students, and ordinary people stuck in Gaza or those outside waiting to cross into Gaza is on the rise as a result of the ongoing closure, Abu Sabha explained....Two children have died as a result of the Rafah border closure since July 2013, the latest of whom was three-year-old Ahmad Abu Nahl, who passed on Thursday, March 13. Ahmad was suffering from an enlarged heart and liver and had been planning to go to Turkey via Egypt for treatment, according to medical sources.”
Some observers, including the editorial staff of the Saudi Gazette, have expressed sympathy for Egypt’s position, stressing Cairo’s need to defend its territory from Islamist militants: “Egypt's curbs on movement through its crossing with the Gaza Strip is a security decision that had to be taken even though it has cut off imports of medicine and aid to the impoverished coastal enclave....Egypt had no other recourse but to seal the tunnels although it is not a decision without physical and political risks. The ban and its broader war is an open invitation for extremist groups in Gaza and Sinai to continue striking at Egyptian targets....But the crossing had to be closed because Hamas had been inviting all sorts of militant and Jihadist groups and training them in Sinai, kidnapping and killing Egyptian soldiers and smuggling the killers into the Gaza Strip via tunnels and hiding Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Gaza.”
But Hamas has denied any involvement in Egypt and has argued vociferously against the border closings. In an article by the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh, the Hamas PM “denied that Hamas was meddling in the internal affairs of Egypt or other Arab countries. ‘We have no security role in Sinai or any other Arab area,’ he said. ‘Hamas is a Palestinian liberation movement that is interested only in its cause and the liberation of its land.’ He also called on Egypt to stop ‘demonizing’ Hamas and punishing the residents of the Gaza Strip.”
In comments posted on the Palestinian Al Ray website, Hamas has also condemned the Egyptian government for what it considers a double standard in the treatment of Palestinians by Egypt: “Islamic Resistance Movement of Hamas condemned the ongoing closure of Rafah crossing for the 36th day in a row, compared to the facilities offered to the Israelis to travel via Taba crossing. Spokesperson of Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, said Sunday on his Facebook page that ‘the Egyptian side tightens the closure of Rafah crossing, the only crossing into Gaza, for the 36th day in a row and turns Gaza into a big open air prison.’ Barhoum added in a message to the Egyptian side ‘you open Taba crossing widely for the Israelis and Israeli officers amid unprecedented facilities to enter Egypt with grace and dignity.’”
Other Hamas officials have used even stronger words to characterize what is going on in Gaza, calling “Egypt's curbs on movement through its crossing with the Gaza Strip a ‘crime against humanity’, in an unprecedented rebuke of its Arab neighbor that further frays their worsening ties....A Hamas official said on Tuesday Egypt had, for the first time, in the last few days cut off contacts with the Gaza government because of the dispute over the crossing....The twin blockades have left the Gaza Strip's industry and construction sectors gasping for resources, pushing unemployment to new lows and deepening poverty.”
Meanwhile, the dire situation in Gaza has brought out a number of women from the Strip against the Rafah crossing closure, with many of them, according to Maan News, protesting “in front of the Egyptian embassy in Gaza on Thursday in condemnation of the continued closure of the Rafah crossing, demanding Egyptian authorities open the terminal to allow humanitarian cases through.... ‘Palestinian women live under difficult conditions in the shadow of the tightening of the siege and the closure of the crossings,’ Umm Muhammad, an activist at the tent, said. She also called upon the international community to put pressure on Egypt and demand authorities open all of Gaza's crossings....The spokesperson for the committee said that the committee rejected ‘all of the excuses that have been used to explain the closure of the crossing,’ adding: ‘Any political position that does not respect human rights is null and void.’”
Finally, Gulf Times reports that Richard Falk, a UN rights expert, has come out with equally strong words condemning the Israeli side of the Gaza blockade: “‘The realities on the ground are worsening from the point of view of both international law and from the point of view of the Palestinian people,’ Richard Falk, an 82-year-old American who is an emeritus law professor at Princeton University, told reporters....Since he was appointed in 2008, he said, Israel has built more settlements in Palestinian territories, imposed ‘collective punishment’ on Gaza, demolished homes and repeatedly deployed ‘excessive force’. Falk also accused Israel of a ‘systematic and continued effort to change the ethnic composition of East Jerusalem’ by voiding Palestinians’ residence permits, confiscating property and allowing Israeli settlements there.”
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