Middle East Roundtable
Edition 7 Volume 6 - February 14, 2008
The Egypt-Gaza border
• Europe and the Rafah border crisis - Hanne Foighel
The Europeans are very openly a central player in trying to resolve the problems at all the Gaza borders.
• Lessons of the border breach - Ephraim Sneh
Cairo must conclude that its soft policy toward Hamas has failed.
• Egypt: restore border control and develop a new policy - Gamal A. G. Soltan
Cairo should not be perceived as participating in the Gaza blockade.
• The siege cannot continue - Ahmed Yousef
What happened on January 23 was a natural reaction to the suffocating siege.
Europe and the Rafah border crisis
When Israel and the Palestinian Authority--with the midwifery of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice--forged the Agreement of Movement and Access (AMA) in November 2005 enabling the operation of the Rafah border crossing, the central partner of the agreement was kept almost secret. All through the paragraphs of the agreement a mysterious "third party" is mentioned. Only literally at the bottom line the true identity was revealed, almost laconically: the European Union.
In the current crisis at the Rafah border crossing, the Europeans are very openly a central player in not only trying to renew and reinstall the AMA but to forge a global agreement among all the stakeholders that will resolve the problems at all the Gaza borders and stop both Qassam rockets and Israeli incursions and targeted killings.
In 2005 there were only two main parties to the agreement: Israel and the PA. Egypt and the EU agreed to the AMA but did not sign it. Since the breach of the Rafah border on January 23 it is clear that five stakeholders will have to be part of any future solution at Rafah that the US brokers if agreement can be reached : Israel, the Abbas-led PA government in Ramallah, Egypt, the EU and Hamas.
The most obvious problem is that not one of the three actors--the EU, Israel or the Ramallah PA--holds any direct dialogue with Hamas, and it doesn't seem likely that any of the three will change their position in the near future.
Nevertheless, for the last weeks Europe has been engaged in energetic diplomatic activity on the future of the Rafah border. From a European point of view it is important to reopen the Rafah crossing and all other border crossings in and out of Gaza since the closure leads to instability and a non-sustainable situation in Gaza.
Egypt, Israel and the Ramallah PA, meanwhile, are interested in opening the Rafah border crossing as soon as possible while returning to the AMA and reinstalling EUBAM as monitors with closed circuit video real-time transmission to the Israelis.
For Egypt, the breach of the border has sharpened the focus on weapons smuggling into Gaza and the contacts and exchange of information and know-how between Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Finally, Hamas is also interested in an orderly opening of the Rafah border and has offered the Ramallah PA that its presidential guard could be allowed to control the crossing while Hamas forces control the area in a ring some hundred meters away. A similar system used to be in place around the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. But Hamas refuses to accept the AMA, since de facto Israeli control over the presence of the EUBAM observers gives Israel a right of veto over crossings at the border.
The EU is now actively trying to place pressure on all the involved parties to reach a broad solution for the situation in and around Gaza. The solution should include:
1. the Rafah border opens with PA security forces on the Palestinian side according to the AMA;
2. a similar arrangement that includes the EUBAM monitors at the Karni cargo border crossing;
3. a Hamas-Israel ceasefire, including full end to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and to Israeli attacks on Gaza;
4. the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit;
5. the opening of all border crossings between Gaza and Israel.
To reach this goal, the EU is working through Javier Solana to convince Arab states, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to pressure Hamas into accepting the plan presented by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad--a plan largely similar to the above. At the same time, the US is working closely with the EU to pressure Israel into accepting its part of the deal.
If such a deal can be brokered it would mean that the Ramallah PA would regain a foothold in Gaza. The pressure on the population of Gaza would ease. The Israeli population in Sderot and surrounding areas could return to normal. The atmosphere for final stage negotiations between the PA and Israel would be improved. And, as a spin-off, an opening might be created for renewed dialogue between Hamas and the PA on the political situation in Gaza.
If the agreement cannot be brokered it is the European understanding that it would be obvious to all--including to the people of Gaza--that Hamas is obstructing the deal. The weak link in this enterprise that even European diplomats find it difficult to explain is what Hamas would gain from accepting such a deal.- Published 14/2/2008 Â© bitterlemons-international.org
Hanne Foighel reports from the Middle East for Danish Radio and the Copenhagen daily Politiken.
