CAIRO — For the Islamist Hamas rulers controlling the Gaza Strip, the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement is a “nightmare” situation.
Hamas, which began as the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, celebrated Morsi’s election to office last year, becoming a key Islamist ally and supporter in the Arab world.
“What happened in Egypt is a nightmare for Hamas which it did not expect,” Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said in an email to reporters.
Hamas’ leadership has remained conspicuously quiet about the military’s ousting of Morsi, releasing a statement that it did not meddle in Egyptian affairs. Protesters who took to the streets against Morsi complained often that his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government gave preference to Gaza.
“They send things to Gaza which we do not have in Egypt. We want to get rid of Morsi and get a new leader who puts Egypt first,” said Ala Mafrouk, a 23-year-old student who took part in the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The anti-Palestinian sentiment in Egypt was a turnabout from just two years ago, when protesters in Tahrir chanted “Free Gaza” along with “get rid of Mubarak.” When Morsi emerged as the victor of Egypt’s first free elections in 30 years, many in Gaza celebrated what they thought would be renewed ties with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.
“We believed that this would mean a complete renaissance for Gaza, a complete opening of the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza, trade deals, no travel restrictions. We imagined that we would finally be connected to the rest of the region,” said one Hamas legislator, who asked to speak anonymously because Hamas has refused to comment on the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. “Instead, there were only small changes. Now there is this, and the mood in Gaza is very dark. We feel we are stranded.”
That feeling was bolstered when Egyptian authorities announced this weekend that they were closing the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza indefinitely because of violent attacks against Egyptian security forces across the Sinai Peninsula. For most Palestinians, Rafah is more than a crossing – it is a symbol for the isolated Gaza Strip’s contact with the outside world.
One of the first announcements made by Morsi when he rose to power in Egypt was that he would fully open the Rafah crossing. The announcement would have meant that for the first time, Gaza’s population of 1.6 million could freely travel to Egypt without the bureaucratic red tape that previously had ensured that the number of people traveling between Gaza and Egypt was kept to a trickle. Although Morsi never fulfilled his promise, he did loosen restrictions. Over the past year, officials from across the Arab world, including the emir of Qatar, visited the coastal strip for the first time.
Over the weekend, after the Egyptian military ousted Morsi from power and arrested several hundred members of his party, the military announced it was closing the Gaza Strip until future notice.
Several Palestinians in Rafah told McClatchy that they were stranded on either side of the border, unable to cross to be with their loved ones as the holy month of Ramadan approaches.
“We had no warning about this, suddenly they closed the crossing,” said Ashraf Arraf, a 22-year-old Palestinian from Gaza who had traveled to Egypt for medical treatment last month. “I want to be with my family. This is the most important time to be together as a family. It is like telling a Christian family they can’t be together for Christmas.”
An Egyptian military official reached in Al Arish, a border town near Rafah, said Palestinian militants were behind many of the attacks on Egyptian military posts and police checkpoints.
“There are dangerous terrorists from Gaza attempting to disrupt order in Egypt during this sensitive period. We are doing this temporarily to restore order,” he said, though he would not say when Rafah would be reopened. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the government.
Palestinians also reported that Egyptian authorities were suddenly pulling Palestinian passengers bound for Gaza off planes, and telling them that because of instability along the Gaza-Egypt border they would be deported until future notice.
“I am basically being told that I cannot go home,” said Mahmoud Abu Hamid, a 28-year-old Palestinian who spoke to McClatchy from Warsaw, Poland. Monday morning, Abu Hamid drove to the airport in Warsaw to board a flight to Cairo. From there, he was planning on driving the five hours to Rafah and cross the border in time to join his family for Ramadan.
“At the airport they told me I could not get on the plane, they said my travel documents were not valid and that I should try again in a few days,” he said.
The online Palestinian news site Electronic Intifada reported that one of its contributors, Yousef M. Aljamal, was deported from Cairo to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, where he had stopped in order to obtain an Egyptian visa. “All Palestinians who arrived yesterday were sent back to the countries they came from,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that he had seen Palestinians being deported to Algeria, Jordan, Pakistan, Canada and Malaysia.
Frenkel is a special correspondent for McClatchy, based in Jerusalem.