It took 116 dead Palestinians for Egypt to ease its siege on Gaza for a month

Yesterday Egyptian military strongman Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announced on Twitter that the Rafah border crossing to Gaza would remain open throughout the entire month of Ramadan.

Al-Sisi’s tweet came at the end of a long and bloody week for Palestinians. On Monday, as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner inaugurated the American embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli forces massacred 62 Palestinians and injured over 3,000. The youngest victim was an eight-month-old baby girl, Layla Al-Ghandoor.

Al-Sisi’s goodwill promise to “alleviate the burdens of our brothers in Gaza” during the Muslim holy month will be believed by few who see his actions against Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip as less than brotherly.

Since Israel imposed the 2007 siege on Gaza Egypt has collaborated with Tel Aviv to keep entry and exit points under lock and key. Despite the cautious optimism inspired by the Arab Spring, when Palestinians hoped that with Mubarak’s collapse restrictions on Gaza would crumble, under Al-Sisi relations with the Strip have become progressively worse.

This has been done with his full knowledge that the Rafah crossing is a vital lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza – the only other crossing, Erez, is manned by the Israeli army and only Palestinians with special permits and internationals are allowed to pass through.

In October 2014 Egypt accused Hamas of a string of deadly terror attacks aimed at Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula and used this as a pretext to tighten its noose. This was sealed with the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, regular accusations that they are carrying out attacks through the tunnels and a pledge to arrest any member found in the country.

Al-Sisi has framed this within the context of his “war on terror”. Since his rise to power he has been on a mission to stamp out terrorism in the impoverished Sinai region which borders Gaza, and in the process armed forces have killed hundreds of civilians, razed their homes and farms to the ground and extrajudicially executed children then framed them as terrorists.

Palestinians in Gaza have felt this collective punishment acutely. In 2015 the crossing was open for 32 days in total; in 2016 for 41 days and in 2017 – the worst year for people living on the Strip – for just 29 days. As a result thousands of people seeking medical care, students who have been granted places at universities abroad and families trying to reunite wait endlessly for permission to leave.

As the dead and wounded poured into Shifa hospital on Monday, health services in Gaza already suffering from a lack of equipment and essential medicine struggled to cope. The Palestinian Ministry of Health appealed to “sister Egypt” to supply hospitals in Gaza with medicine and send through surgeons and medical crews specialising in vascular surgery and anaesthesia and transfer the wounded to hospitals in Egypt.

It was Turkey who responded to this call, but when the aircraft arrived to transport the injured, Egyptian authorities blocked them from landing in their airports. Such is their utter disdain for Palestinian lives.

It’s not the first time Egypt has flexed its muscles to stop medical care and workers entering the Strip. Dr. Tarek Loubani was trying to stop the bleeding of wounded protesters, marked clearly as a doctor, on Monday when he was shot in both legs by Israeli forces. In 2013 Loubani was on his way to Gaza from Egypt when he was arrested and detained for 53 days after treating a wounded protester, along with filmmaker John Greyson.

On Wednesday, in his first public comments on the Nakba Day deaths, Al-Sisi issued a bland statement urging Israelis to “understand” the reactions of the Palestinians and to “take care” of Palestinian lives.

He added: “On the move of the US Embassy, we have said this issue will have negative repercussions on Arab and Islamic public opinion and leads to a kind of dissatisfaction and some instability, and will have repercussions on the Palestinian cause.”

His comments stand in stark contrast with other world leaders who have condemned the atrocities, such as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who described the deaths as “slaughter” and Desmond Tutu as a “massacre”. Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz asked Palestine for forgiveness for the international body’s failure to end the 11-year inhumane blockade on Gaza and the UN Rapporteur on Palestine described the killing of demonstrators as a “war crime”.

As Palestinians mourned their dead the day after the massacre, a number of Israeli newspapers gave credit to Egypt for persuading Hamas to scale down the protests in return for easing the blockade during a meeting on Sunday between a Palestinian delegation and top Egyptian security officials. Member of Hamas’ Political Bureau Mahmoud Al-Zahar has denied that there is any such agreement and reiterated that these newspaper reports are an attempt to break the confidence between the leadership in Gaza and its people.Egypt has traditionally played the role of mediator in conflicts between Israel and Palestine, but Al-Sisi’s proximity to the Israeli government and the actions he has taken against Palestinians in Gaza means he is neither a credible nor an honest broker.

Since the Great March of Return protests began on 30 March 116 Palestinians have been killed by live fire – it has taken the tragic deaths of an immense number of men, women and children to get a promise from Egypt to loosen the blockade for just a month. If Al-Sisi fulfils his pledge it will be the longest, consecutive period of time the crossing has stayed open in years. But Palestinians in Gaza are not holding their breath for a man who has delivered nothing but broken promises and misery.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor