Egypt’s new ruler, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, may not realize that the bond between Egypt, Palestine and especially Gaza is beyond historic, and simply cannot be severed with border restrictions, albeit they have caused immense suffering for many Palestinians.
Gaza is being ‘collectively punished’, and is now facing economic hardship and a severe fuel shortage as a result of the Egyptian army’s destroying of underground tunnels. This is nothing particularly new. In fact, such ‘collective punishment’ has defined Gaza’s relationship to Israel for the last 65 years. Successive sieges and wars have left Gaza with deep scars, but left its people extremely strong, resilient and resourceful.
But what makes the tightening of the Israeli siege – imposed in earnest since 2007 – particularly painful is that it comes through Egypt, a country that Palestinians have always seen as the ‘mother’ of all Arab nations, and that served before the signing of the Camp David agreement in 1978-79 as the champion of just causes, especially to that of Palestine. To see Gaza mothers pleading at the Rafah border for the sake of their dying children, and thousands crammed into tiny spaces with the hope of being allowed into their universities, work places and hospitals is a sight that older generations could have never imagined. For Israel’s security to become a paramount concern for the Egyptian Arab Army, and besieged Palestinians targeted as the enemy under drummed up media and official accusations, is most disheartening, and bewildering.
This ahistorical anomaly cannot last. The bond is simply too strong to break. Moreover, to expect Palestinians to bow down to whomever rules over Egypt and to be punished if they fail to do so is a gross injustice, equal to that of Israel’s many injustices in the occupied territories.
I was born and raised in Gaza where my entire generation grew up on stories of heroic Egyptians who fought alongside Palestinians while many Arab states turned their backs or conspired with the British and Israel. When fighters of my village of Beit Daras fought valiantly to prevent the progress of well-armed legions of Haganah fighters, later making up the Israeli army, it was Egyptian fighters who first came to the rescue. The Egyptian force was ill-equipped and without a clear mandate – back then Egypt was still under the rule of a King that was directed by the British – Egyptian men fought alongside my grandfather and other villagers.
‘Egyptians fought like lions’, my grandfather used to say. They reached the outskirts of Beit Daras in late May and again in early July 1948. By then the village was lost to advancing Zionist militias with the help of the British. However, Egyptian and Palestinian blood mixed in an eternal union of camaraderie and solidarity.
In fact, the Egyptian narrative on the fall of Beit Daras was made by no other than Gamal Abdel-Nasser who was then an officer in the Egyptian army, and later the president of Egypt. Nasser had crossed Sinai to Gaza by train to take part in defending Palestine, or what remained of it. He was stationed in Fallujah, a village located in the north of Gaza. On more than one occasion his unit tried to recapture the hills near Beit Daras. They failed. Then there was the discovery that many Egyptian army units had been supplied with purposely-flawed weapons. The news sent shock-waves throughout the army, but was not enough to demoralize Nasser and a few Egyptian soldiers that held out in the Fallujah pocket for weeks. Their resistance became a legend.
Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, saw Nasser as a liberator, a hero, someone who was genuinely interested in delivering them from misery and destitution. And why wouldn’t they? He was the same man they turned out to wave to, along with his fellow officers and soldiers, as they passed by Gaza, back to Egypt following the Fallujah battle. When the officers crossed with their weapons, it was a rare moment of pride and hope, and huge crowds of refugees flooded the streets to meet them, crying the chants of freedom. My father, then a young boy, chased after the army trucks. He claimed he had seen Nasser on that day, or perhaps that’s what he wanted to believe. But the boy would later receive a personal letter from Nasser in the years that followed, when the latter’s 1952 revolution triumphed, and he became the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Nasser, for better or worse, was kinder to the Palestinians compared to other Arab rulers. The refugees adored him. They placed framed photos of him wearing his military uniform in their tents and mud houses. They pinned their hopes on the man, who although had failed to set them free, worked hard to improve their living conditions.
But that was just the start of what was to become a bond for life. The joint battle against Israel, followed by political integration – as Egypt administered the Gaza Strip from 1948-1967, interrupted by a brief Israeli occupation and failed war in 1956 – Gaza and Egypt shared more than just a border, but history. Not a single Palestinian in Gaza doesn’t have a personal frame of reference regarding Egypt, and often time a positive one.
When I was nine years old, I joined my dad in a futile hunt for an old army buddy of his that lived in one of Alexandria’s poorest neighborhoods. Both had fought alongside each other in defense of Palestine and Egypt in the 1967 war, also known as Naksa – the setback. The friend had died shortly before my father came to the rescue. He was penniless and left behind a large family. My father wept at the sidewalk as he held my hand. There was a large heap of rubble as one of the neighborhood’s tallest residential buildings had simply collapsed along with all of its inhabitants. The air smelled of salt and mist, just as the Gaza air does every summer.
Despite all that the Hosni Mubarak regime did to sustain its ties with Washington, and please Israel at the expense of the Palestinians; and despite what General al-Sisi is doing to regain Washington’s trust, there can be no breaking away from history – people’s history, cemented through blood and tears. Media clowns may spread rumors, and army generals may use many methods to humiliate and isolate Gaza, but Gaza will not kneel, nor will Palestinians ever cease perceiving Egyptians as their brethren.