25 January, 2009

A Palestinian invasion of Egypt?

I just found this article in The Daily News, headlined "Egyptian handling of Gaza proves popular domestically," in which the author argues that the Egyptian regime's handling of the Gaza crisis "proved a points winner, at least domestically."

Now, while it's certainly true that "many Egyptians got on the defensive and backed the regime’s position" as Egypt came under pressure from demonstrators around the Arab world, I don't think quoting one "24-year-old Mohamed Yassin Ahmed" and a couple of newspaper columns provides a good basis for drawing general conclusions about the popularity of the regime's foreign policy.

The article also refers to the "widely prevalent" fear that an unconditional opening of the Rafah border crossing "would result in a mass exodus and a Palestinian occupation of Egyptian territory." Or, as the "man on the street" Ahmed says: “We don’t want to be another Jordan, where Palestinians outnumber the Jordanians themselves and then we would have lost the Palestinian cause. One of Israel’s plans is to remove the Palestinians from Gaza and relocate them in Sinai."

I definitely think that media should present both sides of this debate. But since this argument is very much in line with the propaganda of the Egyptian regime, I think journalists have a special obligation to examine it critically. So here's a couple of points to consider:

First of all, if the population of Gaza really wanted to invade Egypt and occupy Sinai they would have done so a long time ago. The border itself is a joke: It consists of a fence and a few hundred Egyptian soldiers guarding a 13 kilometer wide area. If the Palestinians decided to cross en masse, they could do so at any time. But it is a mystery to me why they would suddenly abandon Gaza after fighting for their homeland for 60 years, especially considering the hostility and discrimination they would likely face as illegal residents of Egypt.

Secondly, calling for an opening of the border is not the same as calling for its removal. What the Palestinians want is a normal border, open to travel and trade like any other international border. The events following the border breach in January 2008 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed into Egypt and prices soared, making life difficult for the local population, has been used again and again as an example of what might happen if the border was opened. But the reality is that this "invasion" of Palestinians would never have happened if there wasn't a siege in place to start with. If goods were allowed into Gaza, the Palestinians wouldn't need to cross the border to get them.

Interestingly, the idea of a Palestinian invasion of Sinai seem to be particularly popular among the middle class in Cairo (based only on my own very unscientific observations of course). In contrast, virtually everyone I spoke to during my recent trip to northern Sinai is opposed to the current blockade. While the smuggling industry is making some rich, many Egyptians living in northern Sinai also suffers from the isolation of Gaza because they are denied an important market for goods and services. Thus, most of them want the border opened - but in an organized way. Presenting the choice as one between total anarchy and total closure only plays into the hands of the propaganda apparatus of the Egyptian regime.

Pic above: Palestinians in desperate need of basic necessities as fuel and food "invade" Egypt after the temporary border breach on 23 January, 2008.

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