Cairo Tightens Egypt’s Blockade of Gaza After Sinai Terrorist Attack
An angry Egypt has tightened its five-year land, sea and air blockade of Gaza following the spectacular weekend attack on an Egyptian border installation by Islamic terrorists traced to Gaza.
After a recent encouraging meeting in Cairo between newly installed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Hamas strong man Ismail Haniya, reports suggested that Cairo would keep the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai open for a full 12 hours a day, until 9 pm nightly, The 4-hour increase was expected to allow as many as 1,500 Gazans to cross daily. The Egyptian crossing and checkpoint was Gaza’s transit point to the rest of the world. But the Egyptian government publicly rescinded all such assurances and slammed shut all access points, including tunnels. Moreover, Morsi’s government declared the ramped up blockade strictures were “indefinite.”
Heavily armed terrorists killed 16 Egyptian police officers in a weekend raid, and then seized two Russian-built BRDM armored vehicles. The iconic Soviet-era BRDM is a combat reconnaissance and patrol vehicle with amphibious capabilities. The first commandeered BRDM raced toward the Israeli border but was destroyed on the Egyptian side. The second BRDM successfully crossed the border, traveling a few hundred yards, before it was destroyed by a combination of Israeli Air Force, tanks, and Special Forces. Israel withdrew from the mainly Palestinian territory of the former now-dissolved Ottoman colony.
Egyptian officials investigating the attack charged that some of the attackers infiltrated from Gaza through established smuggling tunnels under the border. Scores of tunnels lie beneath the 9-mile long Gazan-Egyptian border through which the Palestinian Gazans primarily move contraband, weapons, and fighters as well as a host of commercial products. Closing the tunnels was enunciated as a high priority for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads up the Egyptian military. Under pressure from Morsi, Hamas announced it too would temporarily close the tunnels on the Gaza side.
Egypt’s still-strong military leaders vowed to sweep the Sinai, track down the organizations and individuals responsible, and restore Egyptian law to the desert.
The now outlaw Sinai has been gripped by an admixture of poverty, absent authority, and Islamic terrorist fervor. Numerous Egyptian analysts agree that the age-old tribal authority of Sinai’s tribal sheiks has recently been supplanted by well-armed, highly mobile, slogan-shouting jihadis. Mohamed Hamad, the son of a Sinai tribal chief was quoted in the Egyptian media as bemoaning that the once-respected word of the elders has been shouted down by those “spouting political and religious catchphrases.” The north Sinai’s Azazna tribe has come under the spotlight in this desert upheaval. Almost half the tribe’s members are not considered Egyptian. They carry identity cards stamped “nationality unknown.” They have no allegiance to Egypt and no sense of connectivity.
A Mubarak government report two years ago concluded that as many as 120,000 of the Sinai’s 600,000-person population did not even carry national ID cards. Bedouins make up the largest segment of this stateless group. Without Egyptian citizenship, Sinai dwellers cannot own land, join the army, or directly participate in the tourism trade—now drastically dwindled.
“We don’t feel like Egyptian citizens,” Sheikh Ahmed Hussein of the Qararsha tribe told Al Ahram. The Qararsha constitute one of the leading south Sinai tribes. One Bedouin sheikh from the Suraka tribe told Al Ahram that no one should expect Bedouins to be “living off scraps of land while they built skyscrapers around us.”
When friction arises between the authorities and Bedouin, the tribesmen feel at ease employing drastic criminal and militant measures. This happened in recent weeks when a Bedouin’s uncle was sentenced to a few days in jail for minor drug possession. In retaliation, an American pastor from Boston touring the Sinai, along with his Egyptian guide, were kidnapped off a bus and held as ransom. The pastor was released, but the kidnappers promised more such incidents whenever it suited them.
El Arish streets now sport outlaw roadblocks and checkpoints. Dragooned tanks and armored cars adorn several of these ad hoc checkpoints, which require time and bribery to pass. Some outlaw checkpoints are even functioning in front of regular government buildings and ministries. At the same time, luxury imported cars have replaced donkeys and camels among the younger generation of militants cruising the desert byways. Helpless Sinai police suspect big money from drugs and arms smuggling have financed these cars and the new power base.
The ferocious weekend attack has finally sounded a wake-up alarm in Cairo, a call for Egypt to see the same Sinai that Israeli security officials are seeing–a lawless desert waiting to explode. Indeed, Morsi has informed Hamas that he would clamp down on Islamic militants and terrorists in the Sinai as a first test of his leadership. Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk has reportedly complained on his Facebook page that sealing the Rafah crossing constituted collective punishment, a complaint usually reserved for Israel, whose own security measures mimic the Egyptian blockade. But Cairo laughed off the Hamas criticism.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS) has been conspicuously silent about the ramped up Egyptian blockade of Gaza. In the past, the BDS movement’s well-oiled social media and petition campaign has pretended that the Gaza blockade existed only on the Israeli side when, in fact, Egypt, Gaza’s main partner, has enforced its own air-sea-land blockade for the past half-decade. In fact, Egypt maintains an embassy in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood, which won big in recent Egyptian elections, considers Hamas to be its Palestinian chapter. However, on the ground, Egypt has long blockaded Gaza out of dire security concerns. Those concerns were ignited as never before by the brazen assault on Egyptian soldiers.
Even senior Hamas officials were hard-pressed to defend the terrorist attack. One official referred to the Salafist cells in the Sinai as “ticking bombs that threaten not only the Gaza government.”Gaza analyst Abdel Majed Swailem has been quoted in the Egyptian media predicting, “Egypt is going to be very tough on the borders and that will harm Hamas’ standing. The first target for Egypt now will be the tunnels, the main artery for Hamas.”
For its part, the Egyptian public is now regretting the recent public rapprochement between Morsi and Hamas. Shoe and rock-throwing protesters chased Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and his guards from a funeral prayer for the murdered border soldiers that was held at Cairo’s famous Al-Rashdad Mosque. Prime Minister Qandil was beaten by the crowd until rescued. “You killed them, you dogs,” the protestors cried as they also loudly condemned the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi. The Egyptian Prime Minister escaped before the funeral. President Morsi was compelled to skip the funeral as well due to security concerns.
Gaza and Hamas appear to be more isolated than ever as the two affected capitals, Cairo and Jerusalem, prepare for their next moves.
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, and The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust. He can be reached at www.edwinblack.com