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Sinai Attack Dashes Hopes For Closer Gaza-Egypt Ties

Palestinians look at items in a gift shop as they wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the Gaza Strip last month. Egypt shut down the crossing less than a week later, after a deadly attack near Rafah left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. (Tara Todras-Whitehill for NPR)

In Gaza, the departures hall at the Rafah border crossing between the Palestinian territory and Egypt is brand new, air conditioned and festooned with Palestinian flags.

Only a few days ago, uniformed border guards called out the names of those approved to leave Gaza.

The improved land crossing from Gaza into Egypt was the centerpiece of what Hamas hoped would be an expanded relationship between the two neighbors.

Gaza resident Ibrahim — he only gave one name — was leaving Gaza that day, traveling to the United Arab Emirates. He said restrictions placed on Gaza should be lifted.

"Most of the people is hoping that the things becoming better," he said. "We should be free."

But Ibrahim's aspirations and those of Hamas — the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza — have been dashed, at least temporarily.

Gaza's Isolation

On Sunday, an attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border near Rafah left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. Egypt immediately closed down the crossing; both Egypt and Israel allege that some of the attackers came from Gaza, and are pressuring Hamas to crack down on jihadist elements there.

Leaders of Hamas, which is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, had been trying to persuade Egypt's new leaders to help Gaza break out of its isolation. But those efforts have suffered a major setback as a result of the attack in the Sinai.

The Gaza Strip is one of the most isolated places in the world. Israel tightly controls the majority of the land access to the coastal territory as well as its sea and airspace.

When Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war with its rival Fatah, those restrictions increased. Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist organization responsible for suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

Egypt under Hosni Mubarak also placed travel and trade restrictions on the strip, effectively cutting off Gaza from the rest of the world.

Israel has recently eased its blockade, but Gaza still relies on smuggling through hundreds of tunnels that run under the Egyptian border.

But after Sunday's attack, Hamas closed the tunnels and bolstered security in the border area to block the movement of arms and militants.

The Argument For Closer Cooperation

Just last week, a Hamas delegation met Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Cairo and asked Egypt to fully open its borders with Gaza to allow a regular flow of people and goods.

Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar says the talks were "constructive" and "important." He says access to Egypt is vital because Israel allows only a tiny fraction of Gazans to leave the territory via the Jewish state.

Hamas also wants to establish a free trade zone with Egypt. Now, Gaza can import goods from both Israel and Egypt, but the economy is stymied by Israeli restrictions on its exports, mostly to the West Bank.

So Zahar says Hamas wants Egypt to help solve Gaza's many economic woes.

"A new policy and a new relation will be held, inshallah," he says.

It's a plan that some in Israel actually support. Dan Harel, the former head of the Israeli army's southern command, is among them.

"We should disengage entirely from the Gaza Strip," he says.

Harel says he would like Israel to stop providing Gaza with gas and other supplies, and let it get what it needs from Egypt.

"I think that we should declare them an enemy country and cut all connections that we have with them," he says.

Readjusted Expectations

But Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad says that would threaten hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It is to me quite obvious that we will not be able to have that state which we have been looking for without Gaza," he says. "So the notion that Gaza Strip would do things with Egypt is something that is not in the direction we would like to see."

After this latest border incident, though, it's unlikely that Egypt will make any moves to change the status quo.

Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based independent economist, says Hamas will have to readjust its expectations.

"They should not expect something from Egypt," he says. "Morsi, as a president of Egypt, knows much better than others that he cannot do that."

And that leaves Gaza without the champion it was looking for.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Egypt's relationship with Israel has long been complicated and uneasy. Mohamed Morsi's election has not helped, but another regional player does expect to benefit from Morsi's rise to power. The militant group Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and is an offshoot of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The group's leaders hope the new government in Cairo will help break Gaza's isolation. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was recently in Gaza and files this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The departures hall is brand new, air conditioned and festooned with Palestinian flags. Only a few days ago, uniformed and professional Hamas border guards called out the names of those approved to leave Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The improved land crossing from Gaza into Egypt was the centerpiece of what Hamas hoped would be an expanded relationship between the two neighbors. Gaza resident Ibrahim was leaving Gaza that day, traveling to the UAE. He said restrictions placed on Gaza should be lifted.

IBRAHIM: Most of the people are hoping that things is becoming better. We should be free.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Ibrahim's aspirations and those of Hamas have been at least temporarily dashed. After yesterday's attack, Egypt immediately closed down the Rafah crossing. Both Egypt and Israel alleged that some of the attackers came from Gaza and are pressuring Hamas to crack down on jihadist elements there. The Gaza Strip is one of the most isolated places in the world. Israel tightly controls the majority of the land access to the coastal territory as well as its sea and airspace. When Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war with its rival Fatah, those restrictions increased. Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist organization responsible for suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, also placed travel and trade restrictions on the strip, effectively cutting off Gaza from the rest of the world. Israel has recently eased its blockade, but Gaza still relies on smuggling through hundreds of tunnels that run under the Egyptian border. But after Sunday's attack, Hamas closed them and bolstered security in the border area to block the movement of arms and militants. Just last week, a Hamas delegation met President Morsi in Cairo and asked Egypt to fully open its borders with Gaza to allow a regular flow of people and goods.

DR. MAHMOUD AL-ZAHAR: I think it is - it was very important, constructive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said access to Egypt is vital because Israel allows only a tiny fraction of Gazans to leave the territory via the Jewish state. Hamas also wants to establish a free trade zone with Egypt. Now, Gaza can import goods from both Israel and Egypt, but the economy is stymied by Israeli restrictions on its exports, mostly to the West Bank. So Mahmoud al-Zahar said, Hamas wants Egypt to help solve Gaza's many economic woes.

AL-ZAHAR: A new policy and a new relation will be held, (foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a plan that some in Israel actually support.

DAN HAREL: We should disengage entirely from the Gaza Strip.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dan Harel is the former head of Israel's southern command. He says, he would like Israel to stop providing Gaza with gas and other supplies and let it get what it needs from Egypt.

HAREL: I think that we should declare them as an enemy country and cut all connections that we have with them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad says that would threaten hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

SALAM FAYYAD: It is to me, quite obvious, that we're not going to be able to have that state which we have been looking for without Gaza. So the notion that, well, Gaza Strip would do things with Egypt is something that we're not in the direction that really we'd like to see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After this latest border incident, though, it's unlikely that Egypt will make any moves to change the status quo. Omar Shaban is a Gaza-based independent economist. He says Hamas will have to readjust its expectations now.

OMAR SHABAN: They should not expect something from Egypt. And Morsi, as a president of Egypt, he knows much better than others that he cannot do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which leaves Gaza without the champion it was looking for. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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