Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 July - 1 August 2007
Issue No. 855
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Stopgap suffocation

The closure of the Egypt-Gaza border enters its sixth week, reports Serene Assir from Rafah and Arish, North Sinai

Click to view caption
Palestinians gather near the border in protest against its closure

Six weeks after the Israeli-forged closure of the Rafah terminal on 9 June, thousands of Palestinians remain trapped outside Gaza, among them up to 700 people seeking temporary shelter at a youth camp in Arish. "We ran out of money weeks ago, and came to live here," said Fawzi Hamdan, who is sleeping in a makeshift tent fitted with mattresses along with seven others. "The camp may be temporary but we know that its existence means that we aren't going to be able to get home any time soon. It might be months yet. We are trying hard not to run out of hope."

The humanitarian assistance offered to the displaced is barely enough. In Masoura, a town near Rafah, hundreds of Palestinians gathered to pick up cartons of food and other essential products. "We are hardly eating at this stage. We have been stuck here for far too long, and what the aid agencies are sending is not enough," says Mohamed, aged 17. The agencies most involved in campaigns to help support displaced Palestinians are the Egyptian Doctors' Syndicate and the Red Crescent Society. "But to tell you the truth, we don't even want assistance. We have been made refugees enough times in our history. We want to go home."

In spite of near-suffocating Egyptian state security measures, Palestinians are planning to stage new protests over the next few days, says Mohamed, who preferred not to reveal his full name. Since the Rafah closure, security forces have prevented Palestinians from approaching the border for fear that inter-Palestinian or Palestinian-Egyptian tensions might spiral out of control. Over the past week the security presence in the North Sinai area, and particularly in Rafah, has grown.

Among those under surveillance are Egyptian residents of Rafah, hundreds of whom are set to lose their homes over the coming weeks. "Those of us who live within 150 metres of the border are to be given compensation for our homes, which the government will demolish," said local resident Salman Madi. Previously only those living within 50 metres of the border have been evicted. Some 700 affected residents staged a protest in Masoura. "It is not only our homes we will lose, but our livelihoods too," said one resident.

Mohamed Abdel-Salam, a defence researcher at Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says the measures are being taken by Egypt to improve border security. "The border needs to be secured. The current situation, whereby terrorists are free to roam in and out of Gaza, cannot continue."

Following reports -- later denied by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat -- that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had asked the governments of Israel and Egypt not to open the Rafah terminal for fear that Hamas fighters might be allowed back into restive Gaza, Egypt's conundrum over how to deal with the ongoing crisis has grown. While there is uncertainty over whether the $200 million in military aid that US Congress has threatened to withhold from Egypt will actually be cut, Cairo remains concerned that it will be unable to appease the US and Israel, or secure its own border.

"Should the border reopen, then that would indicate a rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt, which Israel and the US do not want," says Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. According to Rashwan, it might not be against Egypt's interest altogether, despite Cairo's traditional support of Fatah. "For Egypt the real danger nowadays comes from Abu Mazen's talk of Al-Qaeda elements infiltrating Sinai. Not only is there fear of Al-Qaeda in Sinai, it is also worrying for the Egyptian regime that Hamas has recently proven [former Palestinian Authority security chief Mohamed] Dahlan's role in the recent string of Sinai explosions," Rashwan adds.

An equally critical impasse has occurred over the proposal, backed by the US, Israel and Abu Mazen, to deploy international peace-keeping troops in Gaza. Hamas and Egypt both rejected the proposal. For Egypt, recent efforts at tightening border security are an attempt to show that it is capable of dealing with any future border crises.

However, with US and Israel pressuring Egypt to join in their anti-Hamas venture there is little room for manoeuvre for Cairo. "The answer as to why the border remains closed is political, and only political change will open it," says Rashwan. It remains to be seen whether Israel and Abu Mazen's attempts at sidelining Hamas in Gaza succeed, though that appears unlikely given that even traditional supporters of Fatah are abandoning Abu Mazen.

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