David Miller
The Media Line
January 31, 2011 - 1:00am

Ordinary people cheer on protestors, but Hamas and Fatah are both hesitant to take sides

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank expressed both hope and anxiety as unrest went into its seventh day in Egypt, a country that has acted as a lifeline to besieged Gaza and a patron to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank but also as the object of anger and resentment.

In Gaza, where the Islamic Hamas movement rules, officials were mum on the mass protests, which have brought Egypt to a standstill and forced President Husni Mubarak to dismiss his cabinet. In the West Bank, where the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) is in control, police blocked a demonstration backing the Egyptian protestors.

Mubarak has had a complicated relationship with the Palestinians, especially since Hamas and Fatah parted ways and Gaza fell under Hamas rule in 2007. Cairo has mostly cooperated with Israel’s embargo of Gaza to the chagrin of Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, but allows goods to pass illegally through tunnels under their joint border.

Towards Fatah, Mubarak has served as a friend, but has earned the wrath of many ordinary West Bank Palestinians for being too close to Israel and for being complicit in Israel’s Gaza embargo.

The PA on Sunday obstructed a small demonstration in solidarity with the opposition across from the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah. A few dozen protesters were met by 20 armed police, who tried to confiscate cameras and intimidated demonstrators, Human Rights Watch reported.

Ahmad, a Gaza resident who asked not be identified by his full name, said that similar demonstrations would have taken place in Gaza, too, but people feared a crackdown by Hamas.

"The Hamas government is too scared to voice a position, fearing that Mubarak's regime will eventually prevail and Hamas will be held accountable," Ahmad told The Media Line.

"If the regime survived, things will get much worse for us," added Ali Abu-Shahla, secretary-general of the Gaza Business Association.

In the meantime, however, the chaos in Egypt is complicating life in Gaza as fighting between troops and protestors in northern Sinai closes the roads between Cairo and Gaza that bring commodities to the tunnels. By Monday, tunnel traffic had ground to a halt and gasoline reserves quickly ran out, forcing filling stations to shut down.

"The Gaza Strip is completely dependent on Egypt for gasoline," Mahmoud Al-Khizandar, deputy head of the fuel dealers association in Gaza, told The Media Line. He said the price of gas coming in from Egypt was one Israeli shekel (28 cents) per liter, compared with 6.50 shekels for Israeli gas, a price beyond the reach of most Gazans.

Fearing a fuel shortage and ignoring government pleas against hoarding, Gazans flocked to filling stations over the weekend filling gas tanks and plastic containers to the brim. Ali Abu-Shahla said Gaza's diesel-fueled power stations were also likely to suffer from the smuggling halt, with power shortages to be expected in the coming days.

"I don't understand why Israel doesn't completely open all the border crossings," Abu-Shahla told The Media Line. "That would put an end to illicit trade from Egypt."

But Samir Zaqout, field work coordinator for the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, insisted there was no fuel shortage.

"Even when the Egyptian gas runs out in the gas stations, there will still be plenty of Israeli reserves," he told The Media Line, adding that the Hamas government has barred gas stations from filling containers to prevent stockpiling.

Meanwhile, Egypt shut its official border crossing with Gaza on Sunday, although there were no soldiers there to enforce it, Al-Khizandar of the fuel dealers association said. Hamas security personnel guarded the border, however, preventing Palestinians from crossing into Egypt. At least 50 Palestinians wishing to exit Gaza were turned back by Hamas forces, Reuters reported. But five Palestinian militants fleeing Abu-Zaabal prison in Cairo made it home to Gaza.

The escapees came back bearing stories of torture and mistreatment by the Egyptians, fueling popular antipathy for Egypt’s ruler.

Mutasem Al-Quqa, who spent seven years in Egyptian prisons, said he was arrested on his way from Gaza to Cairo on charges of belonging to Hamas, which is outlawed in Egypt.

"They put us in solitary confinement, which I cannot describe, it was so horrible," he told the Palestinian Information Center, a Hamas news agency. "I managed to escape that prison, which was a hell for Palestinian inmates, after residents of the area destroyed the prison walls."

Despite the economic distress the unrest has created, some Gazans remained cautiously optimistic about Egypt.

"People here are generally happy with what's going on," said Ahmad. "Gazans suffered a great deal at the border crossing with Egypt. They often had to bribe soldiers, but the Egyptians had no mercy on people, whether leftists or Hamas members. They even turned back the sick who came for treatment."

But Al-Khizandar said he preferred to focus on the cultural and familial ties between Gazans and Egyptians, a result of geographic proximity and 19 years of direct Egyptian control between 1948 and 1967.

"Many Egyptians live in the Gaza Strip, so there are family ties; Many Gazan students go abroad to study in Egypt," he said.


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