RAFAH: A rare euphoric mood is sweeping through the Gaza Strip, where people are hoping the downfall of Hosni Mubarak will give the coastal territory a chance to get out from under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has stifled the economy.
Throughout the Middle East, the Egyptian president’s ouster Feb. 11 has been greeted as a sign of hope — mostly by pro-democracy activists trying to topple their authoritarian rulers. But in Gaza it’s seen as a chance to ease the widespread unemployment and international isolation residents believe is caused by the blockade that began in 2007.
"We have been waiting for this day for years," said Jamil Saher, a 22-year-old university student.
Signs of celebration dot the tiny territory, which is squeezed between Egypt to the south and Israel to the north and east.
Small black-red-and-white Egyptian flags flutter from cars and shop entrances. Pro-Hamas television broadcasts obsessively about Egypt — which ruled Gaza from 1948 to ’67 — in its current affairs programs.
A group of Gazans even created 300 wood-and-glass displays honoring protesters killed in the revolt. "The blockade on Gaza must end" was emblazoned on each piece, which the group gave to Egyptian border police, asking they be passed on to the victims’ families.
Their hopes for an end to the blockade could well be dashed, and at least in the short-term it seems doubtful Egypt will change its policies. The military ruling council that stepped in after Mubarak is slowly moving the country toward promised elections — it announced a new Cabinet on Tuesday — but is probably disinclined to jump into foreign policy.
And a new government would have reasons to keep the border tightly guarded, even though the blockade is unpopular with the Egyptian public.
Egypt’s new rulers haven’t contacted officials from Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Islamist movement, group spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, adding that he expects they’ve been consumed by internal affairs.
To Gazans, Mubarak was a critical figure in a regional strategy with Israel to weaken Hamas, particularly after it seized power in the territory in 2007. Mubarak "culminated his betrayal of the Palestinian people by colluding with Israel … prompting many people to ask: Who is tormenting Gazans, Israel or Egypt?" said pro-Hamas commentator Mustafa Al-Sawaf.
Each country had its own reason for the blockade. For Israel, Iranian-backed Hamas is a major threat, having vowed the destruction of the Jewish state, killed hundreds of Israeli citizens and used Gaza as a base to fire rockets at Israel’s south. In Mubarak’s Egypt, Hamas was viewed as a strong source of opposition to his rule.
The blockade was eased somewhat in May after a botched Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed nine Turkish activists and focused world attention on the Gazans’ plight. But residents still can’t import key construction and raw materials for factories, nor can they export most finished goods. Many of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents survive from UN food and cash handouts.
For now, Israeli defense officials say Egypt’s caretaker government is upholding the blockade.
But the future is uncertain, and they fear weapons or militants could enter Gaza if the blockade is lifted. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
In a preliminary gesture, Egypt has reopened its passenger crossing with Gaza, which was closed for much of February during the protests.
Emad Gad, an expert on Egyptian relations with Israel at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, predicted that a new Egyptian government would be unlikely to maintain a blockade which voters don’t like. Despite more than 30 years of peace, relations with Israel are cool, and many Egyptians loathe Israel and embrace anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews.
Still, this does not mean that Egypt will embrace Hamas.
Gad said the peace treaty with Israel is an important part of Egypt’s security and foreign policy. The army has no interest in hostilities with Israel, and preserving relations with the US — Israel’s close ally and a key source of aid for Egypt — is crucial.
Egyptian security officials also don’t want to make moves that could allow more weapons to enter Gaza, where they could potentially find their way back into Egypt via Islamic groups more extreme than Hamas, said Omar Shaban, an independent analyst in Gaza.
"Gaza is in the backyard of Egypt’s national security," Shaban said.
Egypt could try loosening the blockade by easing travel restrictions and strengthening trade ties, Gaza-based analysts and businessmen said.
Residents of the territory now smuggle in goods like gas, concrete and wood through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. That trade could be formalized and go overland.
Gazan exports could also be shipped out of Port Said, in Egypt’s neighboring Sinai peninsula. Presently, Gaza businessmen must use Israeli ports, where movement is snarled by strict Israeli security checks. Businessmen often keep goods locked in warehouses for long periods as they obtain approval for it to enter Gaza.
Behind all its calculations, Egyptians also want to avoid becoming caretakers for Gaza, Palestinian political analyst Mukheimar Abu Sada said.
The territory was meant to be part of the Palestinian state envisioned by the United Nations in 1947. As events unfolded, Egypt ruled Gaza for some two decades until Israel seized the territory in 1967 and held it until 2005. But Egypt never tried to get Gaza back, saying its status must be resolved as a part of a wider Palestinian peace deal with Israel.
"Egypt will not fall into the trap," Sada said. "Gaza will not become an Egyptian problem." –Hadid reported from Jerusalem.