Lessons of the border breach
Hamas prepared the border breach between the Gaza Strip and Egypt for many long months. It also prepared public opinion by manufacturing a "night of darkness" a few days before the breach, thereby sharpening in the world's consciousness the Gazans' sense of siege and desperation. Yet the objective of the breach operation was political, not humanitari! an: to force Egypt to break the siege of the Strip and to demonstrate to the Gazan public that only Hamas, by force of arms, could alleviate its suffering.
Yet there is no certainty that Hamas will in the long term be seen as the winner of the breach. That depends to a great extent whether the other actors in this drama, each in its own way, draw the requisite lessons from their experience.
Israel has a number of lessons to learn. First, economic siege and military operations alone cannot achieve the strategic objective of ending Hamas rule in Gaza. Limited Israeli military activities cannot shatter Hamas' military power--the primary buttress of the Hamas regime in Gaza.
Second, the economic hardships imposed on Gaza by the Hamas takeover must be contrasted with substantial economic improvement in the West Bank, and Israel has to agree that the Gaza-Israel passages be operated by the Palestinian Authority. And third, progress in peace negotiations with the official Palestinian delegation is the most effective weapon against Hamas. It's time these negotiations got serious.
Turning to Egypt, Cairo must conclude that its soft policy toward Hamas has failed. Muslim Brotherhood rule, Hamas-style, in Gaza, constitutes a genuine danger to the stability of the regime in Egypt. If the latter's border with the Gaza Strip remains wide open, it will become responsible for an additional 1.5 million poor. If the border is not sufficiently closed, weapons, ammunition and Iranian funds and instructors will flow into Gaza while in the opposite direction fanatic Islamist terrorism will enter Egypt. Cairo cannot neutralize the ticking bomb in Gaza with gestures to Hamas: placating Hamas in Gaza will neither alter its nature nor its close links with those who seek to topple the Mubarak regime from within.
If Egypt wants to ensure its own domestic stability, it must accept that the elimination of Hamas rule in Gaza is in its own interest. This means preventing any and all funding and weapons from reaching Hamas by effectively sealing the border, agreeing with Israel and the Palestinian Authority on alternative border transit arrangements and--of no less importance--ceasing to attempt to mediate between Hamas and Fateh.
The border breach halted a prolonged drop in Palestinian public support for Hamas. The Fateh movement has not yet completed the internal process needed for it to present itself as a ready alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza. Hamas will not fall unless there is such an alternative.
The breach brought the people of Gaza momentary relief. They stocked up on needed provisions and breathed different air. Yet even if the border were to remain open, it would not constitute a solution to Gaza's poverty. Egypt is not a primary market for Gazan produce, and investments that create new jobs will not flow into the Strip as long as Hamas rule prevails. Gaza's natural link is to Israel and its economy. Yet this link cannot exist under Hamas rule.
The international community empathizes with the suffering of the Palestinian population. Yet all it can actually do is send humanitarian aid via relief organizations. There is no chance--and no sense--for an international force to deploy in Gaza. No chance because, after the Afghanistan and Iraq experiences, I don't see any country volunteering to carry out a similar task in Gaza. And an international force makes no sense because as long as Hamas rules it will not permit such a force to deploy, and once it ceases to rule there will be no need for an international force.
What is required to ensure that Gazans have an economic horizon and a way out of poverty is a "Marshall plan" for economic reconstruction and development. A group of private sector companies can be formed to commit to investing in Gaza as soon as the legitimate and internationally-recognized government restores authority over the Gaza Strip. Investments could be directed to transportation projects, tourism enterprises, labor-intensive industry and natural gas production. Gaza has no political horizon without an economic horizon.
Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants are the main casualties of Hamas rule. Hamas exploited Israel's September 2005 withdrawal not for economic development but rather to turn the Strip into a launching pad for rockets and missiles aimed at Israel. Only a joint Israeli-Egyptian-Palestinian effort, supported by the international community, will rescue Gaza from the rule of the Palestinian Taliban and afford its inhabitants a chance for freedom and dignity.- Published 14/2/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ephraim Sneh a Labor member of Knesset, was Israel's deputy minister of defense until July 2007.
Egypt: restore border control and develop a new policy
Gamal A. G. Soltan
The recent breach of Egypt's border with Gaza accentuated the risks implied in the current situation in the Strip. Losing control over that border for ten consecutive days prove! d to be embarrassing for Cairo. Bending to the plot implemented by Hamas operatives embarrassed Egypt even further. Far more serious than just the embarrassment, the infiltration of suspect terrorists into Egypt is a major security concern for a country that has been in a continuous war on terror for the past 30 years.
