Spontaneous popular action on the part of Palestinians in Gaza left all political players reeling last week, sparking an influx of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians -- near half of the Gaza Strip population -- into the Egyptian Sinai, desperate for food, fuel, medical supplies and other basic necessities of life. Can the genie be put back in the bottle? And should it?
Palestinian calls for a permanent border agreement with Egypt intensify as Gaza is swiftly returned to a state of total siege, reports Serene Assir from Gaza
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A Hamas militant directs traffic at one of the access points to the Egyptian side of the border town of Rafah (left); a Palestinian man on horseback argues with an Egyptian riot policeman as he tries to enter through the exit on the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip
One week on from the mass act of popular refusal among Palestinians that broke the siege of Gaza, movement in and out of the occupied territory has being radically cut down as Egyptian Central Security forces were deployed in thousands to block the entry of Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula via Rafah and Arish. Meanwhile, calls to Egyptian authorities for a greater show of solidarity -- indeed, sovereignty from the will of Israel -- to break the siege imposed seven months ago on Gaza intensified over the course of the week.
The government of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh proposed arrangements for the Rafah border terminal involving economic benefits for Egypt as a stopgap measure to prevent further collapse of the Gazan economy under pressure of the Israeli- instigated siege. "We are looking to end Gaza's economic ties to Israel, and for Egypt to step in to take over," Haniyeh told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We have no fear of breaking our economic ties to Israel, for it is these ties that have caused the economic collapse in Gaza over the course of the siege."
Such calls have historical relevance, partly because of Egypt's administrative control of Gaza in both 1948-1956 and 1957- 1967, but they also signal a willingness on the part of Hamas to accept Egyptian patronage as a means of staying afloat amidst Israeli, US and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas-backed pressure. But with Egypt rejecting a proposal for a Hamas- controlled border crossing, it appeared as though Gaza's brief taste of freedom from the seven-month siege was likely to come to an end, with a return to the status quo ante whereby 1.5 million Palestinians are imprisoned, illegally collectively punished, and with no end in sight.
"The forced opening of the crossing has done a lot of good to the Gazans; principally as it has reignited some hope amongst us. Psychologically, it was important for us just to be able to breathe; to move freely again," said Emad Dahman, a resident of Gaza. "But it is not enough. The siege has not ended, nor have our problems been solved. What we require is a long-term agreement whereby entry and exit of people and goods in and out of Egypt is established. Without that, our livelihoods will remain continually suppressed and under threat by the Israeli occupation."
In line with popular calls, demands by the Hamas government -- which took control over Gaza on 14 June 2007 in the wake of fierce fighting with Fatah -- also included the immediate implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland, as well as the integrity and unity of the Palestinian project for independence and statehood. "It is clear that the Israeli occupier wants Egypt to bear the burden of Gaza," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told the Weekly, adding credence to arguments that a permanent separation between Gaza and the West Bank is part of Israel's strategic agenda to render a viable Palestinian state impossible.
"It must be understood that the Palestinian requirement for a permanent arrangement with Egypt would by no means bring about the end of Israel's responsibilities towards Gaza -- principally to end the occupation. At this stage it is clear, regardless of the position of Gaza, which is integral to the Palestinian struggle for independence, that the occupation will continue to try to destroy the Palestinian project for independence," Barhoum added. In effect, Hamas's survival, as well as that of the democratic vote that brought Hamas to power in January 2006, rests in part on Cairo.
Inside Gaza, uncertainty is strongly felt. One Gazan high- ranking aid worker speaking to the Weekly on condition of anonymity said Egyptian security officials he was in contact with appeared mixed in their attitude towards the current crisis. "There is a fear that the Gazan humanitarian crisis will become Egypt's economic and security responsibility," the aid worker said. "On the other hand, there is an understanding that the disruption of the siege, however partial, has created a situation whereby, truly, there can be no going back. Even if Israel wants to recreate a total blockade, Hamas has demonstrated that it is willing and able to fight this blockade."
From the perspective of international law, the siege constitutes illegal collective punishment, with not only Israel imputable, but also any party that finds reason to support or sustain this illegal act. "No siege is legal under international law, and the occupation of Gaza is altogether illegal," said Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association in Gaza. "Furthermore, if there were doubts earlier about the role of Egypt, it is clear now that it is obligated to allow for the free passage of people and goods in and out of its territory."
As for the Gazan people, who have struggled under the hammer of total siege for seven months, there is strong sentiment for change. "We survived under the blockade because we are capable, and managed to make ends meet," said merchant Abu Mohamed, en route to Arish as Egyptian security forces conducted a crackdown along the road. "To us, it is not enough to have sporadic openings like this. What we need is a permanent settlement for the border, to get our economy going again and to get our lives back to a semblance of normality."