CAIRO, 6 March (IPS) - Fury erupted on the streets and in parliament this week following violent Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip. But as protests were held nationwide in support of besieged Palestinians next door, Cairo continued to keep the volatile Rafah border crossing — the only means out of the strip not under direct Israeli control — tightly sealed.
“By keeping the border closed, the government has kept us from sending material and financial support to Gaza,” Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of the frozen Socialist Labour Party and leading member of the popular Egyptian Committee Against the Siege of Gaza, told IPS. “Egyptians have no way of expressing their solidarity except by participating in demonstrations.”
On Monday (3 March), Israel concluded a six-day military incursion into the Gaza Strip that left an estimated 120 Palestinians dead, including a number of civilians. According to Tel Aviv, the assault — which involved tanks and helicopter gun-ships — was launched in retaliation against sporadic rocket fire from Gaza on nearby Israeli towns and settlements.
The operation followed calls by several top-level Israeli officials for a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip, which has been governed by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas since June. Late last month, Israeli deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai went so far as to threaten the territory with a “holocaust” in response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
The Egyptian government, meanwhile, has registered discomfort with the violent developments in neighboring Gaza.
During a meeting Tuesday (4 March) with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Cairo as part of a brief tour of the region, President Hosni Mubarak stressed “the need to stop Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people and restart the peace process,” according to the 5 March edition of government daily al-Gomhouriya.
In a subsequent press conference, foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit was quoted by the same paper as saying, “Israel is going too far in its military operations, which are out of all proportion to the firing of rockets by Hamas.”
For the last nine months, all means in and out of the Gaza Strip — which shares a 14-kilometer border with Egypt — have been kept sealed for the most part. The territory has also been subject to an Israeli-imposed embargo for more than two years that has deprived many of its roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of basic necessities including food and medicine.
In the last week of January, an estimated half million Palestinians flooded into the northern Sinai peninsula after the destruction of the border wall separating Egypt from Gaza. On 3 February, however, after most itinerant Gazans had stocked up on necessities and returned home, Egyptian authorities resealed the border and closed the crossing at Rafah.
Three days after the closure, Aboul-Gheit warned on state television that Gazans attempting to breach the border a second time “would have their legs broken.”
The latest Israeli assaults on the hapless territory have triggered a storm of popular outrage that make official responses look tepid by comparison.
On Monday and Tuesday (3-4 March), demonstrations were held throughout the country by student groups and opposition political associations of all stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement and the pro-democracy group Kefaya. Numbering in the hundreds in many cases, protesters condemned the perceived inability of Arab capitals — particularly Cairo — to stem Israeli aggression in Gaza.
The popular mood was summed up in the 3 March headlines of independent weekly al-Dustour: “Israel burns Gaza … and where are the Arabs? You spineless sons of …!”
In the capital, demonstrations were quickly cordoned off by police and security forces. At Cairo University — precariously located not far from the Israeli embassy — limited clashes broke out between protesters and police, reportedly resulting in several injuries.
In parliament, more than 100 opposition MPs staged a 24-hour sit-in on Sunday (2 March) in solidarity with the beleaguered Palestinian residents of Gaza. An attempt by the parliamentarians to lead a protest march through downtown Cairo the following day, however, was thwarted by security services.
“As the people’s representatives, we expressed the anger of our constituents,” Hamdi Hassan, an MP for Muslim Brotherhood, which numbers roughly one-fifth of the assembly, told IPS. “The Arab regimes are keeping quiet while the Zionists are perpetrating a holocaust in Gaza.
“The latest events prove that the Arab governments are totally out of touch with the will of the people,” added Hassan, who participated in the parliamentary sit-in. “Arab regimes are merely following the dictates of US policy in the region, while the Arab people want to see the liberation of Palestine.”
Hassan went on to enumerate the opposition’s demands, namely, “greater efforts by President Mubarak in his capacity as head of state to stop Israeli aggression against Gaza; the halt of Egyptian energy exports to Israel; the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Egypt; and an official reassessment of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Camp David peace agreement.”
The Labour Party’s Hussein was no less critical of Cairo’s feeble response to Israeli belligerence.
“Official reactions to the Israeli massacres in Gaza have hardly been appropriate, and betray an allegiance to Washington and Tel Aviv,” he said. “And by keeping the border closed to the besieged Gazans, Cairo has become a partner to Israel’s crimes.”
Critics also point to the government’s muted response to the slaying of a 13-year-old Egyptian girl in the town of Kerem Abu Sallim near the border with Israel on 28 February, reportedly the result of cross-border Israeli gunfire. According to reports in the local press, the girl succumbed to injuries after being shot in the head not far from an Israeli watchtower.
“The foreign ministry threatens the Gazans — using very tough language — not to approach the border,” said Hussein. “But when an Egyptian child is killed by an Israeli bullet, there isn’t a word of official condemnation.”
According to the Brotherhood’s Hassan, popular anger over continued Israeli aggression in Gaza is fast approaching boiling point.
“If the massacres continue, reactions by the opposition will move beyond demonstrations and sit-ins,” he said. “While one phase of Israeli violence in Gaza has just ended, I fear another will soon begin.”
Sure enough, Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the Gaza Strip again on Tuesday (4 March) night in what Israeli defense officials described as “pinpoint operations” against local resistance fighters.
All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.