Egypt, the only Arab country bordering Gaza, is strongly associated with the beleaguered population’s suffering and misery, but also nostalgia and lingering hope. But for as long as Egypt continues to be hijacked by military dictators, Gaza is doomed to suffer.
In the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Jordanian and Egyptian armies captured 22% of historic Palestine. Jordan annexed the West Bank, and gave its residents almost full rights, including Jordanian citizenship. Until today, Palestinians in the West Bank hold permanent or temporary Jordanian passports, or at least can travel to Jordan without restrictions.
Egypt, however, refused to annex the Gaza Strip, but rather fenced it off, installed an occupying force made up of military intelligence, and appointed a military governor in full control of it. The first governor was Mahmoud Riad, who later became the third Secretary General of the Arab League.
Riad’s first move in office was to give up a third of the Gaza Strip (about 200 square kilometers) to Israel in 1950, after the Israeli military complained that Palestinian refugees in Gaza were crossing the armistice line to visit their demolished villages, or to move to the West Bank and Jordan.
Gaza, flooded with Palestinian refugees displaced from 247 destroyed villages, was Egypt’s last priority, and it refused to assume any responsibility over its then-population of one million. Although Gaza was one of Egypt’s frontlines of defense in its conflict with Israel, the Egyptian regime’s position on Gazans was to never accept the burden of their care, but rather pivot responsibility to Israel as the overall occupying force, a position that it has held consistently until now.
Egypt actively thwarted Palestinian efforts to mobilize politically or choose their own leadership, and repeatedly denied Palestine’s Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini entry to Gaza to attend national conferences. It also demilitarized the Gaza Strip and disarmed the rebel groups that were fighting against Israel under the premise of an Egyptian promise, which never materialized, that, "It’s our job to set you free, not yours!"
Furthermore, Egypt's first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s domestic persecution campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, the communists and the Jews extended to largescale arbitrary arrests of Palestinian activists, unionists and intellectuals in the Gaza Strip.
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Recently, in Copenhagen, I met Umm Fadi, a Palestinian mother of three from Gaza, now in her 80s. She recalled over dinner how, in 1959, the Egyptian military arrested thousands of Gazan activists overnight and took them to a military prison in Egypt. Her husband, Fakhri, was amongst the detained activists, for no obvious reason.
At the crack of dawn, Umm Fadi hastened to the Rafah land crossing to visit her husband. But passing from Gaza to Egypt has traditionally been an impossible task unless one pays some unaffordable bribe to the gatekeepers. Palestinians in Gaza only held an Egyptian-issued refugee travel document that didn’t even allow them to cross into Egypt freely.
My late grandmother, Egyptian herself, went through the same experience at the borders when trying to return to Egypt. She once told me, just as Umm Fadi described, "All passengers had to slip some money along with their passports to the border officers to let them cross to Egypt." Passengers were always afraid they'd given less than what the officer expected - in which case, the officer would arrest them on charges of attempted bribery.
That tradition continues today: Gazans are explicitly blackmailed to pay a bribe, at a minimum of $2000, to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing.
Upon finally arriving at the Egyptian military prison, Umm Fadi asked to visit her husband or find him an attorney, but both requests were denied under the pretext of "national security concerns." Luckily, she had a friend, Afaf Abu Hasira, who was married to an Egyptian military officer. He facilitated a meeting for Umm Fadi with infamous prison governor Hamza Al-Bassiouni to petition to see her husband.
Al-Bassiouni asked Umm Fadi to supply a list of bribes in order to see her husband in prison. She had to sell her jewelry in return for a visit permit. When she walked into the prison yard, she was shocked to find famous Gazan activists and leaders like Muin Bseiso, Samir Al Barqouni, Khalil Oweida and others, in torn clothes, perspiring profusely under a boiling sun, almost starved to death and covered in blood, bruises and scars from dog bites and the guards' lash.
She was blackmailed again to spare her husband the daily torture and humiliation in prison. She eventually had to sell their land in Gaza at an undervalued price to pay a huge bribe to move her husband to a non-military prison called Al-Wahat. The torture was no less severe in there, but she was able to visit him more often. Her husband remained in prison for four years with no trial, with no charges brought against him and no announced release date.
In 1967, Egypt lost control over Gaza, but the regime remained relatively hostile to its population. Anwar al-Sadat’s presidency differed little from Nasser’s; in 1978, Sadat launched a largescale arrest and deportation campaign against Palestinian students in Egyptian universities.
My father was studying medicine at Cairo University when the Egyptian national security forces arrested him; forces of ill-repute whose nominal specialty was, and is, counter-terrorism, but whose main aim has always been to target the regime’s political opponents. My grandmother, too, was forced to sell her gold jewelry to bribe her son out of prison and return him to the university.
It wasn’t until the 2011 revolution that Egypt, for the first time, had a government truly representative of its population. The borders with Gaza reopened, the claustrophobic population no longer felt imprisoned, the economy boomed, there were visits by Egyptian delegations to Gaza and vice versa; Gazans were treated like human beings again. It brought Gaza back to life. And Gazans took pride, for the first time in decades, in their identity when they visited Egypt.
Unfortunately, that golden era was short-lived.
It lasted two years before another military dictator led a coup against the elected government, sealed off Gaza from the world again, vilified it as the devil and key cause of Egypt’s repeated crises, and brought back a dark era of fear and misery.
By now, it’s almost a punishable offense to be a Gazan in Egypt; Egypt's population, subjected to interminable state propaganda, fear contact with Gazans as if they had the plague, or a contagious moral defect. And Gazans are the Egyptian regime's easiest targets for arbitrary arrests.
In 2014, my cousin was randomly picked up on the street to be a witness in a case with which he had no connection. When the officer learned he was from Gaza, although he held Egyptian citizenship, the officer called him a "terrorist" and threw him into detention for several weeks without even informing his family, who searched for him, increasingly desperately, without a single clue as to his whereabouts. Luckily, my uncle had some connections in the national security services who got his son out for a "decent price."
Ever since al-Sissi’s rise to power, it’s been virtually impossible for Gaza’s two million inhabitants to travel out of their open-air prison to a fellow Arab country. Egypt opens Gaza’s one gate to the world only occasionally: for three days every three months. Egypt decides who goes in or out and denies that right to thousands of people. Passengers must pay huge bribes to be allowed to leave Gaza, and then they are liable to humiliation, plunder, blackmail or arrest at countless checkpoints that punctuate that transit route.
Two weeks ago, Egypt opened its borders for three days after a long closure. My own family, waitlisted to travel for two years, failed to leave Gaza through the Rafah border crossing for the fifth consecutive time because they couldn’t pay the bribe.
The day before, I had called the Egyptian embassy in Sweden to check on my four-month-old visa application to see my family in Cairo. Once the employee heard me say the word "Gaza," his tone immediately became condescending, and reminded me that Gazans, and only Gazans, have to pass through an endless high-level security check by the national security authorities to obtain a permit to visit Egypt. A well-connected friend in Egypt told me that the current rate for a bribe to get that permit exceeds a thousand dollars.
I had a flashback to the 70 years of suffering that Egypt has dealt successive generations of Gazans. I felt the pent-up anger for that – and I also felt the shame of how the world continues to abandon Gaza as the Egyptian military regime's easy prey.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was formerly the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2