CAIRO: The streets of Al-Arish are, today, like they might be in any of Egypt’s bustling towns. It’s a town known for its tourism, but the locals insist they thrive in the off-season. Its restaurants are jammed and its streets clogged – even as war rages 40 kilometers to the east.
It has been almost a year since Palestinian group Hamas, in response to an Israeli blockade, destroyed a portion of the wall separating Egypt from Gaza, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flow into the northern Sinai to buy the goods denied to them at home.
With Palestinians streaming in Al-Arish in such great numbers, they had a deep impact on the economy as they provided a tremendous opportunity to merchants but also threw off the delicate balance of supply and demand.
Adding to the complicated situation is Al-Arish’s diverse ethnic makeup – Egyptians, Palestinians, and Bedouins abound – which contributes a layer of politics to the equation.
Israel in the last few days has intensified its campaign in southern portions of the Gaza strip. As Hamas has begun using urban centers like Rafah to begin firing rockets into Israel, the Jewish state has stepped up its response.
This has put added pressure on the Egypt-Gaza border, which many experts believe could come crashing down again if the humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate.
As a result, the citizens of Al-Arish have begun watching the conflict in Gaza through the lens of a people whose lives might be turned upside down on a moment’s notice.
“Maybe its good, said Salama, an unemployed Egyptian from Al-Arish, of whether the Palestinians might knock down the wall. “They’ll come and help the economy.
While opinions like Salama’s are commonplace around the ahwas of Al-Arish, another line of thought running through the town dreads the Palestinians’ return.
“They bought and we sold many things, said Jabril Al Namay, an English teacher from Al-Arish. “But I hope they don’t come back because they put stress on life. Prices went very high.
Indeed, when the Palestinians flooded the town, one of the few they were permitted to enter by the Egyptian authorities, merchants marked prices up in the hopes of turning a one-time event into major profit.
Al Namay argued that a pack of Cleopatra cigarettes, among Egypt’s cheapest, increased over 100 percent when the Palestinians arrived, rising from LE 2 to LE 5. Others insist that this is a conservative estimate.
Ahmed Mansour, an Egyptian electrical engineer, agreed.
“I don’t mind if they come, but I don’t want chaos, he said.
Politics also intervened when the Palestinians came to Al-Arish, wreaking havoc on the economy there. When the Egyptian government decided to pressure the Palestinians into returning to Gaza, they forced the closure of stores and gas stations in the town, cutting off goods even to legal Egyptians.
Mohammed Zayad, a Palestinian from Khan Younes in Gaza, lives legally in Al-Arish. To him, the possibility that Palestinians might break through the wall is a real one.
“A lot of people want to come, he said speaking of his extended family back in Khan Younes. “My uncle wants to come here, buy things, and go back.
Zayad rejected the fear expressed by many Egyptians that the Palestinians might break through the wall in order to permanently escape the strip.
“The Palestinians don’t want to come because that’s their land, he said.
“You have a house. Would you want to leave it for another house? Open the door for a month or two months. Let them come and then they will go back.
The summer tourism season is an important one for the people from Al-Arish, who depend on the influx of tourists, mostly Egyptian middle class, to turn a respectable profit for the year.
Many people from Al-Arish rish are quick to note that the wall breach in January had little effect on the tourism industry last summer. They also predict that the war in Gaza and even another border incursion by the Palestinians will not harm the critical summer months.
“There will not be an effect on Egyptian tourism in Al-Arish, said a Palestinian from the town who wished to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize his residency in the country. “There is no war here!
As the war drags into its third week, ahwas across Al-Arish have the televisions fixed to Al Jazeera, as shisha smokers and tea drinkers, typically distracted by games of backgammon, keep their eyes glued to the set.
They know that at any moment, their bustling town might be overrun and their steady economy shaken up.