The article by Ramzy Baroud, Palestine Chronicle, is followed by one from 2011 by Michael Sharnoff, Al Arabiya.
Palestinian protester holds up a picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser as he and others demonstrate in support of the Egyptian people in the Deheishe refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011. Text on poster reads in Arabic: “The Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.” Photo by Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP.
People’s History of Gaza and Egypt: The Bond Cannot Be Broken
By Ramzy Baroud, Palestine Chronicle
October 01, 2013
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.
In this image taken from video, Egyptian Army personnel supervise the destruction of tunnels between the Egypt and the Gaza Strip at the border near Rafah Tuesday Sept. 3, 2013. Tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip have been used to smuggle everything from weapons, to cigarettes and fuel but now the Egyptian military appears determined to close the tunnels once and for all. Photo by AP /AP Television
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.
A Palestinian tunnel worker uses his mobile as he rests inside a smuggling tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip, July 19, 2013. The Egyptian army is now methodically closing the tunnels, adding to Gaza’s besiegement.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is a media consultant, an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).
President Nasser still welcomes PLO officials in his office on their first visit to Cairo, 1989.
Academic Perspective: Documents found in the old USSR archive reveal Nasser’s changing position towards the Palestinians although Gamal Abdel Nasser continues to be depicted in academic discourse and in Arab historiography as a champion of the Palestine cause.
By Michael Sharnoff, Al Arabiya
June 11, 2011
While Palestinians mark the 44th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser continues to be depicted in academic discourse and in Arab historiography as a champion of the Palestine cause. Prior to the 1967 War, Nasser did aggressively promote Palestinian rights and advocate Israel’s destruction in his speeches, interviews and state-run media.
After the war, however, Nasser gradually de-emphasized Palestine and abandoned efforts to reverse Israel’s independence in 1948 which he and the Palestinians referred to as al-nakba (“the disaster”) and focused instead on regaining Arab territory lost in 1967, which he called al-naksa (“the setback”).
Recently declassified Soviet documents reveal that in New York on June 22, 1967, Nasser’s Counselor for Foreign Affairs Mahmoud Fawzi told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that Egypt’s primary concern was securing the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all the territories it conquered during the war, including the Old City of Jerusalem. Curiously, Fawzi did not mention the fate of the West Bank – whether it should return to Jordan, become linked somehow to Israel, or emerge as an autonomous Palestinian entity.
During a meeting in Cairo with Czechoslovak Politburo Secretary Vladimir Koucki on June 28, Nasser said that he “did not want to speak about the solution of Palestinian question, but only about the liberation of Arab lands.”
Nasser’s post-war policy radically shifted from advocating Israel’s liquidation and the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Israel to an Egypt first approach, which emphasized liberating territories previously under Egyptian rule. A CIA cable observed that while Egypt would “demand unconditional return of the Sinai,” it gave “no indication of what it might consider a suitable disposition of the Gaza Strip,” and that Nasser wanted “to have a large voice in the Gaza through puppets in the various Palestine refugee organizations.”
A still hopeful poster from the PFLP, 2011
On July 11, Nasser completely disregarded the fate of the Palestinians and told Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Jacob Malik that Egypt could accept any political solution with Israel as long as Israeli vessels would not sail through the Suez Canal.
The three infamous “no’s” issued on September 1 at the Arab League Summit in Khartoum – “no peace with Israel,” “no recognition of Israel,” and “no negotiation with Israel,” were widely perceived by Israel as further proof that the Arabs were not interested in peace.
However, a secret State Department cable described Khartoum as a victory for Arab moderates, and noted that Nasser had joined the moderate camp along with Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Nasser allegedly admitted some, not all, of his errors and he told his colleagues that they should first seek peaceful means to recover their territories by exploring a political settlement with Israel. Nasser and Jordanian King Hussein also censured PLO leader Ahmad Shukeiry for his bombastic anti-Israel rhetoric and demanded a freeze on fedayeen attacks.
Another example of Nasser’s indifference to Palestine was illustrated in a secret State Department memo on September 8 in which Egyptian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad praised a Yugoslavian peace proposal for having the potential to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, while ignoring the fate of the Palestinians.
Another secret State Department telegram on October 4 revealed that after Secretary of State Dean Rusk raised if Palestinians were given the choice to return to Israel or receive compensation, PLO leader Ahmad Shukeiry would threaten to cut Palestinian throats unless all agreed to return, Foreign Minister Riad boasted that Egypt “could remove Shukeiry.”
After meeting with Nasser in October 1967, Sir Dingle Foot, a former Solicitor General and British MP, said that his primary conditions for a settlement with Israel stipulated that Israel withdraw its forces from Egyptian territory. The fate of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Golan was omitted from Nasser’s conditions for peace, further underscoring Egyptian unilateralism and abandonment of the Palestine cause.
An intelligence report on October 19 assessed that although Nasser had a history of switching priorities in times of trouble “to satisfy his immense ego,” his decision to extricate Egypt from the Palestine cause was not “entirely voluntary.” Nasser faced real opposition from his Vice President and a new class of Egyptian officers disillusioned with Nasser’s pan-Arab adventurism. One Egyptian official chided Arab radicals for their impractical policies: “Look where we got by trying to help those sonsofbitches back in June. We want nothing more to do with their so-called peoples’ war.”
During another meeting with former US Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson on November 3, Nasser’s comments sharply contrasted with previous declarations calling for Israel’s destruction and the unconditional return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
When Anderson conveyed his doubts that Israel could ever agree to resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel, Nasser appeared ready to negotiate: “All right, then, let us settle with them by agreeing to pay them compensation.” Anderson pressed Nasser on the issue of offering economic aid instead of resettlement and Nasser said that if resettlement was not an option, compensation would be acceptable.
By proposing compensation instead of resettlement, Nasser was signaling that Palestinians living in Arab states should be assimilated, effectively terminating calls for Israel’s liquidation, the liberation of Palestine, and a Palestinian right of return.
Therefore, a closer study of Nasser’s Palestine policy after the 1967 War challenges his historical legacy as champion of Palestinian rights and calls for greater introspection and more honest debate in academic discourse.
At the time of writing this, Michael Sharnoff was a Ph.D. candidate in Middle East Studies at King’s College, London.