Breaking the siege: A young Palestinian boy from Rafah, Gaza enjoys a cup of tea in front of the fallen wall at the border with Egypt. (Matthew Cassel)
Under siege since 9 June 2007, the Palestinian people of Gaza moved the world by breaking out and materially reclaiming their stolen freedom of movement, rights to travel to and from their country, and right to resist the illegal status imposed on them through occupation since 1967 and economic and near-total physical blockade since the democratic election of Hamas in the legislative election of January 2006.
The present siege, which began shortly after Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, led to a total collapse of the Gazan economy, as well as an escalating humanitarian crisis affecting every aspect of life for Palestinian residents of the world’s most densely populated area, including business, health care and sanitation, state of mind, infrastructure and indeed survival itself. Israel’s total blockade that began one week before the popular disruption of the siege led to total power blackouts, to the extent that the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, whose role in providing assistance to 1948 refugees living in Gaza is central for the provision and distribution of goods including baby milk and basic foodstuffs, was rendered almost incapable of continuing its work. Where Gaza would have stood today without the act of disruption that awed the world last week cannot be gauged — without pushing the limits of our imagination beyond the parameters of the worst plausible.
Under the 25 November 2005 agreement reached by Israel, the European Union and the Palestinian Authority (PA) — then in charge of the Gaza Strip — and under the surveillance of the United States, it was established that the PA would take over from Israel to control entry into and exit from Gaza of persons via the Rafah border terminal, with the EU deploying monitors at the terminal. Owing to Israeli interventionism, such as that exercised on and ever since 9 June 2007, the terminal was closed more often than it was open, in contravention to the spirit of the 2005 agreement. As of the election of Hamas in January 2006, the terminal was closed 86 percent of the time, according to information gathered by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Egypt was not a signatory to the agreement governing the Rafah border terminal. Instead it was granted observer status, which appeared to some high-ranking security officials bizarre enough given that the agreement concerned an Egyptian border. According to security sources, Egypt had expressed some interest in having its status upgraded to that of signatory when the agreement was renewed. This renewal was set to take place in 2006; however, it never did, owing to Israeli postponement.
Thus the precise details of Egypt’s role in maintaining the blockade of Gaza have through much of the duration of the siege remained murky. For the most comfortable of analyses, all that was publicly known was that Israel instigated the closure of the terminals leading in and out of the Gaza Strip, and that the closure was supported by PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who criminally enough believed that Hamas would lose popularity to his advantage if the people of Gaza were progressively starved. Meanwhile Egypt’s grassroots, Cairo-based human rights organizations remained conspicuously silent for months, for the most part speaking out only when Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip became total, by which time fear of reprimand from the notorious state security services was overwhelmed by the absolute rejection of the continuous suffering of fellow Arabs in Gaza. Only the Muslim Brotherhood-run Doctors’ Syndicate remained active throughout the seven months of illegal collective punishment faced by the Palestinians of Gaza, and even then on a principally humanitarian level. Only in the time nearing the Palestinians’ act of disruption last week did Cairo see mass action, the most notable example of which was a protest before the headquarters of the Arab League in the heart of the Arab world’s most populous capital, organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties. Hundreds of people were arrested during and prior to the protest.
On the state level, even though it had been Israel and the PA which had created the humanitarian and political crisis in Gaza, Egypt could conceivably have unilaterally ended it. Under international law, given the illegality of the siege, Egypt had an obligation to act, an obligation to which it failed to fulfill. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Egypt is a High Contracting Party, parties are obliged “to respect and ensure respect” for all the provisions contained, including the criminalization of collective punishment (Article 33). No doubt, the besiegement of Gaza as a pressure mechanism to turn the Palestinian civilian population against Hamas constitutes, at the very least, collective punishment.
However, if there remained any shred of doubt that Egypt could have done more to interrupt the siege, then recent days’ events have helped establish an even more glaring understanding of the role of Cairo. “To Egypt the disruption of the siege came as a surprise, and under growing pressure from the population and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, it was impossible for the regime in Cairo to put an immediate end to the flow of Palestinians to and from Gaza,” said director of the Addameer human rights group in Gaza Khalil Abu Shammala. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “tried to capitalize on the events, by issuing statements that would paint Egypt in a more humanitarian light and thus to persuade opposition that the regime was doing its part in support of the Palestinians of Gaza. It was foolish, however, on the part of the regime to think that simply allowing Palestinians exit into Egypt for a few days would rid Egypt of its responsibility towards the Palestinians under the present conditions. Much, much more needs to be done. Egypt has to actively end its participation in the siege,” Abu Shammala added.
