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How the Turmoil in Egypt Is Causing Greater Suffering in Gaza

As the world sits on the edge of its seat about events in Egypt, the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are paying the price.

It unfortunately has become a truism that when Egypt sneezes, Gaza catches a cold. Fearful of the "terrorist elements" automatically associated with Hamas, the governing party in Gaza, neighbouring Egypt is quick to shut what amounts to "prison gates" at the first sign of turmoil either inside or outside the densely populated strip. Israel keeps its own crossings into Gaza on permanent lock-down, with permitted traffic a bare trickle, while also prohibiting travel by air and sea.

The current unrest in Egypt is no exception. As the world sits on the edge of its seat, polarised in its debate about whether the ouster of Mohammed Morsi was really a coup and what will happen next, the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are paying the price.

On July 5, just two days after forcing Morsi from his post as president, the Egyptian military  closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza for six consecutive days. Thousands of Palestinians attempting to enter Gaza to be with their families, or travel out of Gaza for medical care or study, were stranded - often with no money or shelter. Some who were travelling home were detained upon arrival at the Cairo airport and then deported to the countries they had left, at their own expense.

Yousef Aljamal, for instance, was deported to Malaysia, even though that country had merely been an interim stop on his way home from a conference in New Zealand. Fortunately, Malaysia's Palestinian solidarity community has welcomed Yousef, finding him a temporary place to stay and helping to relieve his sadness of being apart from his family during the holy holiday of Ramadan.

When the numbers of Palestinians stranded at the Cairo airport became overwhelming, the Egyptian authorities instructed international authorities to prohibit individuals with Palestinian passports from boarding flights bound for Cairo. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for instance, about a thousand pilgrims have been unable to return home.

Mariam Ashour Perova, who has been studying in the United States, longed to visit her family after an absence of five years. However, when she changed flights in Belgium en route to Egypt and showed her Palestinian ID, the agent at the gate asked if she had any other passport she could show. Luckily, Perova has dual Russian citizenship, and she was able to continue her fight. The agent advised her to hide her Palestinian ID. "I didn't want to do it," Perova said from Gaza. "But I wanted to see my family so badly."

In response to a rising outcry from the affected families and their supporters, Egypt finally re-opened the Rafah crossing on July 10 on a limited basis. However, it has been far from sufficient. On  July 10 , for instance, only about 400 persons needing documented medical care, holders of foreign passports and Egyptians were allowed to leave Gaza. On the other side of the border, only about 1,200 stranded Palestinians were allowed to return.  Contrast that with a backlog of would-be travellers estimated to be  "in the tens of thousands".  Meanwhile, the ban on Palestinian air travel into Egypt remains.

Destruction of tunnels causing severe fuel shortages

Meanwhile, Palestinians are suffering in other ways as well. Even before anti-Morsi protests broke out on June 30, Egypt had intensified its destruction of the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, tunnels that Gazans rely on for a majority of their fuel and construction materials. This resulted in severe shortages as well as steep price hikes. Although fuel is available from Israel, it is too expensive for the average resident of Gaza. According to the  Palestinian Centre for Human Rights , the majority of gas stations have been forced to close. Iyad al-Qatarawi, public relations manager for the Environmental Quality Authority in Gaza, told  Al-Monitor on July 8 that the fuel crisis threatens to shut down the 190 oil wells (which need electricity to pump) that serve most of the citizens of Gaza, as well as 57 stations for collecting and disposing of sewage. A spokesman for the Ministry of Health in Gaza added that only 20 per cent of its gas reserves remain.

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