The Egyptian army began demolishing homes along the country’s border with the Gaza Strip today, an Israeli-style tactic carried out under the pretext of creating a “buffer zone” to “reduce weapons smuggling and illegal crossings by militants.”
In fact, Egypt is tightening its side of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, deepening the economic and medical crisis faced by the territory’s almost 1.7 million Palestinian residents.
The dramatic effects of the tightening siege are revealed in the July monthly humanitarian report, published on 23 August by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Meanwhile, the UN reports that Israel more doubled its number of violent attacks on Gaza fishermen in the first half of this year.
Since the military coup that overthrew Egypt’s elected president Muhammad Morsi on 3 July, Egyptian authorities have kept the Rafah border crossing with Gaza closed for prolonged periods or operating far below normal levels.
“The average number of people passing per day in July was 540, less than 30 percent of the approximately 1,860 who crossed daily in June,” OCHA notes.
“The crossing remains the primary exit and entry point to the Gaza Strip for Palestinians, due to the long-standing restrictions imposed by Israel on pedestrian movement via the Erez Crossing.”
Egypt has justified its restrictions often based on fabricated and baseless allegations demonizing Palestinians and claiming that Hamas and Palestinians in Gaza are engaged in hostilities against Egypt.
Medical patients badly affected
With the border so restricted, the effect on people traveling for medical care has been severe.
The Palestinian Authority health ministry routinely refers patients in Gaza for treatment at hospitals in Egypt or Israel – services for which it must pay – due to the inadequacy of health services in the occupied territory.
In July, however, “a total of 131 patients, of whom 22 were children up to 17 years old, were referred by the [health ministry] to Egypt, less than half the usual number,” OCHA reported.
But there were “no compensatory increases” in “referrals through Erez checkpoint to the West Bank and Israel, or to non-Ministry facilities within Gaza in July, suggesting that patients chose to delay medical treatment, rather than seek to obtain a permit to exit through Erez to alternative hospitals.”
Obtaining permission to travel through the Erez crossing into present-day Israel remains onerous and harrowing for Palestinians and, as OCHA states, “Patients aged 18-40 years, especially males, are most often required to submit to Israeli security interviews as part of the application process for permits to exit via Erez. Companions must also apply for permits, and may likewise be called for interviews.”
Israel has often attempted to blackmail Palestinian patients into becoming informers for its secret services in exchange for permission to receive life-saving medical care.
Along with medical patients, thousands of students and other travelers have faced long delays, or have been unable to travel at all.
Essential medicine supplies hit “zero”
Since the coup in Egypt, OCHA reports, “the Ministry of Health in Gaza began restricting X-rays and limiting certain drugs to emergency use only, due to low supplies and the unreliable flow of medical supplies via the Rafah Crossing.”
At the end of July, “27 per cent (128 items) of essential medicines were at zero stock in the Central Drug Store in Gaza and 16 per cent (78 items) were at low stock (between 1-3 months’ supply).”
Twenty-five percent of [Gaza’s] drug supplies are normally received from, or through, Egypt via this crossing. Two principal Egyptian donors, the Arab Physicians Union and the Physicians Syndicate, are expected to halt donations to Gaza in view of current urgent needs in Egypt. These groups have played a crucial role as a source for rapid supply of critical items, such as dialysis solutions, common chemotherapy drugs, Factor VIII for haemophilia, immunosuppressants for kidney transplant patients and treatments for other chronic blood disease conditions. Any sustained gap in the supply of these items would have immediate negative impact on patients. The Human Appeal International (United Arab Emirates) and Qatar Red Crescent also provide donations to the MoH in Gaza via Rafah, but according to the MoH, only one drug shipment has been received via that route since 30 June, from an Italian NGO.
Construction industry collapsing
Because of Israel’s embargo, OCHA says, the “tunnels remain the main entry point for the transfer of construction materials into the Gaza Strip.”
In July, Egypt’s crackdown “included the destruction and flooding of tunnels, as well as the extensive deployment of security forces and the imposition of severe restrictions on access to the tunnel areas.”
As a consequences, OCHA reports:
The Palestinian Federation of Industries estimated that, on average, around 1,500 tons of construction materials entered Gaza through the tunnels per day, compared to 7,500 tons prior to the imposition of the recent measures. The price of construction materials on local markets rose sharply before declining to between 20 to 30 percent above the normal price by the end of the month, and leading to a sharp slowdown in construction activities and the operation of concrete mix factories.
The crackdown on the tunnels has also caused chronic shortages of fuel.
Meanwhile, Israel has attempted to paint the situation in Gaza as normal, or even flourishing, as when it published a cynical piece of propaganda claiming that Gaza is prospering.
An Israeli army propaganda release in August notoriously included an image of a luxury shopping mall in Malaysia that it falsely claimed was in the Gaza Strip.
Attacks on fishermen more than double
Under the 1993 Oslo accords, Palestinians are supposed to be able to fish up to 20 nautical miles from the coast of Gaza. But Israel violently enforces a unilateral three-mile limit in violation of the agreements.
Since the ceasefire agreement after Israel’s November 2012 attack on Gaza, there has been a sharp increase in Israeli attacks on fishing boats, according to OCHA:
The number of violent incidents recorded during the first half of 2013, in the context of the enforcement of access restrictions at sea by the Israeli Navy, significantly increased compared to the previous six months (July-December 2012): shooting incidents more than doubled (95 vs. 43); incidents involving injuries were recorded for the first time in over a year (5 vs. 0); and the number of incidents in which fishing equipment was damaged or confiscated also increased significantly (12 vs.2). On the other hand, the number of fishermen detained (13 vs. 42) and boats confiscated (3 vs. 7) decreased significantly, while the number of boats damaged or destroyed was comparable to the previous reporting period (8 vs.9).
Palestinians now face an additional danger at sea. Medics reported on Friday that Egyptian gunboats opened fire on Palestinian fishing boats injuring two fishermen. Five others were detained, reports said.
The space in which Palestinians can try to ply their trade and earn a living at sea, or on land, in Gaza is being squeezed in a vice between Israel and its Egyptian army allies.
“Gaza has never harmed Egypt”
Palestinians in Gaza are feeling the pressure. As Asem Alnabeh, a university student in the territory, commented on Twitter, “In Mubarak’s time … the occupation announced the war on Gaza from the heart of Cairo. But today [Israel] does not need to carry out a new war. The Egyptian army does it instead.”
Alnabeh was referring to the violent threats made during a visit to Cairo by Israel’s then foreign minister Tzipi Livni, just days before Israel’s December 2008 – January 2009 invasion of Gaza that killed 1,400 persons.
“Gaza has never harmed Egypt for a single day,” Alnabeh added, expressing the frustration many in Gaza feel at Egypt’s actions.
“We are ready to die for your sake. We supported your revolution and never fired a bullet toward you. Why are you joining hands with the occupation in fighting against Gaza?”