The collapse of order at Egypt's border with Gaza encouraged both Hamas and Israel to capitalize on the developing situation. Seeking both de facto recognition as the legal authority in Gaza and the relaxation of the Gaza blockade, Hamas demanded the dismantlement of the multilateral arrangements regulating the crossing between Egypt and Gaza, allowing Hamas a say if not a monopoly on the operation of the Palestinian side of the crossing.
On the Israeli side, some watched with joy as Hamas took former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan with Gaza a step further. Shifting the burden of Gaza from Israel to Egypt and the elimination of Israel's legal responsibility over Gaza is an Israeli dream that is coming true thanks to Hamas. Moreover, the farfetched proposals entertained by some in Israel to enlarge the tiny but overpopulated Gaza Strip through the annexation of adjacent Egyptian territories demonstrate the recklessness in dealing with pillars of regional security and order that has been encouraged by Hamas' plot.
Restoring order on Egypt's borders with Gaza was the immediate concern in Cairo. It took ten days to end the breach. Now the developments of these ten days require an overhauling of Egypt's policy toward Gaza. The Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 widened the gulf separating Gaza from the West Bank. The ideological and political rivalry between the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza makes it unlikely the current fissure in Palestine will be bridged in the near future. The Hamas-controlled Palestinian entity in Gaza is likely to survive for a long time.
A long-term policy rather than the ad-hoc arrangements of the past is badly needed. Egypt's approach to Gaza is guided, or rather constrained, by a number of considerations. For one, Cairo should not be perceived as participating in the Gaza blockade. Contributing to the suffering of fellow Arabs could hurt the legitimacy of any Arab government.
On the other hand, Egypt should not contribute to the consolidation and legitimization of the Hamas regime in Gaza. A radical Palestinian entity on the Israeli-Egyptian border could further complicate the already strained relations between the two countries. Moreover, containing the Hamas-led government in Gaza is an integral part of the efforts of moderate Arab governments to curb the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East. The blockade imposed on the little strip exposes Hamas' weaknesses and might, in the long term, cause the fall of Hamas from power, or force it into reconciliation with the legitimate PNA in the West Bank.
Third, moves that would change the current legal status of Palestinian territories could further destabilize the region and threaten vital Egyptian interests. Such changes should be only in the direction of the establishment of a united Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Transitional or interim arrangements are welcome as long as they contribute to the materialization of the two-state solution.
Egypt needs to strike a balance among these three major considerations. Hamas should be denied the leverage of using the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza to further enhance its power. It is the political and ideological choices of Hamas, not Egyptian policy, that further worsen humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza. Yet Egypt should also avoid being depicted as if it is contributing to the Gaza blockade. Necessary commodities should be allowed into Gaza in a regulated way. Should Hamas, the PNA and Israel continue to fail to reach a working arrangement toward this end, border crossings on the Egypt-Gaza border could be a substitute. Alleviating the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza while denying Hamas the opportunity to claim victory should be the principle guiding the movement of goods into Gaza. Movement of individuals, on the other hand, should be highly restricted: an uncompromising policy toward attempts to replicate the recent breach of the border s! hould be made clear and credible.
The success of a new Egyptian policy toward Gaza is better served if Egypt succeeds in securing the cooperation of interested actors, particularly the PNA, Israel, the US and the EU. Unfortunately, the chances of winning Israel and the PNA's cooperation look limited. But Egypt should not remain hostage to Israeli and Palestinian politics. On the other hand, there is a reasonable possibility of winning the cooperation or at least the understanding of the US and the EU, particularly the latter.
At the same time, avoiding the complete alienation of both Israel and the PNA is essential for Egyptian national interests. Egypt should keep consulting Israel on all relevant issues, including security arrangements at the border with Gaza. It should also make clear that a change of policy toward Gaza does not breach Egypt's policy toward the PNA as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
For Egypt, the border breach might be a mixed blessing. The crisis at the Gaza border allowed the Egyptian government the opportunity to defuse mounting domestic pressure to help the people of Gaza. At the same time, the flooding of Egypt's borders with hundreds of thousands of foreigners and the accompanying violations, invoked in Egyptians a latent national identity that is sometimes overshadowed by the supranational Arab and Islamic identities. It also invoked past memories--when Egypt was dragged into conflicts provoked by reckless regional actors.
