Trapped: Gazan newlyweds Sameeha, left, and Ayman. Photo: Ruth Pollard
Gaza City: His wedding gift to her was a booking for two at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt – a ticket to freedom to mark the beginning of their married life.
Ayman and Sameeha, who met and fell in love in while Ayman was studying in Paris, planned to return to the city where it all began.
The couple would attend a conference in Geneva, then travel to Paris to honeymoon in a place that allowed them to breathe, away from the siege of Gaza.
Civil defence teams in Gaza try to rescue people caught in flooding in December 2013. Photo: AFP
It wasn’t to be. After obtaining the appropriate permission and documentation required to leave Gaza – from both Hamas and the Egyptian authorities – Egypt did not open its border, leaving the newlyweds and hundreds of others stranded.
“We changed our tickets three times, I was calling my friends in Geneva to change our arrival dates, but we did not make it to Paris or Geneva together,” says Ayman, a 27-year-old activist who works at a non-government organisation in Gaza.
Talk of border crossings is never-ending in Gaza, a tiny, 42-kilometre strip that is tightly controlled on three sides by Israel – land, air and sea – and on its other land border by an increasingly hardline Egyptian government determined to punish Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement for its close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Surveying the wares at a gold market in Gaza. Photo: Ruth Pollard
“You are dominated by uncertainty and insecurity,” Ayman says. “When you travel abroad you know how to plan for tomorrow. Here you must plan around securing the very basics of life – food, electricity, fuel, water, gas and you never know whether you will access these things each day.”
We are talking over dinner in the couple’s first-floor apartment in Gaza City, as Sameeha and Ayman’s mother rush to get food on the table in time for us to eat and have the dishes done before the electricity shuts down for eight hours, as it does each night at 10pm.
As each new family member arrives for dinner, Ayman describes how the siege of Gaza – now in its seventh year – affects their life.
A stallholder at markets in Gaza City. Photo: Ruth Pollard
His brother, an engineer, is out of work because restrictions at both the Israeli and Egyptian borders, along with the destruction of the 1200 tunnels used to smuggle building materials from Egypt to Gaza, means there is not enough cement to keep his building project going.
His eight-year-old sister is complaining of eye strain from studying by candlelight during the rolling electricity shortages that in the last months have restricted power to as little as six (non-continuous) hours per day.
And just last month his mother was waking at 4am each day to do the ironing and make sure the phones and computers were recharged in the one, early-morning hour of power available.
“You are in a panic to make sure you don’t forget something important and waste that hour of electricity,” says Ayman. “In seven years I cannot remember a whole day where we had 24 hours of electricity.”
It is these tasks, seemingly so simple, that consume Gazans, stealing time from them every day before they start work, go to school, study for exams or care for their children.
Getting petrol for the car, charging a phone, rationing essential medications, having a hot shower, attending a course – it all takes a level of planning, coordination and energy that has left the 1.7 million people there exhausted.
'The relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian authorities has reached the point of no return.'
When the interim, military-backed Egyptian government designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation on December 25, it was clear its six-month crackdown on the smuggling tunnels that ran beneath Egypt’s border with the besieged Palestinian enclave would cut much deeper.
It came at the peak of Gaza’s catastrophic fuel shortages, which worsened late last year when the Strip’s main power station closed following a dispute between Hamas, the Islamist movement that has run Gaza since 2007, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.
Egypt’s decision to cut off the tunnels signalled it was now aiming straight at the heart of Hamas, which began life as the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.
“You cannot really detach Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, associate professor of Political Science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.
“When you look at the last six months since the ouster of [Egyptian President Mohamed] Mursi … I believe the relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian authorities has reached the point of no return.”
Last week there were rumours circulating that Egyptian authorities had frozen the assets of Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’s deputy leader, who currently resides in Cairo. Fairfax Media was unable to confirm this information.
“As deputy to leader Khaled Mishal, Abu Marzouk is the only channel of contact between Hamas and the Egyptian intelligence – it would be devastating for Hamas if they have cut communications with him,” Professor Abusada says.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is now open only one or two days every few weeks. Combined with the destruction of the tunnels and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on imports and exports, the crossing's closure has crippled Gaza’s already struggling economy.
Along with severe restrictions on the movement of civilians, including those with medical or educational reasons for travel, not a single Hamas official has been able to leave Gaza or enter the Gaza Strip via Rafah, Professor Abusada says.
“Two or three months ago, Hamas was in a position to do something about this bad relationship,” he says. “But Hamas was behaving in a way that indicated they believed that Mursi or the Brotherhood would be able to make a comeback … and that meant they did not feel they needed to make gestures to the new regime in Egypt.”
