Effects of Egypt’s turmoil felt in Gaza Strip

Hassan Washah and his family. (Rami Almeghari)

The ripples of the popular uprising in Egypt that began on 25 January — demanding the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak and his regime — have made their way to the occupied Gaza Strip. Egypt has ordered the closure of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza and Hamas ordered a halt to the tunnel trade with Egypt, leading to shortages in fuel supplies. Efforts by Palestinians in Gaza to demonstrate their support for the Egyptian uprising were broken up by police.

Meanwhile, as thousands of prisoners escaped or were freed from Egypt’s jails, some of the prisoners of Palestinian origin have made their way back to Gaza and have begun to tell their stories.

The Gaza Strip, home to about 1.5 million Palestinians, borders and was once ruled by Egypt until Israel occupied the territory in 1967 — the same time that it occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights. The Sinai was returned to Egypt under the terms of its 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Over the past few years, since the elected Hamas party took control of the interior of the Gaza Strip, Egypt has helped Israel maintain a tight siege on the territory. Nevertheless, the Rafah border crossing with Egypt remains the main route for Palestinians to travel in and out of Gaza, though movement is severely restricted. Because of the closures, Palestinians have become increasingly reliant on tunnels running under the border to bring in essential supplies from Egypt.

Prisoners find their way back to Gaza

Hassan Washah was the first Palestinian known to have fled from an Egyptian prison and returned to Gaza. Washah described how he escaped Abu Zaabal prison in Cairo’s al-Qalyoubiya district where he had been serving a ten-year sentence. “Families of Egyptian prisoners began to flow into the prison and take away their imprisoned relatives,” Washah told The Electronic Intifada at his family’s home in Gaza’s al-Bureij refugee camp.

“At that point, an inmate, who seemed to be from the Bedouin community in Sinai, helped me by letting me escape with him. We took cab after cab until I arrived at the border line between Gaza and Egypt, where some members of my family were waiting for me near the mouth of a tunnel on the Gaza side of the border,” Washah said.

With his three-year-old son Yusif in his arms, Washah said that conditions in Abu Zaabal prison were miserable and he felt very isolated.

“I thank God that the will of the Egyptian people has led to my escape. What did I do to be imprisoned by an Arab regime?” Washah said.

Washah explained that he was captured by Egyptian authorities in Sinai in 2007 and he had explosives with him which were intended for use against the Israeli occupation.

Asked whether he belongs to the Army of Islam, a Salafist group in the Gaza Strip that has often clashed with Hamas, Washah said “It is true that I was assisted by the Army of Islam, but at the end of the day I consider myself a Palestinian fighter.” (Washah was also interviewed by Mohammed Omer in Egypt’s Sinai for this story published by The Electronic Intifada yesterday.)

Palestinian media reports suggest that about eight prisoners originally from Gaza have also fled Egyptian prisons and returned home via tunnels.

Meanwhile, the Hamas authorities in Gaza have closed the roads leading to hundreds of tunnels in the Palestinian border city of Rafah, leading to a severe shortage of gasoline.

“I stayed up until 3am on Monday morning to fill my car’s tank with forty liters of gasoline,” said Karam Mattar, 30, a cab driver from Nuseirat refugee camp. “I need to drive this cab to feed my four children and my parents,” Mattar told The Electronic Intifada. “If this situation continues, I will stop being able to earn a living.”

Due to Israel’s tight restrictions on fuel supplies into Gaza, many people rely on gasoline brought through the tunnels, not only for transport but also to run generators that are needed because of long daily power outages that affect most of Gaza’s population. The supply through the tunnels helped keep prices lower, but now gasoline is becoming scarce.

Abu Majed al-Hewaihi, manager of the Abu Asi gas station for the past twenty years, told The Electronic Intifada that for the past few days tankers had stopped bringing Egyptian gasoline to his station. “Usually we sell about about three to four thousand liters of gasoline daily but we have run out of gasoline because the tunnels have stopped functioning,” he said.

Al-Hewaihi said that the station had small supplies of Israeli gasoline, but it was much more expensive than the Egyptian equivalent, selling for about two dollars per liter as against about fifty cents for Egyptian fuel. As al-Hewaihi spoke, a worker waved cars away with his hand, signaling that the fuel pumps were dry.

Hamas break up solidarity demonstrations

In Gaza City demonstrators who attempted to show their support for the Egyptian people’s revolt quickly found themselves confronted by Hamas’ police personnel.

Members of Gaza Youth Breaks Out reported on the group’s Twitter account (@GazaYBO) that a demonstration had been planned for 2pm on Monday in Gaza City’s Jundi al-Majhoul (Unknown Soldier) square. But later the same day the group tweeted that at least seven people, including five women, were arrested and later released as the police broke up the demonstration. Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency, citing activist sources, reported that “six women and eight men were arrested” (“Police in Gaza Break up Egypt solidarity rally,” 1 February 2011).

Hamas authorities have maintained a studious silence about events in Egypt. This may be because Hamas wants to maintain their relationship with the Mubarak regime which has been closely involved in international Palestinian affairs, including efforts at reconciliation with the US-backed, Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Egypt has also previously had a role in prisoner exchange and truce negotiations between Hamas and Israel.

In spite of the economic impact of the unrest in Egypt, many in Gaza express strong support for the Egyptian uprising. “We feel sad for the unprecedented unrest in Egypt but I am confident that our Egyptian brothers and sisters will make it and, God willing, they see their rights restored,” said Muhammad al-Rifai, a Palestinian leftist activist from the central Gaza Strip. Al-Rifai spent almost 17 years in an Israeli prison until he was released in 1985.

Other Palestinians in Gaza, like Ihab Shehada, believe that the Mubarak regime should be given a chance. “I am wonder why these people continue protesting while their president assured them he would carry out reforms and even sacked the cabinet. Our brothers and sisters in Egypt should give the man a chance,” Shehada, a salaried government employee, told The Electronic Intifada during a street encounter.

Gaza-based political analyst Talal Aukal told The Electronic Intifada that given the unprecedented scale and nature of the events in Egypt, there were bound to be local and regional repercussions. If Mubarak is removed, Aukal said, “There will be more chance for the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood, which has been repressed by Mubarak’s regime for the past thirty years, to have a say in Egyptian foreign policy.”

Asked whether the fall of the Mubarak regime will affect the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Aukal said, “Everything is possible, especially if Islamists or pan-Arab opposition parties will have more representation in public life.”

On Tuesday night, Mubarak addressed the nation while millions demonstrated in the Egypt’s cities, calling for him to go. An unrepentant Mubarak vowed to stay on until September but promised not to seek another term in office. On Wednesday the situation escalated as what appeared to be gangs of violent, regime-backed provocateurs began to attack protestors still gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir square.

The uncertainty continues for the people of Egypt as it does for Palestinians in Gaza.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.

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