Agencies | 26 July 2013
Egypt’s new government has imposed the toughest border restrictions on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in years, sealing smuggling tunnels, blocking most passenger traffic and causing millions of dollars in economic losses.
Some in Hamas fear the movement is being swept up in the same Egyptian military campaign that earlier this month toppled the country’s democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi — like the Gaza rulers part of the region’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s military has said the Gaza restrictions are part of its security crackdown in the Sinai and has not suggested it is trying to weaken the Hamas government or bring it down in the process.
Past predications that Gazans fed up with the daily hardships of life under blockade will rise up against Hamas have not materialized.
However, the new Gaza border restrictions are tougher than any enforced by Morsi’s pro-Western predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, a foe of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Gaza residents and Hamas operatives.
And an ongoing border closure is bound to further weaken Hamas’ popularity in Gaza, as the economy takes a new hit and Gazans are once again unable to travel.
“It’s getting worse every day,” Gaza City taxi driver Khaled Jaradeh said of the shortage of cheap Egyptian fuel caused by the closure. Jaradeh was waiting in a slow-moving line outside a gas station, with about 30 cars in front of him.
“Even when Mubarak was president, we used to get fuel through the tunnels,” Jaradeh said.
At the time of Morsi’s ouster, some officials in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, Hamas’ main rival, privately expressed hope that the Hamas government would be next.
Hamas leaders have been careful not to criticize Egypt’s border clampdown in public, for fear of being accused of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. However, Gaza’s top Hamas official, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, has complained that Egyptian media reports “about Hamas interference in the Egyptian affairs in support of President Morsi are not true.”
Some Egyptian media outlets have described Hamas as a troublemaker aiding Muslim terrorists in Egypt’s lawless Sinai peninsula, next to Gaza. Morsi is believed to have held back on security clampdowns for fear of angering more radical supporters.
Speaking privately, a senior Hamas official who frequently deals with the Egyptian authorities stopped short of saying Egypt’s military is intentionally trying to weaken Hamas rule in Gaza through the new restrictions. However, he said he views the Gaza clampdown as part of an attempt by the Egyptian army to justify its continued campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Authorities in Egypt moved quickly against the Brotherhood after Morsi’s July 3 ouster. They arrested several of the group’s leaders, and have kept Morsi incommunicado at an undisclosed location. Sinai militants have taken advantage of the turmoil and launched daily attacks against Egyptian security forces, killing more than a dozen soldiers and policemen this month alone.
The clampdown and the Sinai violence are only intensifying.
On Wednesday, Egypt’s military chief called on his countrymen to hold mass demonstrations later this week to voice their support for the army. And in four new Sinai attacks, suspected militants killed two soldiers and wounded three others.
Gaza has endured varying degrees of Israeli and Egyptian border closures since 2006, when the Islamic militant Hamas first came to power in Palestinian parliament elections. The blockade was tightened a year later, after Hamas overran Gaza and assumed sole control, defeating forces loyal to Abbas, whose authority is now confined to the West Bank.
After Morsi was elected Egypt’s president last year, he eased some of the border restrictions, though he did not open Gaza’s only gate to the world as wide as Hamas had hoped.
Still, during Morsi’s yearlong rule, cheap fuel and building materials from Egypt flowed relatively freely via the Sinai through border smuggling tunnels into Gaza, bypassing Israeli restrictions on certain imports to the territory. Aboveground, most Gazans were able to cross into Egypt after years of strict travel restrictions.
All that changed when the Egyptian military deposed Morsi after millions took the streets in protest against the president and his Brotherhood backers.
Since his ouster, only those with foreign passports and medical patients have been allowed to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing, reducing the number of daily passengers from about 1,000 to 150. Gaza border official Maher Abu Sabha said there is a growing backlog, with about 10,000 passengers having signed up so far in July to leave Gaza and only a fraction actually getting out.
Egypt’s security forces have also clamped down on the tunnels, which along with consumer goods also bring weapons to Hamas and allow militants to move between Gaza and the Sinai. Earlier this month, an Egyptian military helicopter flew over southern Gaza, a rare event meant as a warning to Hamas to prevent the movement of militants.
Robert Serry, the United Nations’ Mideast envoy, told the Security Council on Tuesday that Egypt has taken “robust measures” against the tunnels and that he believes 80% no longer function.
A tunnel smuggler said little merchandise gets through. “We are under enormous pressure, with strict security conditions,” he said on condition of anonymity because of his illicit business. “Only few tunnels are still working, and we can’t meet the demand of the market.”
Samir Fares, 64, who lives on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border, confirmed that the Egyptian military has destroyed many tunnels and only a few are still operating. He said the smuggling of building materials has virtually stopped.
For Gaza’s vulnerable economy, hit by years of closures, the sharp drop in cheap fuel and cement from Egypt is most damaging. Gaza Deputy Economics Minister Hatem Awaida said the economy has lost about $235 million as a result of the new closures. This likely includes a direct loss to the Hamas treasury — millions of dollars in taxes normally imposed on tunnel goods.
Fuel imported from Israel is still available but is twice as expensive and finds few takers. When Egyptian fuel on occasion still reaches Gaza, motorists line up at gas stations selling the smuggled shipment.
Mohammed Masoud, manager of a taxi station in Gaza City, said only 10 of his 20 cars are working at any given time. He said he can’t buy the expensive Israeli fuel because that would require him to raise prices, a move banned by the government. “When our customers call for a taxi, we ask them to expect a delay because of the ongoing fuel crisis,” he said.
In Egypt, newspapers — many known for their anti-Morsi stance — are full of talk about Hamas. They repeatedly carry poorly sourced reports of Hamas’ alleged involvement in Egypt’s affairs.
Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper raised eyebrows with a front-page article this week that claimed Morsi would be detained on a number of charges, including phoning Hamas leaders days before his ouster to alert them to prepare attacks in northern Sinai against the military and police. Egypt’s top prosecutor dismissed the article as unfounded, and the paper’s editor-in-chief was questioned by prosecutors.
The steady campaign against Palestinians by some of Egypt’s state-owned and liberal media intensified after authorities said Palestinians, along with Syrians, were detained in violent pro-Morsi protests in recent weeks. No further details were given.
TV talk shows have also fueled the anti-Palestinian rhetoric. A guest on one claimed that Morsi is of Palestinian origin, while another said it would soon provide proof that Hamas was behind a Sinai attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers last year.
It’s not clear how long the Egyptian clampdown on Gaza will continue, though in Egypt’s current climate it appears unlikely the restrictions will be eased anytime soon.
Abeer Ayyoub-Al-Monitor Palestine Pulse
Thousands of Muslims in the Gaza Strip are practicing their holy month of Ramadan this year with the added strain of economic and social hardship, after Egypt shut the Rafah border crossing and the tunnels vital for the import of goods into Gaza.
Adherents usually prepare for Ramadan in advance by storing large amounts of food and drinks, an activity which has become part of the month’s traditions. But Palestinians in Gaza have experienced a lack of food items, fuel and raw materials due to the surprising and abrupt decision by Egypt to shut the tunnels earlier this month following the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi.
Hundreds of people from all social classes gathered at the central market in the old city of Gaza early on the morning of the third day of Ramadan, July 12, to prepare their needs for the day, but vendors say this is one of the worst years the market has witnessed during the month of fasting.
“Every year, I hire more workers at the time of Ramadan, so I can respond to the huge number of customers’ needs. But this year I only have one, and he rarely sells anything,” Tayab al-Jarousha, a 31-year-old grocer told Al-Monitor, as he arranged his products on the stand.
Jarousha attributes the lack of demand for food products to the closure of the tunnels, which has now deprived many of work due to the lack of raw materials coming from Egypt. Most labor fields, as a result, have been negatively affected by the tunnels’ closure.
Fuel and electricity cuts
Several miles from the market, dozens of cars line up outside a petrol station to receive the last drops of fuel from Egypt that Gaza’s stations still have. Most of the cars are taxis, which rely on this cheaper fuel to ensure they maintain their income.
Akram, 27, had just filled up his car with fuel from Egypt, when he told Al-Monitor on July 14 that this might be the last time he could fill his car until the border crisis is over. If the crisis persists, Akram said he will stay home with no source of income.
“Even when I work, the $20 I make per day is barely enough for Ramadan’s big needs. Imagine how it would be if I no longer work,” Akram explained.
Jalal Suliman, 40, a father of four who works as a laborer in a machine factory, said during an interview at his home on July 15 that it has been more than two weeks since he got any work done due to a lack of raw materials and electricity.
“I go to work every day only because I don’t want to feel useless, but in fact I’m not making any money.”
Although the high-quality fuel from Israel still makes it to Gaza through Israeli border terminals, it is at a higher price — almost double that of fuel from Egypt — which most in Gaza simply cannot afford.
Palestinians in Gaza have long endured fuel crises due to Israel’s imposed siege, now in its seventh year, which results in regular electricity cuts. In the best of times, homes in Gaza are deprived of electricity for eight hours a day. Locals have recently tried to adapt to the rotating power outages by scheduling their Ramadan activities according to their electricity shifts.
Hussam, a 40-year-old father of six, gathered his children on July 17 around the dining table for the Suhoor meal, which is the final meal Ramadan observers eat before dawn and before the long day of fasting starts. Only this time, the gathering happened in the dark, with no respite from the summer night’s heat due to a power outage.
One of the six children, Lama, 15, said that Ramadan is already difficult this year due to the long, hot days, and the electricity cuts are only adding further strain, particularly at meal times.
“We almost adjusted to this crisis, but in Ramadan it’s different. We need fans and light, this is unbearable,” Lama complained to Al-Monitor.
To overcome the blackout, many homes in Gaza now have private generators, which have increased the demand for fuel.
Besan Salam, a 26-year-old journalist, struggles to feel the holy sense of Ramadan this year due to the deteriorating living conditions in Gaza.
“I spend the time cursing everyone who might be responsible for such hard circumstances we are living under,” Salam angrily told Al-Monitor on July 17.
The border closure has also left thousands of travelers stranded — many having returned from the Umrah pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, and who are now unable to spend Ramadan with their families in Gaza.
As Gaza’s only airport was destroyed by Israeli forces in 2001, locals spend hours trying to cross the Rafah border terminal with Egypt — and then take the roughly five-hour road journey to Cairo International Airport to travel abroad. Egypt’s shaky political situation is adding a further hindrance to the ability of Palestinians to travel, with Egyptian authorities routinely closing the crossing each time the situation deteriorates in Egypt.
Maha Fouad, 35, is spending Ramadan without her husband, who is stuck in Mecca.
“It’s the hardest Ramadan I have ever experienced, besides missing my husband. It’s a big responsibility for me to take care of everything in such a busy month,” she told Al-Monitor in an interview at her home on July 14, adding that the holy month has lost its meaning to her family without her children’s father beside them.
Abeer Ayyoub is a contributor to Al-Monitor’s Palestine Pulse. She graduated from the Islamic University of Gaza with a BA in English literature. She is a former human rights researcher turned journalist whose work has also appeared in Al Masry Al-Youm, Al Jazeera and Haaretz.