Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 January 2008
Issue No. 881
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Breaking out

As ordinary Palestinians force their way into Egypt from besieged Gaza, the Israeli-instigated humanitarian and political crisis is carried with them

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Thousands of Palestinians crossed the Rafah border on foot into Egypt, as a mule-powered cart transports goods into Gaza, after militants exploded the wall between the Strip and Egypt, in Rafah, Wednesday. Gazans trapped in what is considered the "world's largest concentration camp" by a tight Israeli blockade poured into Egypt to buy food, fuel and other supplies that have become scarce in Gaza. The Gazans have kith and kin in Rafah, Egypt. Egyptian border guards and Hamas police took no action as Palestinians hurried over the border and returned with bags of food, boxes of cigarettes and plastic bottles of fuel

Darkness, starvation and imminent death

Parochial calculations

Still in crisis


Qualified as a "war crime" by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and illegal "collective punishment" by the European Union and international agencies, the humanitarian and political crisis created by Israel's five-day hermetic seal on Gaza is taking a toll not only on the 1.5 million inhabitants of the impoverished coastal strip. Damaged "beyond repair", according to several Palestinians speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Rafah, is the image of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is being widely blamed for "turning a blind eye to the misery of his own people in Gaza" while continuing to engage in talks with Israel on peace.

Speaking to the Weekly in Gaza earlier this week, Selim Hazzaa lashed out at Abbas for keeping channels of communication open with Israel while his nine-year-old daughter Yasmine cannot enter Egypt for cancer treatment because of the Israeli blockade. "What will Abbas tell me and my wife when Yasmine dies as he courts the embrace of [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, the man who passed a death sentence on my daughter by denying her treatment?"

In Damascus Wednesday, a wide assembly of Palestinian political factions called on Abbas to end the "ridiculous" negotiations he has insisted must continue with the Israelis. The impressive gathering, including popular Palestinian resistance leaders Khaled Meshaal of Hamas and Ramadan Shallah of Islamic Jihad, sent a clear message of alarm to Abbas. "I want to ask our brothers in Ramallah [Abbas's headquarters], what exactly are you waiting for?" said Shallah. According to Meshaal, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) is talking to the Israelis, Palestinians in Gaza, which he qualified as "the biggest prison in history", are "being massacred".

Even supporters of Abbas say they are uncomfortable. Palestinian writer Hani Al-Masri says the president needs to halt negotiations immediately. "It doesn't make sense for negotiations to continue while Israel is changing facts on the ground and undermining the chances for a just and acceptable solution," he told the Weekly.

Also gravely compromised is the image of Arab capitals. The Arab League resolution adopted Monday afternoon to denounce the Israeli siege and call for prompt action by concerned political and humanitarian agencies did not impress the people of Gaza. Several Palestinians contacted by the Weekly castigated the League and Arab states for their failure to take any serious action against Israel. Some saw the call for the international community and the UN Security Council to act as humiliating, especially in view of the council's failure to condemn Israel. According to Meshaal, if the Arab League really wanted, it could force an end to the Israeli siege.

"We are being massacred and nobody is saying anything. They are all scared of Israel and the US, without exception," commented one Palestinian who crossed the Egypt-Rafah border Wednesday in the wake of a series of explosions that broke through the border's separating wall, allowing a massive influx of as many as 200,000 Palestinians to exit Gaza. The breakthrough was second such attempt by Palestinians, who have been appealing for Egypt to open its border unilaterally -- without the otherwise required consent of Israel and the European Union in its monitoring capacity. The first attempt Tuesday morning by thousands of Gazan women was repelled by Egyptian security water canons.

Egyptian officials say they approached "concerned international bodies" to discuss a limited opening of the Rafah crossing "strictly" for humanitarian reasons, but that their approach was not well received. Palestinians are not impressed. "Why wouldn't [the Egyptians] allow this crossing to open immediately when the [Israelis] blocked Gaza and deprived us of electricity? Why did we have to storm in? Do we have to be humiliated by the Israelis, the world, and even by our Arab brethren?" one asked.

Wednesday, the border city of Rafah and its neighbouring city of Arish were inundated with Palestinians who managed to pass the border. Hours later, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry berated Egypt for allowing the Palestinians to exit Gaza. Israel said it would deny Gaza emergency fuel supplies it had earlier promised. But according to Egyptian security sources onsite, when the protesters broke through at dawn Wednesday there was no way that Egyptian security would repel them with armed force. "It was simply out of the question," commented one security source.

On Tuesday night, Egyptian security forces denied the Weekly access to Arish and Rafah. The whole zone was tightly cordoned off by heavy security. "It is unbelievable. There are Palestinians everywhere. They are pushing and shoving to buy food, medicines, cement and fuel. The stores are practically emptied; even that most of the merchants abused the situation by doubling and tripling prices," commented one Arish resident who spoke to the Weekly by phone. "Now there is a shortage of commodities. We are expecting this to worsen if massive supplies are not immediately sent to Arish and Rafah," she added.

Wednesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters that at dawn he ordered Egyptian security forces stationed in Rafah to allow Palestinian crowds to enter Egyptian territory and "allow them to buy their basic needs and go back to Gaza -- as long as they are not carrying arms or anything illegal". Eyewitnesses in Rafah and Arish tell the Weekly that many Palestinians are doing exactly that. "Some keep coming and going back to carry more commodities. They carry so much. It looks horrible," commented one Arish resident. According to some accounts, hundreds if not thousands of Palestinians are renting flats -- sometimes shared -- to stay in Arish for an indefinite period.

Egyptian official sources reveal that there has been US and Israeli protests over the breach of the Rafah crossing. However, they say that Cairo is not in a position to force any Palestinian to return. Egypt, they acknowledge, already has a bad image with the citizens of Gaza and their political leadership, Hamas. Informed sources tell the Weekly that Hamas leaders were not particularly receptive to appeals made by Cairo demanding Hamas take control of the situation, avoid any "explosion", and give Egypt time to use its "good offices" with the Israelis, Americans and others to bring an end to the siege. According to Meshaal in Damascus Wednesday, Egypt should reach a new border agreement with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Especially in view of the current humanitarian crisis, there is nothing sacred in the border agreement struck with Israel.

While President Mubarak blamed Hamas, which is firing rockets at Israel, for giving Israel pretext to initiate its siege on Gaza, sources suggest that Cairo is planning on more intensive communication with Hamas, to "better manage the status-quo". According to one source, "we are not going to give any legitimacy to the Hamas takeover of power in Gaza, but we have to talk to Hamas on ways of handling current and possible future problems." He added that any Egypt-Hamas dialogue would also examine prospects of facilitating national reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine.

Indeed, the tightening of the Gaza blockade has created immense public pressure on both Hamas and President Abbas to resolve their differences. Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a senior Hamas official, was uncharacteristically reconciliatory when he talked to reporters Monday. Hamas, he said, was willing to "go to any lengths" to hold a successful dialogue with Fatah. Young leaders in both movements are now trying to patch up things. A National Committee for Dialogue and Reconciliation has just been formed in Gaza. Among its members is Ghazi Hamad, former spokesman for the Ismail Haniyeh government, and Faysal Abu Shahla, a prominent Fatah representative. Also participating are academics and civil society activists.

Meanwhile, the image problem Cairo has to worry about goes beyond Palestinian quarters. A few hundred demonstrators took to Tahrir Square Wednesday and lambasted the Egyptian government for failing to lend urgent support to Palestinians under Israeli siege. "What a shame! We should be ashamed of ourselves for failing to reach out to our Palestinian brethren. This government should be ashamed for failing to reflect the true leadership of Egypt!" shouted Nasserist member of the Egyptian parliament Hamdeen Sabahi. "Why do we have to worry about our relations with Israel more than the lives of innocent Palestinian men and women who are being killed by the Israelis?" he asked.

Sabahi and other protesters called for the immediate expulsion of Israel's ambassador in Egypt. Ahead of and in the wake of these demonstrations, scores of opposition figures -- mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood -- have been arrested and detained.

As the crisis unfolds, Israeli calculations, despite the military onslaught and the reduction of rockets fired from Gaza at Sedrat, also appear misjudged. According to Israeli media, expectations that the siege on Gaza would prompt a popular revolt against Hamas stand shattered. Hamas appears, indeed, to be enjoying even more support than earlier. Palestinians who entered Rafah at dawn Wednesday chanted pro-Hamas slogans. In Damascus, all Palestinian factions gathered -- of both Islamist and non-Islamist platforms -- expressed solidarity with Hamas. And in Cairo, Egyptian protesters were also vocal in their support of Hamas. While some official Arab quarters are seeking to blame the Palestinian resistance for the crisis, popular sentiment is going the other way. As affirmed by Abdul-Sattar Qassem, a professor of political science at An-Najah University in Nablus, "the Palestinian people have the right to engage in all forms of resistance to the occupation."

Arab League Secretary-General Moussa appeared to recognise that popular sentiment, sending a warning to Arab capitals. "The Annapolis process is being driven to the abyss by Israeli aggression and by the silence of the world in the face of such aggression," he said. "The current situation puts a very big question mark on the fate of the negotiations process that was launched in the Annapolis meeting," he added.

It is unclear how the story will unfold in the coming days. While thousands appear to have passed through Rafah, hundreds of thousands more remain locked in Gaza, including children dying in hospitals for lack of medical care. The developments of Wednesday may help the Egyptian government put more pressure on the US and Israel to break the siege and extend systematic humanitarian aid to Gaza, but even that is not certain. Israeli foreign minister said that the Israeli siege on and military plans against Gaza will not be put off by criticism. Meanwhile, many commentators will turn their eyes on the Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo Sunday, where significant pressure will doubtlessly be felt to adopt a resolution unilaterally breaking the Israeli siege.

Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza,

Amira Howeidy in Damascus and Dina Ezzat in Cairo

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