Casualties of two wars on terror: Gaza, Egypt and Israel

The possibility that Palestinians will increasingly just view Egypt as a party to their suffering is very real

H.A. Hellyer
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The people of Gaza, it seems, are the victims of two examples of the “war on terror,” including Israel’s, where the state seems to have identified the entire Palestinian population of Gaza as a party to that “war on terror” (and the party that will pay the price). But also, the people of Gaza are victims of another “war on terror” – Egypt’s. And the consequences of that are going to plague Gaza and the Palestinians for quite some time.

For the past year, Egypt public discourse on Palestinians has been fairly clear. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – and even before Mohammad Mursi was removed from power - it had been portrayed tremendously badly in much of the Egyptian private and public media. That has not changed in the past year, on the contrary, Hamas is mentioned in rather unflattering terms in court cases and so forth.


Gaza is not a huge, sprawling landmass, where it is easy for populations to relocate temporarily. It is the most condensed population center in the world

H.A. Hellyer

Beyond Hamas, Palestinians have suffered from rather poor representation in a substantial proportion of the private media. The suggestion being: Palestinians resident in Egypt are disproportionately supportive of the Brotherhood. That type of representation has diminished in recent months, as the more rabid elements of the “war on terror” narrative have seemingly fatigued after peaking but the after effects are still evident. The people of Gaza are being made to pay an awesome price for the faults of Hamas, as mentioned, and they are now causalities of two “wars on terror.”

Rafah border crossing

On a security level, the legal Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt remains closed. At the same, the illegal tunnels underneath the border, which have allowed some relief for the people of Gaza, are being targeted by Egyptian state forces. That process of closing the tunnels did not begin the past year and even under Mursi’s own Muslim Brotherhood rule, the tunnels were being flooded with sewage. Certainly, however, that process has intensified since his ouster from power.

In principle, there are few who can legitimately argue that the tunnels are legal – they are an infringement of sovereignty and allow for the creation of an illegal economy, with all of the repercussions that entails. Yet, one has to ask: why, especially if the tunnels are closed, has Egypt insisted on closing the Rafah crossing?

It’s for that reason that a series of Egyptian political parties have come out and said that Rafah should be permanently and indefinitely opened – not just when the people of Gaza are under such duress from the Israeli bombardment. Indeed, even under this barrage, the crossing has only been opened very intermittently, leaving scores of Palestinian civilians to fend for themselves.

One should keep in mind that over the past few days, Israel has advised some 300,000 Palestinians to leave the entire northern area of the Gaza Strip while it carries out its bombardments. Gaza, however, is not a huge, sprawling landmass, where it is easy for populations to relocate temporarily. It is the most condensed population center in the world. If Palestinians have to evacuate the north, it’s not quite clear where they are expected to go and if Egypt can provide temporary shelter, one wonders why it wouldn’t.

No easy access into Egypt

A common argument has been that if the Palestinian population is allowed easy access into Egypt, it may not be allowed back, which would thwart Palestinian aspirations to a state that includes the Gaza Strip. More widely, that’s a mode of thinking that has traditionally energized many Arab states’ policies towards Palestinian refugees and it’s caused many Arab states to erect special barriers against the naturalization of Palestinian refugees.

But the argument is difficult to uphold. Palestinian refugees with American citizenship have not given up their political rights within the Palestinian cause, for example. When it comes to opening Rafah, the argument is just as flimsy – Egypt and the Palestinians, not the Israelis, control the Rafah crossing. The Palestinians are certainly not likely to close off the crossing to Palestinians who wish to re-enter.

The only viable argument is a security one – that if the Rafah crossing is open, radical militants may seek to enter Egypt to conduct terrorist activities against the Egyptian state, or use the Sinai as a front against Israel. That is a threat that may indeed apply. During this latest assault on Gaza, there have been reports of attempted rocket fire into Israel from Sinai – of course, there is no indication of whether or not those operations led by Egyptians or Palestinians. Other reports indicate that in the past, Palestinian radicals have linked with Egyptians radicals in the Sinai and with the radical narrative that positions the Egyptian state as waging a “war against Islam” after the deposal of Mohammed Mursi, it’s not beyond possibility that Palestinian radicals (and other nationalities) might perceive Egypt as another arena in the realm of “jihad.”

Having said that, the security argument is not a reason to hold all of Gaza hostage due to the possible threat from a small minority. Especially under these conditions, Egypt holding the Rafah crossing closed is akin to implementing a prison sentence –a prison that is currently being bombarded on the one hand, resulting in more than 150 dead, and partially governed by a right-wing Islamist group on the other.

The security threats are reasons to implement appropriate checks and entry measures, they are not reasons to simply close the border. Indeed, if one is to judge this very cynically, the complete closing of the border may actually increase the potential threat to Egypt’s security. The possibility that Palestinians will increasingly just view Egypt as a party to their suffering is very real and it also encourages them to simply line up behind Hamas, as they may see no one else who is likely to stand by them.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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