Decision-makers in Egypt have always believed that the situation that developed in Gaza after last summer is not sustainable. The pilgrims' crisis of last December, in particular, demonstrated the difficulties implied in the situation. However, winning the needed domestic and international support for a new policy was unlikely prior to the incidents of recent weeks.- Published 14/2/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Gamal A. G. Soltan is a senior research fellow at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and professor of political science at AUC.
The siege cannot continue
Many western observers, politicians and journalists considered the breach of the Rafah crossing a victory for the Hamas movement. Some viewed it as the beginning of the end of the siege imposed on the Palestinian people.
The statement by Luisa Morgantini, vice-president of the European Parliament, was an example in point. The breach in the wall and the thousands of Palestinians crossing the border, she said, "are all true acts of resistance and an affirmation of the freedom of that people".
The purpose of crossing the frontier was not to embarrass Egypt, challenge its sovereignty or threaten its security. It was a message to the forces of the occupation and the international community that the pressure to bring down the government of Ismail Haniyeh by starving the people of Gaza to death will not succeed and will not break the steadfastness and determination of the Palestinian people or end their legitimate resistance.
Indeed, the breach was, as Morgantini commented, a "predictable outcome of a policy of isolation, not only toward Hamas, but also the one and a half million Gaza inhabitants, a policy that the European Union has also supported by endorsing de facto the embargo imposed by Israel. Hamas risks becoming stronger as a result of this situation, not weaker as can be seen by all the demonstrations that took place in the Islamic world during these cold and dark days in Gaza."
The mobilization of Arab and Muslim public opinion indicates that the Palestinians have regional strategic depth on which they, to an extent, can depend. A host of Arab MPs, charity organizations and NGO activists from all over the world came to Gaza to show solidarity with the people here.
Hamas' breach of the siege and the opening of the border also aimed to declare that the November 2005 border memorandum of understanding must be amended, and that Hamas should play a role in operating the passage. Hamas has proved that it is able to manage the situation and this should oblige the international community to take the responsible position and recognize the legitimacy of Hamas, a legitimacy acquired in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Hamas still commands a majority of seats in parliament in spite of Salam Fayyad's unconstitutional government. The world should also realize the importance of opening the Rafah crossing instead of collectively punishing the people of Gaza and pressuring the Haniyeh government.
Gaza is an unpredictable place and could open up a Pandora's box should the international community not end its silence and end the siege. When you trap an animal in a corner, it turns wild. When one puts a million and a half people in a pressure cooker and keeps turning up the heat, an explosion will follow.
Hamas has repeatedly offered a ceasefire, but Israel wants to keep its hands free to kill, assassinate and invade the occupied territories without consequences. Therefore, the response of the resistance is legitimate, and will be as long as the occupation still exists.
Hamas and the Haniyeh government do not want to separate Gaza from the West Bank. To them, "Gaza is not a state, and there is no state without Gaza." According to international law, Gaza remains under occupation, and therefore Israel is still responsible, from a legal and moral perspective, for any deterioration in the situation in the Gaza Strip.
But the crossing of the Egyptian border caused media outlets sympathetic to the American agenda to try to damage the good working relationship between Egypt and Haniyeh's government by accusing Hamas of breaching the sanctity of the border. The presumption was that such a position would justify moves by Israel to escape from its legal and moral obligations for the occupied Gaza Strip and push Egypt to take the responsibility instead, thereby driving Gaza out of the circle of conflict and giving Israel a green light to annex more lands from the West Bank and kill any hope for the still proposed two-state solution.
Yet Hamas has consistently affirmed that what happened on January 23 was a natural reaction to the suffocating siege, and that it never wanted any separation of Gaza from the West Bank. Haniyeh's government has always left open the door of reconciliation with President Mahmoud Abbas. Thus far, this has been in vain.
We have to understand that January 23 shows that a new popular uprising based on the dignity of a besieged people is in the making. We affirm that our relationship with Egypt is strong and can overcome individual misbehavior. Such actions will not diminish the historic role of Egypt as a main actor in Arab and Muslim triumphs and will not decrease respect for Egypt, which we view as a strategic Arab and Muslim ally. We share national interests that are important for the stability, security and prosperity of the region.- Published 14/2/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Ahmed Yousef is political adviser at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza.
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