As all eyes of the world are on the Egyptian protesters struggling to oust Hosni Mubarak from power, residents of the Gaza Strip are struggling to cope with the ripple effects. With the border between the two abandoned and sealed shut, fuel imports have been cut off, and hundreds of people cannot reach medical care, separated family members or school. Meanwhile, Gazan youth who see the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia as role models are being arrested by the Hamas government, which is clearly fearful of any similar demonstration of independence and anger.
Fuel smuggling dries up
With insecurity and violence rampant across Egypt, including its southern region along the border, workers who normally smuggle the fuel used to power cars, generators and other equipment into the Gaza Strip fled to their homes or to fight Egyptian forces, cutting the 1.8 million Palestinians off from their main supply of energy. Merchants and tunnellers said the pace of smuggling of fuel and other materials reached its lowest level on Jan. 29, as clashes between Egyptian residents of north Sinai and security forces intensified.
According to Mahmoud al-Shawa, president of the board of directors of the Palestinian Energy and Natural Resources Authority in the Strip, Gaza is in need of 800,000 liters of diesel (of which 200,000 are consumed by the main power station) and 300,000 liters of petrol (gasoline) daily. Only half of that requirement was available even before the Egyptian uprising. Most of Strip’s supply must be smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt, since fuel from Israel is not only limited in quantity but too expensive for most residents to afford due to taxes levied by the Palestinian Authority. According to al-Shawa, PA taxes nearly the double the price of fuel for buyers.
“One liter of diesel (from Egypt) costs 1.7 shekels for the civilian to buy, compared to 6.16 for the same liter from Israel. This is a very high price and the civilians in Gaza cannot afford it,” al-Shawa said through an interpreter. “I am asking Salam Fayyad (the PA-appointed prime minister) and President Mahmoud Abbas (who governs the West Bank) to remove the taxes so civilians can buy petrol. Gaza has been under Israeli blockade for more than four years and people have no jobs.”
Noting that the authority has had to ration gas to the Strip’s 29 stations to stop panic buying, as well as to control prices, al-Shawa said he is particularly worried about Gaza’s hospitals, orphanages and vital enterprises such as bakeries and chicken farms. Although he would not name a number of days left before affordable fuel runs out, he warns it won’t be long.
“I believe the situation in Egypt will take a long time to finish, honestly,” he said. “We have a big problem, and I am asking the world and the biggest country in the world — America – to remember Gaza. The entire world is busy watching Egypt, even though there is a population of 1.8 million who are being affected in an indirect way by Egypt’s events. There will be a disaster if we don’t do something.”
Gazans unable to access medical care, attend school, reunite with families
Until Jan. 30, the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza had been open five days a week for foreigners and Palestinians going in and out for medical treatment, to visit family and to attend school. On average, 400 Gazans would leave and 200 would return, every day. Normally, each day at 9 a.m., the Egyptian border officials called the Gaza side to inform the staff there that traffic can start. However, on that day, recalled Dr. Ghaza Hamad, chief manager of Gaza’s Department of Borders & Crossing, no call came. Inspection showed that the terminal was “completely empty. All of the passport police, intelligence officers and other employees working there had left. Only the Egyptian Army was in the area.”
When Dr. Hamad finally managed to make contact with a liaison, he was told that the situation in Egypt was too dangerous to require the staff to work and for the border to be opened. They would, he was told, have to be patient and wait until further notification. Since then, there has been no further information on when the crossing would be opened.
“There are thousands of people who can’t leave Gaza or get back in,” said Dr. Hamad. “Those needing to leave Gaza include those with cancer or other critical disease. And those who are stranded in Cairo and other parts of Egypt are frequently patients finished with their treatment who can’t afford to stay in a hotel or to rent a house. There is a need to open the border at least partially.”
[Note: I am one of those who cannot leave Gaza. I was scheduled to depart two days ago, and have now postponed my flight until next Wednesday. Can I get out then? No one has any idea.]
Gazans try to demonstrate as well, making Hamas nervous
Meanwhile, some Gazans are trying to mimic their compatriots in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen by taking to the streets as well. And that makes the Hamas government nervous. Although government officials sponsored one official rally in solidarity with the Egyptian protesters, when a small group of journalists and bloggers organized their own, six girls and eight boys were arrested. Two of the girls, known for their outspoken criticism of the regime, were beaten. One of the girl’s uncle is now being threatened as a form of blackmail. The stated reason was a lack of permit, but the participants suspect the real motive was to discourage any uncontrolled popular uprising.
“I found out about the rally through Facebook, and it said the sit-in was in support of the Egyptian people in their revolution. I wanted to be part of something, to help the Egyptian people, somehow,” recalled Mahmoud, who was afraid to give his full name. “The government had already held a big demonstration the previous Friday, and most of the movements joined it, but most youth don’t belong to any faction here. I didn’t want to be part of that. I wanted to do something from me.”
However, he said, when arrived at the Square for the Unknown Soldier, where most demonstrations are held in Gaza City, Mahmoud described what happened: “Out of the blue, an officer wearing civilian clothes grabbed my hand and said ‘come with me.’ …He pushed me into a jeep and accused me of protesting against them. He said, ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson.’ I thought they were going to beat us.”
Mahmoud believes he was only not beaten because a relative works for the government. Several hours later, after being blindfolded and interrogated, Mahmoud was released, although his telephone was confiscated and only returned two days later.
Mahmoud is now leery of participating in any non-sanctioned protests. However, other youth are undeterred.
On Jan. 28, a Facebook page appeared calling for a revolution in Gaza and naming Feb. 11 a day of protest against the Hamas government. Although no one knows who is organizing it, Ma’an News reports that Fatah officials have repeatedly asked the agency to cover the initiative. (Four days later, another page was set up on Facebook, calling for a revolution in Ramallah and the ouster of President Mahmoud Abbas.)
Despite the beatings and arrests of the bloggers who demonstrated, Samah Ahmad el-Rawagh – a human rights worker and youth activist — says she will participate in the Feb. 11 protest. “I’m not playing an organizational role in this activity, but I have no problem participating to express my opinion. All of our lives, we have known our enemy is one – the Israeli occupation. But now we have two enemies, the Israeli occupation and the separation between Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Our demand is to end this separation and set a date for elections, to give us our right as youths to vote and choose the leadership that will represent us. What happened before won’t scare us away. I believe the youth are able to make change and us as Palestinians, we’re a youth community; we are more than the half of the population. It is up to us.”