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Thousands of Gazans stranded after Egypt border closure

Closure of border with Gaza following recent Sinai attack has left thousands of hapless Gazans – now being blamed for Sunday's bloodshed – stranded in Egypt

Salma Shukrallah , Thursday 9 Aug 2012
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Egyptian soldiers stand guard on the border between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip, near Rafah - August 6 2012 (Photo: Reuters)
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The Sinai border attack that left 16 Egyptian border guards dead and several more injured has not only shocked Egyptians, but Palestinians as well, many of whom were left stranded in Egypt after Egyptian authorities shut the border with the Gaza Strip in the immediate wake of Sunday's attack.

The Rafah border crossing, which links Egypt and the besieged coastal enclave, was tightly sealed following the violence, which was – allegedly – carried out by Gaza-based militants.

Optimism on the part of Gazans that the ongoing siege of the strip – that continues to be partially enforced by Egypt – would be eased after the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi became president soon faded in the wake of the attack.

"For more than ten days now, we had been able to enter Egypt more easily without the tough security checks that we had to go through before, but now the border is completely closed," said 40-year-old Palestinian Gamal Daher, who is currently unable to return to his home.

"Palestinians flying into Egypt to get back to Gaza are still treated horrifically; they are kept in detention with no proper bed for up to three days before being escorted to the border. Their only crime is being Palestinian," Gaza-based solidarity activist and Free Gaza Movement member Adie Mormech told Ahram Online.

According to estimates, there are more than 4,500 Palestinian travellers either stranded outside Gaza or stuck inside, unable to catch their flights to Saudi Arabia and thus forfeiting thousands of dollars in lost transportation costs.

Seventeen-year-old Mohamed Khaled, who came to Egypt for an operation for an injury sustained during Israel's 2008/09 war on Gaza, was also left stranded in Egypt after the hospital told him they were not taking patients until after Ramadan.

This is Khaled's fourth trip to Egypt to seek medical help after having been turned down three times before by Egyptian physicians. This has not only meant hefty transport costs, Khaled laments, but he has also been left with nowhere to go, since the border is often closed without warning.

During the 18-day uprising that led to Mubarak's ouster, Khaled had been forced to stay in a rented apartment in a district of Cairo. He was unable to leave his temporary Cairo residence, fearing that he would be targeted as a Palestinian after pro-Mubarak elements propagated the false rumour that Hamas was behind the violence in Tahrir Square.    

Similarly, 20-year-old Mahmoud Yassin, who is also currently stranded in Cairo, said that after the attacks, fingers of blame were again pointed at Palestinians. 

"Now when I tell someone in Cairo that I'm Palestinian, I'm blamed for the killing of the Egyptian soldiers…they would angrily ask me why we did the attack," said Yassin, who entered Egypt only hours after Sunday's Sinai attack to seek medical help for wounds caused by rocket shrapnel from a 2008 Israeli assault.

Attacks against Egypt’s security forces have repeatedly been blamed by officials on Islamist militants entering the country from Gaza. Such accusations have stirred considerable Egyptian hostility towards Palestinians, and more so against Islamist faction Hamas.

Hamas, for its part, has strenuously denied any responsibility or knowledge of the attack, and has announced plans to assist Egyptian security agencies in guarding the border and halting any potential terrorist threat from its side. Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007, also held mass prayers for the slain Egyptian border guards. 

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, a loose affiliate of Hamas, released a statement on Tuesday blaming Israel for the criminal act. The statement also condemned the media for its quickness to blame groups based in Gaza.

The Brotherhood has not been alone in its suspicions. The National Front for Justice and Democracy, an Egyptian revolutionary youth group, also released a statement pointing out that Palestinians had the most to lose from the attacks, warning that they should not be dragged into internal conflicts.

Daher told Ahram Online that many Palestinians currently in the border city of Rafah are being randomly arrested since Sunday's violence, regardless of whether or not they had the appropriate travel documentation. Moreover, many Gazans now fear they will soon be suffering an even more acute shortage of basic commodities in light of the post-attack border closure.

Gazans have long suffered from the crippling effects of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory, especially the lack of sufficient building material to rebuild the thousands of homes systematically destroyed by Israel in recent years.

"The lack of building materials has pushed many Palestinians in Gaza to recycle the remains of their torn-down homes to build new ones," said Yassin.

Adding to this fear, Egypt's state-owned Arab Contractors company, under the supervision of the Egyptian military, has, since Tuesday, been destroying the subterranean tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt.

The system of tunnels between Gaza and Egyptian Rafah has long represented the primary channel by which food and other vital commodities have been brought into Gaza since the blockade was first imposed in 2006.

Egypt's complicity in the blockade under Mubarak had been a controversial issue in Egypt, largely contributing to popular ire against the former regime. Yet even after last year's revolution, the border remained tightly sealed to commercial traffic.

Although the Rafah crossing was opened to limited passenger traffic in April of last year, this, too, has ground to a halt following Sunday's attack and the subsequent border closure.

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