But within five days of the disruption of the siege of Gaza, the deployment of Central Security Forces to north Sinai, particularly from al-Arish to Rafah, had been massively intensified. While initial attempts to close down the border were thwarted following clashes with armed Hamas members, later attempts were rendered impossible by the sheer fury of Palestinian civilians, who threw stones in the spirit of self-defense from renewed imprisonment by the simplest means at their disposal. Meanwhile, it was reported less than a week on from the popular outbreak that up to 3,000 Palestinians were detained by the Egyptian authorities as the campaign to prohibit the entry of Gazans without visas escalated. In addition, there were daily reports of the authorities prohibiting the entry into Sinai of Egyptian human rights and political campaigners from across the political spectrum as they brought with them medicines and supplies in demonstration of solidarity with the people of Gaza.
At the time of writing, such had been the forcefulness of the Egyptian regime’s effort to expel the remaining Palestinians and to prevent any new entry that very few managed to remain in Sinai one week on from the initial outbreak. Barring approximately 1,000 Palestinians who set up camp by the Security Headquarters in al-Arish in an attempt to secure visas and thus acquire legal means to remain in Egypt, or to travel to third countries where they work or study, most Gaza residents had returned home, ready to face a renewed closure up until the time that new arrangements for the border are reached.
Perhaps a total defeat of the natural and legal act of struggle against siege, poverty, occupation and death that the Palestinians of Gaza demonstrated over the past week is precisely what the Israelis and their allies in Washington and peace partners in Cairo would desire most. However, gauging from the mood in Gaza, that they would secure such a result in the long run is unlikely. First off, according to Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, “It would be absurd to suggest that Hamas would open the border only to then close it again. The destruction of the border is not intended solely to give Palestinians temporary relief, but essentially to work towards negotiations for a solution that would end the siege once and for all.”
Meanwhile, on the streets the effects of the disruption of the siege extend far beyond a mere re-injection of economic life into Gaza, to the lifting of Palestinian confidence in struggle. “What has been made clear by this single action is that no matter how dark the abandonment by the entire world has been of the Palestinian people, the people can still take the initiative to secure their freedom,” said Emad Abu Mohamed, one refugee resident of Gaza City. “There can be no going back from here.” Insofar as the action raised the spirits of the people of Gaza, it also re-directed the focus of a people who have seen fierce factional rivalry and bloodshed to the occupation, which is the origin of the problem, said Mohammed Dahman, a Gaza-based journalist. “The whole of Gaza celebrated the outbreak in unity, and in so doing proved that the rivalries are superficial,” Dahman added.
The immensity of the overwhelmingly peaceful movement of Palestinians in and out of north Sinai indicated that another reality is possible and indeed necessary in the Arab world. Occupation in Palestine cannot be successfully challenged if the Arab world does not wake up to the fact that anything but more actions of a similarly massive, popular nature are not encouraged. Acceptance of a continued oppression of Arab popular movements is tantamount to acceptance of Israel’s siege of Gaza. Under international law, nothing short of full Egyptian cooperation at the state level with the people of Gaza will do. And it was precisely this sort of cooperation that Hamas called for, using last week’s outbreak as a state-of-the-art pressure card to ensure it, alongside the promise of greater economic influence in the Gaza Strip. “We are looking to end Gaza’s economic ties to Israel, and for Egypt to step in to take over,” Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said.
Now given that Cairo has already turned down Hamas overtures to take control of the border, and that Hamas has rejected proposals for an international presence at Rafah, and granted that Cairo’s relations with Washington have long been unequal to the effect that it is safe to say that the present regime survives because it is supported by the world’s only superpower, it remains to be seen just where the unfolding crisis will lead. There is no doubt that the short-term economic advantage of maintaining ties with Washington over developing a longer-term strategy involving the Palestinian people, who are determined to emerge victorious over occupation, appears more beneficial to Cairo. However, what is clear is that, as is the case every minute of every day within Egyptian jurisdiction ever since the signing of the Camp David Peace Treaty in 1978, there is a fundamental discord between what the vast majority of the people of Egypt really want, and what power has imposed on them. Given the reality of power distribution in the Arab world, it is not yet the time to imagine that the crisis will lead to an immediate settlement that will aptly meet the requirements of the people of Gaza. But what the surprise disruption of the siege, involving the instantaneous, physical realization of what has been the dream of millions of human beings the world over for hundreds of years — namely the downfall of borders and the victory of the people over brutality and oppression — indicates, is that it is necessary to think beyond the limits of the mundane. This was a lesson learned not only by the Gazans, but also no doubt by hundreds of thousands of Arabs who watched in awe at the spontaneous creativity of their brothers and sisters, the Palestinians.
Serene Assir is a Beirut and Cairo-based independent journalist and blogger.>