Gaza suffered economic hardship under the dictator Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and experts, along with everyday Gazans, say the situation did not improve much during Mursi’s brief tenure.
Gazans fear that with the new Egyptian regime emboldened by its success in this week's constitutional referendum, worse is to come.
Hamas is isolated more than ever, Professor Abusada says, and there are fears that if the relationship between Gaza and Israel deteriorates over the current round of peace talks, Gaza will be hit hard by Israel with no hope of Egyptian intervention.
“Israel would crush Hamas and all the resistance groups in Gaza and at that point the Egyptians would behave as if it is none of their business,” he adds.
A Reuters report quoting unnamed senior security sources appeared to confirm Gazans’ worst fears.
"Gaza is next,” the source said this week. "We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders."
Egypt accuses Hamas of involvement in the recent campaign of attacks against its security forces in the Sinai Peninsula that has spread to the capital Cairo – accusations Hamas denies.
Yet despite this menacing rhetoric, and perhaps unwisely, Hamas does not believe Egypt will further escalate hostilities and says it does not fear being designated a terrorist organisation by authorities in Cairo.
“I do not think that Egypt will escalate more,” says Hatem Owida, the Deputy Minister of the Economy in Gaza. “I think the relationship between Palestinians and Egypt has deep roots.”
If there is no reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, then the situation can only worsen.
“If there is no Palestinian reconciliation and continued instability in Egypt the situation would be catastrophic,” Dr Owida says.
At the heart of Gaza’s problem is the near total blockade of its borders that in turn results in a lack of cement and fuel.
“There were 3900 industrial enterprises that were functioning properly before [the tunnels were destroyed] and now at least half have stopped,” Dr Owida says.
“We are talking about 70,000 workers in the construction field who have been forced to stop work because of the shortages of building materials and all of this contributes to the high levels of poverty.
“We have returned to what it was like in the blockade of 2007-2008 and all sectors are facing daily problems on all levels – 34 per cent of people living in poverty and we expect this to grow,” he adds.
Another Hamas official, spokesman Salah al-Bardawil, describes the change in tone from Egypt under its de facto ruler General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since the July 3 coup in much more blunt terms.
“Even in the Mubarak era Egypt didn’t deal with Hamas and the Gaza Strip in such a harsh way as Sisi does,” he says.
'She crawled all the way from Gaza to Egypt, through a small tunnel, on her hands and knees through the mud.'
In the fruit and vegetable markets in Gaza City, a slow trickle of people move through the stalls and an abundance of produce is left unsold at the end of the day.
Most stallholders make their money in the few days each month after government workers are paid, says 23-year-old Khaled Mashour.
“People have less ability to buy than ever before, they may spend 50 shekels ($16) when they used to spend 100 shekels and we are forced to heavily discount our stock in order to sell it.”
At the nearby El-Shurafa Tours, the situation is equally grim, its office all but empty.
“It is impossible for people to plan travel when they do not know when the border will open,” says Mohamed El-Shurafa, whose family started the travel agency in 1956.
Sameeha, 25, whose honeymoon was thwarted by Egypt’s border closures, is hoping to complete her PhD abroad. Again, this will involve a struggle with borders.
Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and as the disease progressed she became increasingly worried she was not getting the best care from Gaza’s already overstretched medical facilities.
She applied for a permit to travel to a hospital in Israel but was rejected.
Determined to stay alive for her family, she made the difficult decision to make her way through one of the hundreds of illegal tunnels then operating between Gaza and Egypt to seek better treatment in Cairo.
“She crawled all the way from Gaza to Egypt, through a small tunnel, on her hands and knees through the mud,” Sameeha says.
“I remember my brother, who took her through the tunnel, coming back to our house completely covered in mud and I thought, ‘what had my mother gone through?’ ”
Her mother survived the cancer, the treatment in Cairo and the journey home, but to Sameeha, it is another illustration of how the borders dominate life in Gaza.
“The border closures are … a sign that Israel has never disengaged from Gaza and that the occupation of Gaza continues, by land, sea and air,” she says.
And the only other escape – through Rafah – has become a symbol of the punishment Egypt intends to force Gazans to endure.
In her blog, Sameeha writes of her wedding day in September 2013: “I … tried to forget that we’re going to be talking about the Rafah border tonight in bed. I tried to forget that the border is going to interfere in the most intimate moments of our life, and that I would be getting married and thinking of borders at the same time.”