The seemingly eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially in Gaza, which poses a continuous headache for the occupation, pushed the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to say in 1992, “I wish I could wake up one day and find that Gaza has sunk into the sea.”
However, the Gaza Strip did not sink into the sea and the situation is worse than it was during Rabin’s day, both for Israel and the Palestinians. Despite this, Rabin’s dream has been recalled by Palestinians on social networking sites since the Egyptian army began flooding the Gaza border with sea water.
Early on 11 September, the Egyptians started to pump large amounts of sea water into pipes that were extended across the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in an attempt to destroy the smuggling tunnels by flooding them. The Egyptian authorities began the move towards a tunnel-free zone along the border last October, specifically in the city of Rafah. The zone extends for two kilometres and was all done in the name of “combatting terrorism”.
The roots of the Gaza tragedy date back to before the creation of Israel in 1948, and the people of Gaza had no rights when they were under Egyptian sovereignty after that. At the time, the Strip was isolated from its Arab surroundings. This was followed by the June 1967 war, which caused more harm to the Gaza Strip and, of course, the territory has been isolated from the world for more than nine years as a result of the Israeli-imposed blockade. The Egyptians have played a role in this by frequent and lengthy closures of the only border crossing at Rafah.
The Israeli occupation tried to embrace the Palestinians in Gaza after the 1967 war and started to tempt them by supporting the local economy and linking it to Israel’s. The government published Arabic language books and distributed them in Gaza, and presented films translated into Arabic which tried to promote a connection between the people of Gaza and Israel.
Now, Gaza finds itself in a similar predicament being torn between Hamas and Fatah, with the political split dominating since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006. The Islamic movement itself is stuck between reconciliation efforts and the painfully slow reconstruction process following the destruction wrought by Israel’s three offensives against the enclave since 2008. There is a suffocating financial crisis and political isolation from the Arab world and international community, starting with Egypt, Gaza’s southern gateway and the mediator between Hamas and both Israel and Fatah.
“Contacts are underway with Cairo to halt pumping seawater into Rafah,” Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said yesterday, “as such measures are objectionable and pose a threat to groundwater as well as to a large number of homes on the Palestinian side.”
The Palestine Water Authority in the Gaza Strip made a statement on Saturday saying that the Egyptian army’s pumping of sea water is causing subsidence, subjecting “homes close to the area to danger.” It also noted that the sea water has caused an increase in the salinity of the soil, making it “unsuitable for agriculture.” The authority added that pumping water into canals along the border destroys Palestinian water and food security and “empties the area of its residents.”
Hamas gained an ally in Egypt by means of its support for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood during and after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. This ally was lost when President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by a military coup in July 2013.
The economic and political damage caused by the deterioration of the relationship between Hamas and Egypt has since become more obvious. Campaigns were launched by the coup government to restrict the tunnel economy in Gaza; buffer zones were established; and severe restrictions were imposed on the borders. All of this combined to escalate the poor economic and humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.
Despite Hamas’s rejection of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s policies, it was forced, given its geographical and political isolation, to address the leadership and intelligence agencies in Cairo and express the movement’s willingness to meet and discuss cooperation with regards to border security and the restoration of relations. This has been especially important since Egypt was the mediator between Hamas and the Israelis for the current ceasefire agreements agreed after Israel’s offensive last year.
Hamas has not only highlighted repeatedly its interest in restoring its relationship with Egypt, but also emphasised its common security fears and its commitment to crack down on Salafi jihadist organisations that are spreading systematically across the Sinai Peninsula and, in terms of ideology without an organisational structure, in the Gaza Strip.
Those observing the situation do not believe there are likely to be signs of change in Egypt’s policies any time soon, despite the fact that there are talks taking place under Saudi auspices in order to reduce the tension in the relationship. This is evidenced by the fact that the Rafah crossing was only open for 18 days between January and July this year. Although it was opened for four days in August, the small steps taken by the government in Cairo have not reached the level of it reconsidering its policy of isolating Gaza.
The mysterious disappearance of four Palestinians said to have been affiliated with Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, in Sinai last month, has caused more distrust between the two sides. Hamas believes that this was an operation orchestrated by the Egyptian government. There has been no word yet on the fate of the four.
Translated from Al-Khaleej Online, 20 September 2015.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.