The Egyptian army and Palestinian Authority join forces to punish Gaza

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Palestinians wait outside the departure lounge at Rafah crossing point with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on July 10, 2013. (Photo: Xinhua/Khaled Omar)

Now that the Egyptian army and security services have seized power from the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, the punishment of Palestinians has begun in earnest. While Palestinians are detained or deported en masse at Cairo International Airport, hundreds have been stranded at the Rafah Crossing, which was recently closed by the Egyptian army, compounding a deepening fuel and food crisis.

Incitement against Palestinians peaked after the election of the Freedom and Justice Party’s Mohamed Morsi as President, with liberal politicians and media figures from the opposition exploiting the Morsi-led government’s perceived alliance with Hamas to hold him responsible for acts of terror committed in the Sinai Peninsula.

Since being installed into power through a military coup, anti-Morsi elements have stepped up their campaign of scapegoating, baselessly accusing Palestinians of serving as armed mercenaries for the Muslim Brotherhood. The propaganda campaign has received a boost from the Palestinian Authority, eager to reverse its sagging fortunes against Hamas, and by the Israeli media, which appears to relish rifts in the Palestinian national movement.

Sameh Seif Elyazal, a former Egyptian general who recently appeared on CNN to cheer on the army’s ouster of those he described as practitioners of “Islamic fascism,” is among those propagating the anti-Palestinian campaign in the Egyptian media. On the Al-Tahrir channel, Elyazal reportedly claimed that “Egyptian law will punish with sentences that could reach 25 years in jail the Palestinians and Syrians and Iraqis who have made calls for incitement to violence at the demonstrations at Rabaa Al-Adawiya in return for money.”

Rabaa Al-Adawiya happens to be the site of the army’s recent massacre of as many as 51 pro-Morsi demonstrators. The army and its supporters, including prominent Egyptian liberals like the comedian Bassem Youssef, have sought to justify the killings as a defensive measure against “terrorists,” though little to no evidence has been produced to prove that the demonstrators initiated the violence, or that the victims were armed. Elzayal’s remarks appear calculated to tar the protesters as a Trojan Horse for elements sent over the border by the Brotherhood-allied government in Gaza and jihadists in Syria, casting the army as the defenders of Egypt from foreign subversion.

The general’s allegations echoed a government prosecutor’s assertion that “elements from the Muslim Brotherhood” were recruiting Palestinians and Syrians to attack pro-army demonstrators. The prosecutor accused a Palestinian communal leader of handing out shotguns and cash payments to Palestinians in Cairo, dispatching them to pro-Morsi demonstrations to attack opponents. The conspiratorial claim does not appear to be supported by any credible reporting or evidence, and is not independently verifiable.

Ginning up support for an Egyptian-Israeli operation in the Sinai

While the protests in Cairo continue, the Egyptian army is preparing a major operation in the North Sinai, where militant gunmen have reportedly carried out a wave of attacks on army checkpoints over the past week, killing at least six security officers. An army official told Ma’an News Service, “coordination is ongoing between the Egyptians and the Israelis to bring military vehicles, troops and jets into Sinai to fight terror.” (A previous army foray into the Sinai was planned through direct talks between Egyptian Army Supreme Commander Gen. Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi and then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak).

In an apparent attempt to generate political momentum for the coming Sinai operation, Egyptian army officials have planted stories in Arabic media about Hamas sending droves of fighters into the area to exact vengeance for Morsi’s overthrow. The London-based pro-Saudi newspaper, Al Hayat, recently quoted an unnamed “senior Egyptian military official” claiming that authorities observed 150 Izz al-Din al-Qassam operatives pouring into the Sinai through tunnels. The army official went on to blame Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad for deliberately inflaming the situation.

The Palestinian Authority and Israeli media join the scapegoating

Allegations like these, which mirror discredited claims made in the past by Israeli army officials seeking to legitimize military campaigns against Gaza, have been eagerly amplified by Israeli media sources, from Ynet to Arutz Sheva. Another curiously sourced report that appeared in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat claiming Sinai-based terrorists planned to attack “Arab Israelis” as revenge for Morsi’s ouster prompted Israel’s National Anti-Terror Unit issued a formal travel advisory warning Palestinian citizens of Israel against traveling to Egypt.

The Palestinian Authority has done its best to exploit the situation, with PLO Secretary General and top Abbas advisor Yasser Abd Rabbo accusing Hamas of “helping terrorists and jihadist gangs in Sinai against the Egyptian army.” Abed Rabbo went on to demand that Hamas “draw the conclusions [from Egypt] and agree to real democratic elections for the sake of Palestinians,” an ironic proposition given that Egypt’s new government was installed by force, and that Abed Rabbo’s boss maintains power through emergency rule. Not to be outdone, Jamal Nazzal, a senior figure in Fatah, called on Palestinians to capitalize on the events in Egypt by overthrowing Hamas. 

While none of the Egyptian military’s claims about Palestinian meddling can be verified, their aim seems fairly obvious: pin the blame on pro-Morsi forces and the government of Gaza for the instability in the Sinai, thus justifying any and all actions taken against them.

Collateral damage

The ongoing propaganda campaign has already deepened the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and Egypt. They are the collateral damage of Egypt’s coup, bearing the consequences of scapegoating and demonization.

Since the army ousted Morsi, almost all Palestinians who have arrived at Cairo International Airport have been deported or detained. Among those sent home simply for possessing a Palestinian ID was Yousef Aljamal, a writer and activist who has contributed to Mondoweiss and The Electronic Intifada. According to Ali Abunimah, who first publicized Aljamal’s deportation, Aljamal was on his way home to Gaza from New Zealand, where he had participated in the Conference on Palestine in Auckland. When Aljamal arrived in Cairo with a visa he received from the Egyptian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, he was immediately sent back to Malaysia.

On July 7 Aljamal took to Twitter to describe his deportation: “All Palestinians who arrived [in Cairo] yesterday were sent back to the countries they came from…” he wrote. “Some were sent back to Algeria, Jordan, Pakistan, Tunisia, Canada, and Malaysia. The reason is because the Rafah Crossing is shut down, we had to pay for airfare too.”

Last weekend, the army ordered the closure of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza’s border, citing “security concerns” to tighten the screws of the Israeli-imposed siege. Over 900 Palestinian pilgrims who visited Mecca have reportedly been stranded at the border, unable to return home since the closure, while fuel and basic good shortages in Gaza continue to rise.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported that since the Egyptian coup, “hundreds of Palestinians, including dozens of patients, Palestinian families living in other countries and university students who study abroad, have been stuck in Egypt waiting to be allowed to travel back to the Gaza Strip.”

In recent days, Egyptian forces have destroyed at least 40 tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza, intensifying operations that began under the watch of Morsi, whose government worked closely with US and Israeli military officials. With Gaza unable to import basic goods and gas from Egypt, its only alternative is to turn to Israel, whose suppliers rake in profits by charging exorbitant rates to a literally captive market.

Israeli officials have reacted to the scenario with undisguised glee, with Tzachi Hanegbi, a close Netanyahu ally, declaring, “the return to prominence of the [Egyptian] army and a secular authority capable of ensuring the stability of the country is good news for Israel.”

Back in Cairo, the new government has just issued a decree restricting anyone holding a Palestinian Authority or Jordanian passport without a national number from entering Egypt. As Ali Abunimah noted, “This means that Egypt remains effectively closed to Palestinians who fit those categories.”

The scapegoating of Palestinians in Egypt and Gaza may be nothing new, but with the army and its liberal allies firmly in control, their vulnerable condition lies exposed. 

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