Rafah, Gaza Strip – Israeli gunboats have been known to fire at Palestinian fishermen in between the maritime borders of Gaza and Egypt. As an escape route, the fishermen flee into Egyptian waters.
But last month, the Egyptian naval forces seized the boat of the Bassalla family, arrested five siblings and cousins, and sentenced each of them to a year in prison and a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (US$73).
“The fishermen are afraid to go to the Egyptian waters since then,” Samir Bassalla, 24, told Al Jazeera of his detained relatives.
The unprecedented detention and trial of the fishermen is the latest measure the military-backed Egyptian government is taking against the Gaza Strip since the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi in July.
The Egyptian military has also destroyed several smuggling tunnels beneath Gaza’s southern border with Egypt – heavily disrupting the transport of fuel, construction materials, and depriving Hamas of a prime source of revenue.
“Things are very difficult,” said Alaa al-Rafati, Hamas’ minister of economy. “There is a 90 percent drop in tunnels’ imports and the GDP losses vary between $400-$450m,” he told Al Jazeera.
He explained that 40 percent of the government’s annual operating budget is derived from “fees” imposed on imported construction materials.
The main gate to the outside world for Gaza’s 1.7 million people, the Rafah crossing point, continues to be closed since earlier this month.
“There are attempts to tighten the grip on Gaza to make it bow for the American and Zionist will,” Mushir al-Massri, a Hamas official, told Al Jazeera. He blamed the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank of encouraging the Egyptian measures against Gaza.
|Egypt partly reopens border with Gaza|
The sense of siege fills the air in the streets. Cars wait for hours and sometimes days in long lines outside petrol stations for cheap Egyptian fuel. Despite the clampdown, smugglers manage to export limited amounts of it despite the security clampdown. The Egyptian diesel is sold here for nearly $1 – half the price of Israeli petrol.
The tunnel closures also paralysed the building process, as construction materials were excluded from Israel’s list of goods allowed into Gaza when it eased the blockade in 2010.
But on Sunday, Israel allowed 70 trucks of cement, gravel and steel into Gaza for the first time since Hamas assumed control in 2007. The Ministry of Economy says that the amounts Israel allowed offset 20 percent of what the tunnels delivered.
“The siege is worse now than it was under Mubarak,” al-Massri said, referring to the former Egyptian president who aided Israel in shutting Gaza’s crossing points to isolate Hamas when it routed forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
With the rare openings of Rafah crossing, often restricted to humanitarian cases, Hamas is feeling international isolation again as its leaders are unable to travel or receive visiting diplomats, as well as solidarity and aid convoys.
“The siege generates an economic, humanitarian and environmental crisis, but it will not produce its intended goals: a political and security crisis against Hamas here,” al-Massri said.
Analysts say Hamas’ hasty responses following the overthrow of Morsi infuriated the Egyptian military.
“The new rulers in Egypt are enraged by Hamas for taking sides with the Muslim Brotherhood, mainly on media,” Akram Attallah, a Gaza-based political analyst and columnist in the West Bank daily of Al-Ayyam, told Al Jazeera.
After Morsi’s overthrow, and after an Egyptian court convicted him of conspiring with Hamas, members from the armed wing of the group started holding bi-weekly parades, chanting slogans supporting their Egyptian brothers.
|Hamas guards at the Rafah crossing [EPA]|
The Hamas members also kept showing the “R4bia” sign; four stretched fingers and the thumb is bent into the palm, the symbol of Morsi’s supporters encampment in Rabia area in Cairo. In August, Egyptian security forces squashed the gathering and hundreds were killed.
Hamas says the parades were a message to Israel, but raising the R4bia sign was often interpreted in the Egyptian media as a message of solidarity with the Brotherhood and against the military.
“It was expected that Egypt will not turn a blind eye to R4bia sign on the screens of Hamas televisions, or deeming its generals as traitors,” Attallah said. “If some mouths were shut, Rafah crossing would not have been shut.”
Attempts to cool things down were made, including advisement to preachers from Hamas’ minister of religious affairs to not discuss the Egyptian situation. However, many analysts agree these attempts were unsuccessful.
But al-Massri, the Hamas official, said his movement can’t absorb Egyptian anger and declare clearly that it has nothing to do with the Muslim Brothers. “We are part of the Muslim Brotherhood and we can’t deny that. But we deny involvement in what happens in Egypt.”
Salah al-Bardaweel, another Hamas official in Gaza, dismissed recent remarks by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fehmi that Cairo is considering military options to deal with Hamas, if it is proved the Islamic movement is meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs.
“These statements are dangerous, unbelievable and unjustifiable” al-Bardaweel told Al-Jazeera. “There is no evidence for Hamas’ threatening the Egyptian national security.”
Repeated attempts to contact Egypt’s ambassador in Ramallah for comment were unsuccessful.
Frustration remains pervasive in Gaza. Outside the closed Rafah crossing, dozens of students were sitting in a café as trucks bound for the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing belched smoke and dust as they passed.
The students, whose school terms have started in Egypt, come here every day hoping the crossing may open.
One such student is Ali Hassan, who studied dentistry at Misr University for Science and Technology in Egypt. “After graduation, I began a two-term internship at the university,” Ali told Al Jazeera. Done with the first term, Ali remains stuck in Gaza now and the second term has already begun. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, pacing nervously.
Let Gazans be hungry, but don't starve them. Let them live, but don't let them produce.
Ali said he fears losing the internship, and his Egyptian residency permit also expires on September 30.
“I won’t have time to go and renew the residency … I have to stay in the university to follow up with the subjects I have missed,” he said.
At the same time, Ali fears going out in the streets when his residency expires out of concern for being detained or expelled to Gaza.
Maher Abu Sabha, the crossing’s director in Gaza, said an average of 1,200 Palestinians used to exit through Rafah each month before the July shutdown. Now, only about 300 people can leave.
Despair and the feeling of weakness were also sensed at the Bassalla house of the detained fishermen. “We don’t go to the sea because our boat is seized … We don’t know where to get it from – the Egyptians or the Israelis who restrict the fishing space” off Gaza’s coast to six nautical miles, said Samir, brother of the fishermen.
Al-Rafati, the economy minister, said restrictions serve “the starvation equation” Israel has set for Gaza. “Let Gazans be hungry, but don’t starve them. Let them live, but don’t let them produce,” al-Rafati said of Israeli policy.