RAFAH, Gaza — The Palestinians I met Wednesday amid the rubble of their homes in this city near the Gaza-Egypt border blamed one man for failing—or refusing—to stop the slaughter here. Their lives had been devastated by Israeli troops, who shifted their invasion to southern Gaza with a vengeance shortly before the three-day ceasefire that began on Tuesday. Their houses had been leveled by bombs and missiles launched from the American-built F16s in the Israeli air force. But the man who truly aroused their fury is the Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al Sisi.
Tank tracks tear up the roads around Rafah, machine-gun fire pocks the walls, sewage flows out of blown-up pipes and the nauseatingly sweet rotten-garbage smell of human corpses still seeps from under the rubble. As Gazans try to make sense of the devastation wrought by Israel, there is an overwhelming sense of abandonment by leaders in the Arab world.
But it’s not just abandonment. This Gaza war has been in some respects part of a wider fight among Arabs. Since last year, when Sisi overthrew the elected Egyptian government of Mohamad Morsi and his colleagues from the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s been apparent that a major counteroffensive is underway throughout the Arab world, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to crush the Brotherhood and its affiliated organizations.
Two years ago, the Brothers had seemed to be the big winners of the Arab Spring revolts, now they are under pressure or literally on the run throughout the region. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have declared the Brotherhood itself a terrorist organization. And Hamas, a part of the brotherhood, epitomizes that label in their view.
None of this is the fault of the 1.8 million civilians who live in Gaza. But they are the ones who pay the price.
Shahenaz Naser huddles with her two autistic little boys, aged 7 and 9, in the shade of a building hollowed out by shelling next to the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing into Egypt. They have been waiting since 5 in the morning. They’re hoping to find treatment in Egypt for the trauma the boys have suffered since Israel bombed their central Gaza neighborhood. The kids cry out at random and there is a look of sheer terror in their eyes.
“Our God will punish Egypt.”
At first Naser is nervous about speaking to a reporter and checks to make sure I’m not from Al Jazeera. The network has three journalists locked up in Egypt on trumped-up charges for more than 200 days because their reporting for the Qatar-based network supposedly served the interests of the Brotherhood. They are at the center of Egyptian conspiracy theories used to justify the July 2013 coup in which Sisi seized power. So the last thing Naser needs is to be interviewed on Al Jazeera.
When she hears I’m from an American publication, however, Naser holds nothing back, venting her fury at Sisi’s treatment of Gaza and Gazans.
“The Egyptian government doesn’t care about the humanitarian needs of Palestinians and just closes the border,” says Naser. “We find more support from Europe, Turkey, and Latin America than we do with our own people in the Arab world,” she says.
Nasr’s family first went to Egypt in 2006 after Hamas took power, but after the Sisi coup last year, she says, the atmosphere became so hostile toward Gazans in Egypt that she went back. Now she sits with an Egyptian permit wondering if she will be allowed to cross again.
Except in rare medical emergency cases, only those Gazans with Egyptian permits or foreign passports are allowed to trickle across from Rafahs, and even then it’s touch and go.
Egypt has been essential to enforcing Israel’s seven-year blockade on the strangled strip. Former dictator Hosni Mubarak had a nuanced policy, opening and closing access at the legal crossing and through supposedly clandestine tunnels to limit political goals. Under Morsi, the border loosened up and Hamas, clearly, had an ally.
When the 2012 Gaza war happened, Morsi used the desire for change apparent from the Arab revolutions to launch a campaign of diplomatic pressure that stopped plans for an Israeli ground invasion and forced a ceasefire after eight days.
Sisi has tightened up the blockade like a vise and in this war the current Egyptian government appears to have been happy to watch Israel attempt to obliterate Hamas and much of Gaza along with it.
In Morsi’s trial for espionage, Hamas is a central player: a darkly subversive foreign force undermining order in Egypt. As reported in The Daily Beast, Israel may not want to eliminate Hamas at the end of the day for fear whatever replaces it could be worse. Sisi appears to have no such qualms.
As a result, Sisi has garnered a particular sense of rage from Gazans who feel the Egyptian strongman has let their blood flow to serve his own consolidation of power.
Amin Sarafandi, 65, doesn’t mince his words as he stands on the crater filled with broken slabs of concrete that was his two-story house on the edge of the Rafah refugee camp. His 33-year-old son, a Hamas policeman, and two others still lie beneath the wreckage created by an Israeli F16.
“Sisi is the reason for what has happened to us because he didn’t stop Israel,” shouts the gray-bearded man as he holds up a singed Qur’an pulled from the rubble. “We feel that not one of the Arab countries—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates—will do anything for us. They are with Israel in this war.” He breaks down crying. “Our God will punish Egypt,” he says.