Up until Sunday, relations between Cairo and Gaza were beginning to look bright. Hamas politicians from Gaza were working diligently on improving ties with Egypt’s new Islamist government, cautiously elevating them from the political low of the Mubarak years.
Just two weeks ago Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh spoke of “unprecedented positivity” following his meeting with President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo. The Egyptian president promised to ease Palestinians’ travel restrictions, and the Rafah border crossing gradually began broadening its scope of activity.
Now the terror attack on the Egyptian border police outpost Sunday night, in which 16 Egyptians were killed, has brought everything back to square one.
Hamas condemned the attack, offered to help investigate it, set up a symbolic mourning tent for the 16 slain Egyptians, and tried to pin at least some of the blame on Israel. Neither Egyptian nor Israeli leaders have charged that Hamas was specifically responsible (although Israel blames Hamas, as the government in Gaza, for all terror-related activity emanating from the Strip). Nonetheless, Egypt has closed the Rafah border crossing indefinitely, started closing tunnel routes from Gaza into the Sinai, and sent home Palestinians flying into Cairo airport.
“We are certainly concerned about a deterioration in relations with Egypt,” Walid Awadh, a member of the Communist Palestinian People’s Party in Gaza, told the Times of Israel on Tuesday. “We are saddened by the attack, but we fear a renewed siege on the Gaza Strip.”
Awadh is not alone in condemning the Egyptian decision, after the attack, to completely and indefinitely shut the Rafah crossing, Gaza’s only gateway to neighboring Egypt. On Monday — in an atypically harsh statement — Hamas official Moussa Abu-Marzouq called the measure “collective punishment” and “a move in the wrong direction.”
‘We are saddened by the attack, but we fear a renewed siege on the Gaza Strip.’
Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said he expected the Egyptian closure to last between a week and 10 days, “while Egypt tries to reevaluate its relations with the Gaza Strip.”
“Every time there’s an attack, we in Gaza pay the price,” he said. Abusada said Gazans were conflicted between sympathy for the Egyptians and frustration with the new closure.
“The closure is understandable, but it is summer vacation and many Gaza residents typically leave for Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage. The attack happened at a critical moment.”
Andaleeb Shehadeh, a human rights activist in Gaza, told the Times of Israel that the attack could adversely affect family relations, since many Palestinian families straddle both sides of the border.
Just two weeks ago Hamas Prime MinisterIsmail Haniyeh spoke of ‘unprecedented positivity’ following his meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo
For Shehadeh, the solution to the illicit tunnel traffic between Gaza and Egypt is a complete opening of the border crossings with Egypt, as well as with Israel.
“People only turned to the tunnels because basic materials could not enter through official crossings,” she said. “If the crossings are opened, the tunnels will immediately become redundant.”
Shutting the tunnels was in fact the first measure Hamas took Sunday night, just hours after the attack — amid reports that some of those involved in orchestrating the assault had come from Gaza. On Tuesday morning, Arab media reported that the Egyptians too began destroying the tunnels on the Sinai side of the border.
Abusada, the political scientist, said that shutting the tunnels will not harm the flow of food into the strip, which mostly arrives from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing, reopened Tuesday. But other commodities such as gasoline, cigarettes and building materials will now be in short supply.
“Long lines have begun to form outside gas stations following the attack,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of our gasoline comes in from Egypt, since it is much cheaper than the Israeli gasoline. Egyptian gas costs just NIS 4 ($1) a liter at the pump, while Israeli gas costs NIS 7.5 ($1.87) a liter.”
‘The youth are most susceptible to these ideas since they are enthusiastic,’ he said. ‘We try to teach them the difference between our struggle for rights and extremist ways of thinking’
Hamas stood to lose valuable revenue by halting the illicit tunnel trade, he noted, since it heavily taxes incoming commodities. Gasoline is taxed some 200% while NIS 3 (75 cents) are added to the price of every pack of cigarettes, Abusada said.
But who do Gazans blame for the attack? Communist party member Awadh says that extremist Islamic ideology played a significant role. He noted that progressive movements like his own have been organizing workshops to dissuade the youth from joining radical groups.
“The youth are most susceptible to these ideas since they are enthusiastic,” he said. “We try to teach them the difference between our struggle for rights and extremist ways of thinking.”
Awadh added however, that the basic responsibility for the Rafah attack lay with Israel.
“Israel knew about the [terrorist] activity in the area and could have given Egypt accurate information, rather than just general warnings,” he said. “The fact is that when the terrorists reached Israel, they were immediately stopped.”